No one had ever heard a guitar played like that before: The redefinition of the jazz aesthetic in the work of post 1970’s electric guitarist composers

I wrote a book chapter a while ago as part of an edited collection entitled ‘De Canonizing Music History’. The chaper looks at the position of the electric guitarist as a jazz composer. Anyway, I have noticed that the book does not appear to be turning up in any searches on the electric guitar – so this is an attempt to put this right. I have copied the abstract below to give any interested parties a feel for what it is about. If you want the book however – be warned – it is nearly £40!

This article addresses the often underrated role jazz guitarist composers have
played in redefining the jazz aesthetic, specifically through fusing jazz with other music forms. Most publications and broadcasts on jazz history have a tendency to overlook this issue, Ken Burns’ most recent TV series being an indicative example, omitting arguably four of the most influential and experimental jazz musicians of the last 40 years – Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Additionally, although there have been numerous ‘non academic’ texts written about the technical
proficiencies of many electric jazz guitarists, there is no academic material examining their compositional impact on the jazz canon. During the late 1960s – early 1970’s, it will be suggested that the guitarists’ assimilation of jazz with the emerging rock genre was more an expression of cultural and social paradigms than an overt attempt to fuse the two styles. In direct contrast to the pervasively quoted pioneer of fusion, Miles Davis, who incorporated the rock aesthetic into his music to ‘reach the people’, or
‘Third Steam’ musicians such as George Russell and John Lewis who fused classical and jazz musics for intellectual reasons, the post 1970’s guitarist/composers were often natural embodiments of both styles, simply being products of their generation. A good example of this paradigm can be seen in the work of Jazz-Rock pioneers John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, who could both be considered authentic practitioners of both Jazz and Rock traditions during their work prior to the fusion movement. Echard (2005) describes two aspects of tradition that can have a profound impact on the
perceived originality of an artist He describes clichés as “strongly and exclusively correlated to their tradition in the sense that, even if the feature appears elsewhere, surrounded by elements coded as belonging to other traditions, it will still function as a reference to it’s own tradition” (p.46)1. Typical Features on the other hand “are an integral part of a tradition but are not unique to that tradition” (p.46)2. He goes on to elaborate the effect of these paradigms on the originality of an artist, commenting that “clichés make it more difficult to elaborate a singular and unique persona since they
come with so many specific prior associations” (p.46). This argument is important when outlining the contribution and originality of artists such as Coryell and McLaughlin. When closely examining the inaugural Mahavishnu Orchestra album, The Inner Mountain Flame (1971), or many of Larry Coryell’s early recordings such as Coryell (1969), it is noticeable how few clichés or typical features one would readily associate with Jazz at the time. It is also apparent how the stylistic paradigms of both albums became more pervasive in jazz in the years that followed. Gestures on the recordings such as distorted guitar, rock based grooves, modern production techniques,
in addition to visual factors such as specific dress codes and stage behaviours could indeed have been regarded as clichés of Rock, but today can be conceptualised as typical features of the jazz canon. It is recognised that musicological factors alone are not enough to classify the qualities of any musical work, and when discussing the stylistic ambiguity of Frank Zappa’s portfolio, Gracyk comments

For more info – speak to me or buy the book!

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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