The electric jazz of the early '70s was both a revolution and a logical progression from the emotional and acoustic styles of improvisation that had been evolving for decades. It was revolutionary in the sense that jazz was expanding its territories, drawing as much influence from rock and classical music as from previous generations of jazz musicians. And electric instruments were the next logical step because their diverse sound capabilities were necessary to meet the demands the new eclecticism placed upon both music and musicians.
At first, the results were stunning. Miles Davis, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra produced music of seemingly limitless emotional and technical range. The music acquired an intellectual quality in which the importance of the composition was equal to the improvisational abilities of its interpreters. Jazz was on the brink of a new Golden Age.
Soon, however, the elegant expressions of this age became a cacaphonous swirl of dizzying electronics, distorted guitars and heavy-handed percussion. One synthesizer melody-line began to sound like the next and monotonous, pseudo-rock rhythms were a constant background. Weather Report became a funky self-parody, while the splendid techniques of such musicians as John McLaughlin and Chick Corea became self-indulgent displays lacking emotional or musical context. Jazz appeared to have evolved itself into a corner.
Now, after years of electronic excess, many of the musicians who fostered that excess are reevaluating their music and attempting to reconcile the new jazz with the old.
Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine are two guitarists who have been major contributors to electric jazz. Coryell became prominent with the Gary Burton Quartet. One of the first jazz ensembles to use rock devices in its music. After leaving that group, he released several solo records, one of which, "Spaces," became an early classic of the new jazz. But Eleventh House, the group he formed in the mid-70s, was an artistic disaster concerned more with pyrotechnics than musical thought.
Belgian guitarist Catherline, less well known in this country, has worked with the rock group Focus and various European jazz musicians. His best recorded work in the U.S. was with German saxophonists Klaus Doldinger on the latter's "Jubilee 75" album.
Coryell and Catherine have collaborated on a new record. "Twin House" (Elektra 6E-125), a set of acoustic guitar duets inspired by their joint performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1976. The record features various guitar styles, from the "hot jazz" sound of the immortal Django Reinhardt to what sounds improbably like an acoustic Jimi Hendrix.The eclecticism is not obtrusive, however, and the record has a quiet and effective sense of unity.
Both men are exceptional guitarists, as this album demonstrates. "Ms. Julie" is a technical tour de force in which a furiously paced melody is transformed into complex solo work. And Jimmy Webb's "Gloryell" features moody and fragile playing whose subtlety is matched by the composition's exquisite construction. Equally interesting, the stylistic differences between the two musicians are highlighted in this format. The title song contrasts the rock-based playing of Catherien with Coryell's bluesy jazz approach, and ends with a hilarious trade-off lines as the guitarists engage in a friendly musical competition.
The record at times suffers from a sense of dislocation, the result of both musicians' tendency to play their acoustic instruments "electrically." (An electric guitar is a different instrument from its acoustic counterpart. The timbre as well as the tonal and sustaining qualities of the two instruments are completely different, and they are therefore played in different ways.) As a result, sections of the record, such as Coryell's background chords for Catherine's solo on "Nuages," are weak because they lack the power of an electric guitar. And because the guitarists also rely heavily on their extensive technical abilities, some solos sound cluttered and unbalanced.
"Twin House" is a transitional work in the sense that two primarily electric musicians are applying their sensibilities to an acoustic idiom. The strengths and weaknesses of such an approach are necessary at a time when jazz needs to find a common ground between its past and its present.