The years from 1964 to 1970 were a revolutionary period in the history of rock'n roll. Melodic, harmonic and lyric ideas were revises and set in a highly energized context, and nowhere was this change more evident than in the development of the guitar.
The instrument was transformed from the twangy, high-pitched rhytham accompaniment of the early rockers, into a powerful and complex solo instrument. In the vanguard of this new style were several English musicians who employed electronics and high volume, and whose playing set the technical and artistic standards by which a new generation of rock guitarists measured their work.
Despite the domination of the English musicians, however, the end of this "golden age" can be justifiably dated at Sept. 18, 1970, with the death of an American guitarist, James Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix. That day, newscasts ran stirring films of his final performances and, in subsequent months, he was increasingly referred to as the "towering genius" of the rock guitar.
The years have strengthened this emage, and a new record. "The Essentail Jimi Hendrix" (Reprise 2RS 2245), a reissue of songs from his recorded output, offers a new perspective on his work.
From a purely esthetic standpoint, Hendrix's playing is a welcome contrast to the mindless, heavy-handed jamming of contemporary guitarists such as Ted Nugent. The record is a potent elixir, a sure cure for "tired riff-itus" and "chronic over-indulgence."
From a historical perspective, however, the legend of Jimi Hendrix demands a more tempered reappraisal. What the record illustrates, is that Hendrix was more a great assimilator than innovator. He extracted elements from the English guitarists and fashioned their techniques into a unified playing style that was unique, yet was constructed of basic musical material already available.
Eric Clapton's savage, highly technical revamping of blues phrasing. Peter Townshend's crunching power chords and feedback, and the esoteric, electric sounds of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, were blended with Hendrix's own soul and R & B-flavored sensibilities into a forceful musical style.
His early music was dubbled "psychedelic," and the three selections that are included from this period, "Are You Experienced," "Third Stone From the Sun" and "Purple Haze" bear this out. Their oblique lyrical references to an expanded consciousness, backed by a conglomeration of distorted abstract sounds create fierce, evocative musical images. Hendrix's first record also revels in the feedback, high volume, reversed tapes and stage theatrics that were prevalent at the time.
As he matured artistically, these devices became more coberent and structured. His next records, "Axis Bold As Love" and "Electric Ladyland," featured a more solid musicianship.
"Essential" includes several selections from these records. "Little Wing" and "Castles Made of Sand" (from "Axis") feature intricate chording that is offset by searing, screaming solos with an expressive quality that grabs both the ear and the emotions. "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) and Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" propel this emotion to new artistic and technical heights with a power that Hendrix never again equalled on record.
The remainder of "Essential" features cuts from Hendrix's later albums, "Cry of Love," "Rainbow Bridge" and "War heroes" that document the transitional nature of his playing before his death. They are energetic, but lack the imagination and exuberance of his earlier work.
At the time, Hendrix had considered taking a break for formal musical study and was discussing a collaboration with Gil Evans, the respected jazz arranger. These projects, along with his habit of jamming with musicians of various musical styles, such as John McLaughlin and reedman Roland Kirk, illustrate the adventurous nature of Hendrix's approach to his music.
Since his death, the great English guitarists have become either listless and reclusive (Claption, Townshend) or tasteless self-parodies (Beck, Page) and the rock guitar has become the plaything of those only capable of emulating the styles of the past. Speculation as the whether Hendrix could have prevented this decline, had he lived, are pointless, but it is clear that he had succeeded in combining the best qualities of his English counterparts and had forged a style from which later artistic innovations may one day proceed.