Thursday, June 7, 2007

Room to move....

This coming November, UK blues artist John Mayall will turn seventy-four and I think we’ll have a party for him. Clearly, if we started playing his catalog of albums on Friday afternoon, the party could last well into the following week.

One comparison I’ve seen repeatedly throughout Mayall’s career is to jazz legend, Miles Davis. The Miles comparison is in recognition of the parade of musicians who apprenticed in one of Mayall’s bands before moving onto their own bands and careers. And that comparison is an apt one. As Richie Unterberger notes in Mayall’s biographical entry at the All Music Guide web site, "Throughout the '60s, his band, the Bluesbreakers, acted as a finishing school for the leading British blues-rock musicians of the era. Guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor joined his band in a remarkable succession in the mid-'60s, honing their chops with Mayall before going on to join Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones, respectively. John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Andy Fraser (of Free), John Almond, and Jon Mark also played and recorded with Mayall for varying lengths of times in the '60s.”

But comparisons to Miles, who, along with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, represents one third of the 20th Century’s holy trinity of American music, must always be made with some awareness of their limitations. Mayall’s contributions were early with his trio of 1966-1967 LPs, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, A Hard Road (with Peter Green), and Crusade (with Mick Taylor). By the end of the 60s his band rarely featured players whose later reputations would eclipse his own.

Nor was Mayall’s instrumental prowess on guitar, harp or keyboards comparable in any sense to Miles’ contributions to jazz trumpet.

Still, Miles comparisons aside, Mayall deserves his elder statesman status as richly as anyone. I almost said “as any of his peers” but caught myself. I don’t know that Mayall has any peers. He is a good ten years older than any other UK musician who occupies a similar place in music history. On one of his LPs it’s actually rather shocking to see a 1960’s rock figure in his British military uniform during his service in the Korean war.

There are two Mayall records that I would find it hard to live without. The first is, of course, his 1966 Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. Returning to Miles comparisons, the effect of this record on the rock music that followed was not dissimilar to the impact of either Kind Of Blue (1959) or In A Silent Way (1969) on jazz. There is a new “Deluxe Edition” on Decca, a 2 CD set that has the entire original LP in both mono and stereo mixes on the first disc and stuffs the second disc with 19 bonus tracks including a variety of BBC Saturday Club sessions and a number of rare Immediate label 45s (including “I’m Your Witchdoctor”). It’s one of those “Christmas and your birthday” kind of records.

The other Mayall LP I have burned into my brain’s hard drive is his 1969 album The Turning Point. In the context of its release it was almost as impressive a rock record as In A Silent Way was a jazz LP. 1969 was a time of supergroups, screaming electric guitars and twenty-minute drum solos. In the midst of this Mayall appeared in a quartet setting following Mick Taylor’s departure to The Stones. In any setting, but particularly in the musical climate of 1969, this is a stunningly quiet record. Mayall eliminates drums entirely, and replaces the electric guitar with not just an acoustic, but a nylon string acoustic played fingerstyle by Jon Mark joined by the flute and tenor and alto sax of John Almond (whose later Mark-Almond albums would try, with questionable results, to duplicate this sound). The result was to introduce a shocking quiet in the middle of all the loud. The 1969 Fillmore appearance was recorded and released as The Turning Point and became one of Mayall’s most successful albums. The fact that it was one of the 2 or 3 greatest records to smoke pot to late into the evening didn't hurt either.

Mayall’s longevity is also proof that Keith Richards was right when he answered a question about whether it would be silly to still be a rocker at 70 by saying that his role models were Muddy Waters and other blues greats who played until they had to be carried off the stage. At 65, Bob Dylan seems to be following similar advice. Come this November “Room To Move” “California” and “The Laws Must Change” will be on heavy rotation.

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