Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Music as Community... Fusion as Art. Thoughts from overseas

Musically, I feel very fortunate to have been brought up in the environment of the Allman Brothers extended family, but I am not sure that everyone reading this will appreciate the implications of exactly what is meant by that.

I've been on a bit of a Sea Level kick recently, and it got me to once again appreciate just what it means to be part of a musical community. When I look at the music I am most drawn towards, I notice a trend towards these communities. There was the be-bop community centered around Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the modal / hard-bop community centered around Miles Davis, and the early fusion community also centered around Miles. These three encompass a large number of musicians: Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, etc. Everyone from Monk and Mingus to Mahavishnu and Mwandishi. And then there are at least three separate communities of musicians that can be linked to the Allman Brothers (four if we count the whole "Southern Rock" thing - don't get me started there).

First there are the hugely influential late 60's - early 70's Muscle Shoals soul artists, such as Aretha, Wilson Picket, Otis Redding, and even Herbie Mann and King Curtis. Then there is the second wave rock / fusion artist community - an enormous group of largely unknown people responsible for making some of the 70's best music. This is where Sea Level would come in, but also artist like Neil Larsen, Buzzy Feiten, Paul Motian, Joe English, Les Dudek, Randal Bramblett, Willie Weeks, Shuggie Otis, Jimmy Nalls, Chuck Findley, Max Bennett, John Guerin, and on, and on... Look up some of these names and you'll start seeing just how far reaching their influence was. These folks played with Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Rolling Stones, The Crusaders, Tom Waits, Diana Krall, George Harrison... The list goes on and on. But when these musicians got together in their own projects to play the music they loved, the result was instrumental music with the melodic complexity of the first wave of fusion, but the groove of early 70's R&B and soul.

And the coolest thing of all is that we are right now, at this very moment, in the middle of the third, and perhaps most active community of musicians so far - the jam bands. Sure, there are plenty of jam bands out there that don't want to do much more than noodle for a couple of hours on end, but there are plenty of others making very interesting music, and the best part of all is that the community element is stronger than ever. Just look at the founding members of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, for example. If we track their careers and associations, we come up with quite a list. Aside from the Allman Brothers, there's Phil Lesh, the Dead, Fiji Mariners, Code Talkers, Frogwings, Leftover Salmon, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks Band, Bela Fleck, Steve Smith, Jerry Goodman, Oteil and the Peacemakers, Yonrico Scott Band, Surrender to the Air, and Project Z, just to name a few. Add one more degree of separation and now we're talking Phish, Sun Ra, Tom Waits, and Mahavishnu! And, by accident of birth, I find my self in the middle of it all. It's fantastic.

In a way, I think that this entire line of thought has come to me by virtue of the fact that for the past week and a half I have been at the home office of the company I work for in Den Haag (the Hague) in the Netherlands. The funny thing about being over here is that I seem to have developed a real love-hate relationship with European culture. On the one hand, there's the whole politics thing, which I will not go into here - there's already more than enough blog space out there devoted to the subject. On the other hand there is the cultural aspects. Many European folks I have met (mainly Dutch, Belgian, German, Spanish, and British) tend to look down at the American artistic tradition and find the notion of American culture laughable. This kind of raises the hackles a bit for me.

Here's an example. A few years ago while visiting the Netherlands, a friend of mine from Belgium took me to see "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". I loved the movie, but I found myself getting really annoyed by the fact that this entire theatre full of European folks were laughing not at the points of humor, but at the accents and rural references. In my mind, they weren't enjoying a fantastic film which draws upon a cultural understanding of the evolution of the southern US - the were laughing at it, at my ancestors, at my family, at me. I can't wait to be back home. Now if we could only do something about our politics....

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