The Trick Is To Keep Going

From The Vaults: Hidden Treasure No. 8

by on Sep.14, 2010, under Music


Tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus introduced guitarist Larry Coryell to Gary Burton, master of the vibraphone, sometime in 1966. I always thought it was the other way around, i.e. Burton saw Coryell in The Free Spirits in New York, which he actually did, and then the Coryell-Marcus association came later.

Count's Rock Band SmallAccording to notes from the reissue of Marcus’ album Tomorrow Never Knows, he already knew Coryell through mutual friend and pianist Mike Nock, who lived with Coryell in Greenwich Village. After Burton saw Coryell play in 1966, he asked him to join his quartet with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow. What resulted was a truly inspiring combination of players, who played jazz with a difference. They were all well-schooled in the bop and contemporary jazz traditions but they also skirted rock and pop territory with rhythms and feels you just didn’t find in jazz.

The quartet produced the landmark Duster, then Bob Moses replaced Haynes and the group recorded two more albums, Lofty Fake Anagram, which pushed further into rock territory, and the exquisite Live at Carnegie Hall. Coryell was incorporating rock tendencies more than anyone in the group with a fierce, biting tone at times and the use of feedback and rock phrasing juxtaposed with his masterful jazz leanings.

Shortly after Coryell left the quartet, he joined Marcus for two of three albums that were among the first to fuse rock and jazz. The records featured jazz-schooled players, who loved rock and pop as much as the jazz tradition they came up in, and showed them displaying more of a rock attitude than ever before for jazz players. These albums are certainly among the first genuine examples of the fusion of the two genres.

The first, Tomorrow Never Knows in 1968, featured the Beatles psychedelic title track, along with another Fab Four offering Rain, the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, Mellow Yellow by Donovan and two other tracks, including a Coryell composition, Half A Heart. A fine album with outstanding interpretations.

Then came Count’s Rock Band, the peak of this triptych and our Hidden Treasure No. 8 in ’69, followed by the mostly forgettable The Lord’s Prayer, sans Coryell, also in ’69. According to Marcus’ notes, Gary Burton, who was a neighbor of Marcus’, actually produced the first album, but when it landed on Herbie Mann’s new imprint Vortex, distributed by ATCO, Mann got credit for production on all three outings. Joining Marcus and Coryell on Count’s Rock Band and Tomorrow are Moses on drums, Nock on piano and Chris Hills on bass.

Count’s Rock Band follows the pattern of Tomorrow and includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair with Marcus on soprano sax and The Stones’ Back Street Girl. But the two Hills compositions, Theresa’s Blues and Ooh Baby are easily the album’s highlights and make this record a gem.

Theresa’s Blues is worth the price of admission here, which is probably in the $20-$25 range if you opt for vinyl. The album is available as a two-fer CD with The Lord’s Prayer at reasonable prices. Sonically, the CD sounds fine, but I prefer the vinyl. I transferred it to iTunes and my iPod from the vinyl with a few negligible pops and ticks and a warm, dynamic production that comes through true and clear.

Count's Rock Band CDTheresa’s Blues starts with Hills’ funky and forecful bass line as Moses picks up the beat after eight measures, laying down a soulful, R&B feel. He’s joined by Coryell’s jazz rhythm chords on the 2 downbeat and upbeat of 3, providing a smooth soulful accompaniment to Hills’  funk. It resolves on five chords that complete the progression, all fluid changes that give the turnaround a suspended feel.

This gives way to Nock’s extended acoustic piano solo, which is expansive and expressive, against Coryell’s sparse backing. There is no melody line per se, but it works. Once into the solos, it’s basically improvising over one chord with variations, something emblematic of ’60s jamming. Nock develops the solo beautifully, pushing it outside with a jazz flavor in conjunction with the overtly rock rhythm section.

Each time you think Nock has finished, he breaks new ground with full chord changes leading into a new solo section. At about the three minute mark, Coryell intrudes with a melodic line over the top for the start of his solo that features biting, piercing tone from his trademark arch top electric. The lines feature long, sustaining notes until he hits one note that he rides with a beautiful vibrato and stays with it until it explodes into a feedback feast. For all who think Coryell is often too busy, too quick to show off his prodigious technical skills and speed, this speaks to the many sides of his extraordinary style.

The solo is paced perfectly and one of the best ever recorded in rock or jazz-rock annals. After a slight reprieve following the sustain and feedback, he launches into a strident melodic figure, showing speed but never taking it too far out and always pulling it back for expressiveness, holding notes and wrenching every bit out of their sonic possibilities. He incorporates a touch of atonality as he transitions into power chording against Moses’ by now fiery and explosive drumming and Nock’s freestyle backing,

Coryell ends with some technical pyrotechnics wrapped in a melodic structure. When he smoothly returns to his rhythm part from the top of the tune, it’s now a more driving, sneering hard-edged rock feel that picks the track up to another level and lifts you out of your seat. A masterful display.

The remaining five minutes of the 12-minute track is reserved for the melodic tendencies of Marcus’ tenor, which always carries overtones and inspiration from John Coltrane. His flights up and down the instrument, complete with honking, squeaking and intensity rumble through the changes, never letting down from where Coryell left off. It all erupts into a section where all the players are in free time and free musical construction until it dissolves to nothing and all we hear is Coryell quietly restating the main rhythm part with Hills floating beneath him and Nock adding light runs and arpeggios.

This combination of musicians makes more of a statement with this Hills composition than any of the covers they recorded for the worthy Tomorrow Never Knows just months before. The impact of the album is squarely focused on this one cut.

Ooh Baby is almost as impressive with its pop-rock flavor and guitar-sax doubled melody line. A rollicking, rumbling, soulful feel underpins more of a song structure than Theresa’s Blues, including a middle release that brings the dynamics way down. The tune, another 12-minute outing, has Coryell leading off with a country-blues oriented solo. He’s very melodic here but quickly develops it into a rock affair with double-stops and chording to push the track forward, all with Moses driving the band hard and Nock sitting comfortably underneath with a jazz chord structure.

Marcus follows with another adept turn, employing all his jazz sensibilities into the rock feel and atmosphere. This one also treads closely to free jazz at times, but the players reign it in and keep the track in the established context of the song’s structure. Marcus brings it back to the release and then one more round of the melody.

There were others dabbling with jazz-rock during this time: Miles with Miles In The Sky, In A Silent Way and later Bitches’ Brew, Burton’s aforementioned efforts, but this album and Tomorrow Never Knows before it, was one of the first statements where jazz players showed they could make the transition and make it work. Not all jazz players are comfortable playing in the more restricted rock rhythms. This crew made it look effortless.

Coryell and Marcus would years later release Count’s Jam Band Reunion (2000), which is much different, fusion but with more of a jazz edge. Although it does include Tomorrow Never Knows. It’s an excellent outing in itself, but stands separate from what these two accomplished in 1968-69.

Count’s Rock Band played a few gigs around New York and the Newport Jazz Festival but dissolved quickly after that. There is virtually nothing available on video. Below, however, there is a remarkable video of the classic Gary Burton Quartet in Berlin, playing General Mojo’s Well Laid Plan, one of the group’s more pop-oriented tunes; a couple of outings with remarkable guitarist in his own right Philip Catherine, and an odd camera angle but good sonics on Coryell’s Eleventh House playing Low-Lee-Tah. Eleventh House became a groundbreaking fusion band of the ’70s that featured drummer Alphonse Mouzon, keyboardist Mike Mandel, Danny Trifan and later John Lee on bass, and first Randy Brecker and then Mike Lawrence on trumpet.


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4 Comments for this entry

  • Rick Barnes

    thanks Paul for the history lession. Larry is such an important player. I didn’t know that the Count Rock album had been issued on disc. Seems like the music they did then they did it our of pure passion.

  • Paul Rosano

    Hey Rick,

    The exact events and how it all played out are not crystal clear. But according to mostly Marcus, that’s what transpired. It was quite interesting to hear about their motivations. How they were schooled players but still loved The Beatles and a lot of the other musicians on the rock contemporary scene.

    Paul

  • Rick Barnes

    I picked up the free spirits album a while back while not perfect it really pointed to the future. They didn’t even have a name for it at the time. the producer was not exactly thrilled with the band either which made it difficult

  • Bill

    Thanks, excellent write up, great background I did not know!

    I have this as a WLP (promo), and is MONO as well, quite a rare piece.

    I too do vinyl transfers, have a nice hi-res (24-bit 96kHZ) version. Sounds a bit different than the stereo mix to be sure.

    Info on this one here (my entry):

    https://www.discogs.com/Steve-Marcus-Counts-Rock-Band/release/10951922

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