In most any genre, there are times when musicians develop similar ideas independently, extrapolating from how the music has developed so far. In the late 1940s, Dave Brubeck’s West Coast octet created a parallel cool jazz across the continent from Miles Davis’s nine-piece Birth of the Cool band around the same time. Sometimes, ideas are in the air, ready for plucking.
By the 1970s, Miles and other American jazzers had gone electric, and English art rockers (sometimes vaguely) associated with the Canterbury school favored extended improvising over vamping backdrops. These musicians coming from different directions might sound uncannily alike. Slip Return to Forever’s “Beyond the Seventh Galaxy” into The Rotter’s Club by Hatfield and the North and it wouldn’t sound out of place, Lenny White’s funky drumming possibly excepted. RTF’s Chick Corea and Hatfield’s Dave Stewart were digging into the same twisty riffs and new keyboard sounds.
Two new albums recall that very strain of ’70s jazz-rock fusion, one unconsciously, the other very deliberately. The former is Life in the Sugar Candle Mines by drummer Gerald Cleaver’s Black Host; the latter, Dutch trio eBraam’s 3, is an extended shoutout to 1970′s Third by trend-setting jazzy rockers Soft Machine.
Black Host’s lineup wouldn’t ordinarily prompt a fusion connection, save for new-star speed picker Brandon Seabrook on skronky electric. Like Cleaver, the other players mostly play smart, gnarly acoustic jazz: altoist Darius Jones, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and the quintet’s Cecil Taylor-esque wild card, pianist Cooper-Moore. Still, the blowing here is very focused on the material. There’s plenty of sustained textural play: long-tone melodies and fused timbres from alto and guitar, off-center grooves from drums and bass (and sometimes piano). All that’s plain on the opening “Hover,” but the pithy, anthemic theme that arrives at around 4:40 could have been lifted from Soft Machine’s Third.
Cleaver is an eclectic listener; was that part of his mix? The Detroit-reared drummer kindly fielded a query. “I know what you mean with the Soft Machine connection. I was aware of the music but didn’t listen to it. To be honest, Elton John, Captain & Tennille and Neil Diamond are more of an influence. My mom hipped me to great pop music, our kitchen radio fixed to CKLW, from Windsor across the river. My older sister was listening to everything soulful: Motown, Stax, Crusaders, Deodato, etc. My older brother loved Hendrix. Everyone loving Sly. My dad was and is the jazz guy, playing late Coltrane and [Detroit/New York bop pianist] Barry Harris. Growing up with a jazz-drumming father, an open-minded bebop baby, is one reason I could synthesize the same sources as the Soft Machine guys.”
Rock for melody, then, and jazz for the improvising. “Test-Sunday” has another good hook, set off by Beefhearty ashcan-school dissonances. Seabrook’s spiky Fender jittering is closer to the suburban garage than Allan Holdsworth; I’ve never heard him play two notes of bebop. Seabrook’s noise and Cooper-Moore’s free jazz outbursts frame and buoy up the melody statements, instead of pushing them aside. That’s very Soft Machine.
Cleaver’s tunes can take their time: Wavering alto and guitar long tones on “Gromek” sound like ambulances Dopplering in the distance and reverberating in an urban maze. Cleaver manipulated some of the recorded sound in post-production, too, lightly glitched and treated it to deepen the sheen. He takes the treatments a little farther on “Wrestling,” which lands somewhere between Song X‘s electrodensity and an After Bathing at Baxter’s sound collage. Compared to that, “May Be Home” is an Elton John ballad — Sir Elton named for Soft Machine Third saxophonist Elton Dean, come to think of it.
The trio eBraam used to be known as pianist Michiel Braam’s Wurli Trio — one of his several diverse bands. On 3 they declare their intention to honor Soft Machine’s Third by playing triads, thirds and triple meters — such basic building blocks of Western music, you suspect a hoax. In fairness, they do cover a Soft’s vocal tune, “A Certain Kind” from their rockish second album (sweetened by angelic harp), and the sleek melodies and pumped-up rhythms suggest kinship. Safe to say eBraam play music steeped in the same era (when electronic keyboards were a-burgeoning) and the same sensibility, working the crevasses between musical genres.
Third had four jams stretched across 2 LPs; eBraam’s nine tunes in 46 minutes force more variety. Not that I’m knocking Soft Machine’s minimalist-inspired keyboard repetitions, which echo in 3‘s “Augmented Seconds,” a track that also plays tricky games with rubbery timing. (Another declared inspiration: Pythagorean triangles.) In truth, sometimes it all sounds like an excuse to trot out goofy vintage keyboard sounds, and I’m not knocking that, either. (They’re largely replicated on modern equipment; see reviewer Beppe Colli’s awesome breakdown of numerous specfic keyboards invoked). Braam has a Sun Ra-like gift for mining each quirky timbre’s most useful/expressive qualities. Like England’s ’70s art fusioneers (did we mention Brand X?) eBraam improvise and play rockish beats without getting too ponderous with either: one tendency dares and tempers the other.