Impressions of Cream and Jefferson Airplane
The Jefferson Airplane and Cream appeared not long ago at Brandeis University in concerts a month apart. The concerts will be discussed here conjointly because they afford interesting and natural comparisons and because the rock of these two groups is representative of much currently important popular music. (My opening remarks are directed primarily at the jazz listener trying to ease his way into rock; those who have been digging it right along won't find much that is startling or revelatory.)
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Maybe it wise to start with what won't be heard in contemporary rock - rhythmic complexity, for one thing. This has always been one of the salient ingredients of jazz, and it is lacking in rock, which for the most part is in 4/4 or free time, usually the former. Another generally missing factor is dynamic shading: rock is either loud or soft, usually the former, and until on-the-spot engineering techniques get a good deal more sophisticated - which they better had in the near future - the subtleties of rock have to be conveyed by the harmonics and voicings employed.
This brings up another point. By "loud," I do not mean Roy Eldridge loud or Count Basie loud. I mean you-have-never-heard-such-sounds-in-your-life loud, an effect that most of the recording studios minimize and that can only be apprehended in live performances. The rock musicians are into total, environmental sound in a way that players like Archie Shepp or Pharaoh Sanders can only approximate; this means that a first-time listener will not pick up on most of what he heard, because he is not used to differentiating sounds at that volume. It means that even the habitual listener may be partially deafened after a performance, sometimes for hours. Whether or not to subject yourself to such temporary or permanent discomfort is an individual decision. It is too easy to say, however, that rock is so loud that nothing of beauty or worth can be produced. That was said about certain other forms of music familiar to most Down Beat readers.
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Cream and Jefferson are comparable in several ways . . . The first similarity is that both are composed of fine musicians - and are instrumentally perhaps the two most together outfits now playing.
The comparisons of virtuosity extend further.
Casady and Bruce are the only two interesting electric bassists I have ever heard. Likewise, few rock drummers, however dextrous, extend their rhythmic conceptions much beyond symmetrically divided 4/4; Baker and Dryden are exceptions. (Terry Clarke, John Handy's former drummer, now with the Fifth Dimension, and the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts are others; significantly, all these percussionists have jazz roots.) Kaukonen and Clapton are among the handful of gifted guitarists, technically and conceptually.
Clapton in particular has few or no technical equals, in jazz or rock. He has to be heard to be believed. Kaukonen's chops are a cut below, although I wouldn't want to have to live on the difference, but he more than compensates for this - he has advanced harmonic understanding; a pronounced lyrical bent unusual among hard rock players; willingness to take improvisational chances; and, most important, the wit not only to know where he is going with a phrase but also how he got there.
Even Clapton, good as he is, could profit from studying Kaukonen's phrasing. Too often, rock guitarists concentrate on climaxing a sequence, building up to it with staccato bursts that the culmination echoes and expands upon. Kaukonen's lines, like those of a first-rate jazz soloist, make sense in and of themselves. For sheer power and impact, Clapton is close to nonpareil; he overwhelms. For sustained musical interest, Kaukonen is the most compelling; he fascinates.
A final note on the Airplane, before proceeding to the Brandeis concerts: their last album, After Bathing at Baxter's, seems to me the most unified and cohesive record yet produced by an American group - indeed, it demonstrates the kind of thematic and musical oneness spuriously attributed to the last two Beatles efforts. The latter are sides with brilliant songs on them; Baxter's is One Thing. The Airplane is currently out of favor, for the sock-it-to-me approach is in and the insinuate-it-to-me approach is out, for the moment anyway, and for this reason, and a couple of others, the Airplane concert was a disappointment. Its members did their songs (White Rabbit, Somebody to Love, etc.), but they didn't do their thing.
There was little collective improvisation, and except for some fine Kaukonen, little individual improvisation. Except, too, for Gracie Slick, who never seems to do a song the same way twice. There was a further problem in that the voice mikes could not compete with the amps, and much of her and Balin's work was lost. She has great range, firm tone, presence, emotional commitment.
Miss Slick is also a fine improvisor of counterpoint, as, to a lesser extent, are Balin and Kantner. Consequently, the Airplane employs more complex vocal harmonies than probably any American rock group I know of.
A good example in the Brandeis concert was Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon, two separate songs with the same chords (except for a couple of substitutions), sung together. It started with Balin and Miss Slick on Won't and Kantner sliding in with part of Saturday. When Saturday became dominant, Balin and Kantner duetting on it, Miss Slick began running some astonishing changes on Won't. It ended very free, with the words of both songs being interchanged by the three, so that the listener had trouble knowing which was which - which, of course, was the intention.
So that was nice. And Miss Slick did White Rabbit, a beautiful, bolero-rhythm exercise in crescendo that should never stop because it hurts so good. Miss Slick strayed profitably from the recorded version: the first four bars were sung on the afterbeat, providing a nice pulsation when contrasted with the bolero rhythm by Dryden, and she finished with a bluesy trail-off instead of the final held note on the record.
Kaukonen sang an unnamed, funky blues (he should have more vocal space; he's a fine blues singer) on which he made good use of his wawa pedal in accompaniment. His solos throughout the concert were consistently rewarding, but they and Miss Slick's vocal work were about the only things that were.
The Airplane group at its best is an improvisational group, though in an artfully controlled way; when it does not improvise, it is merely good. Somebody to Love, It's No Secret, Funny Cars. Yeah, nice. But we've heard them.
The Cream concert hardly could have begun less fortunately than it did. Orpheus, a group highly touted by a recording industry flack as representative of the "Bosstown Sound" (which, FYI, does not exist), was uninteresting and offensive. (I figured out about halfway through their set that they were really a plugged-in - but hardly switched-on - version of the Kingston Trio. Same dull harmony, same bad jokes, same pseudo-hipness. Feh.)
It was then announced that Cream had had airplane trouble (no pun intended) and would be "a little late." Another backup group was hurriedly imported. It did a set. Another announcement - "They're on the way." Another set.
Cream began its set at 2:15 a.m. The incredible thing was that of a sell-out crowd of 3,000 present from 8 p.m., fully 2,500 remained, for the most part placidly, until Cream arrived. Quite a tribute.
It was deserved. If anything was worth the five-hour wait, its set was. There are some groups that really should not perform live; they are displayed better in the electronic shelter of a studio. The Beatles, and maybe the Airplane at this point, are examples. For some groups, the opposite is the case, and Cream is one of these. In the first place there is the matter of volume. A trio - right? Wrong. Seven orchestras. Each of the two guitars has four amplifiers - big, five-foot-tall amplifiers. Ginger Baker's drums had to be miked very loud to compete. Cream's sound is just this side of physically tangible. It assaults, drowns, lifts, transports, and when it stops, one feels alone, insufficient somehow.
In the second place, Cream's records - which are quite good - present the group as predominantly vocal; there are very few instrumental breaks of longer than a chorus. In person, it gets the singing out of the way in a hurry and then gets down to business. This is just as well; some of the group's songs (Tales of Brave Ulysses, which it performed this night, and SWLABR, which it didn't) have memorable lyrics, but most don't, and as vocalists, Bruce is only good and Clapton adequate. As musicians, they are superb.
The group began with Ulysses, and Clapton put the gymnasium under pulsating currents of warm water with his unerringly sensitive use of the wawa pedal. Baker, here as throughout, laid down an unyielding beat, and the three got together on an accelerating coda, which is not on the album version. They followed with NSU, a deceptively simple tune . . . [The metrical reversal in the intro] was fascinating.
So was Clapton's guitar break: whines, cat meowing, other fragmentary sounds. (He owes something of his bottom-fret climaxes to B.B. King.) The solo alternated between legato runs, usually ascending, and hard-nosed chord work. Baker, who is the baddest-looking English cat I have ever seen, reminiscent of one of Dickens' innumerable low-life villains, performed an extended solo, showing strong, strong chops, and he never misses. But the solo was strangely dull. Someone sitting next to me said, "My God. It's Sing, Sing, Sing." He wasn't far off. Baker stayed almost exclusively with 16th-note divisions, done mostly on tom-toms. He plays much more complexly on records.
They did two instrumentals, a slow blues with another fine Clapton solo that switched from double-time to the original tempo a couple of times, and then an up-tempo, 16-bar blues, with Baker doing some good brush work behind a Clapton solo. I would like to describe that solo, but I can't. My notes say, "God!" That's all. I can only say that for the two minutes or 12 hours (I have no idea exactly how long it was) that Clapton soloed, I got as high up and far out as I ever have on jazz.
Then, with Clapton laying out, a freight-train blues featuring some Bruce pyrotechnics on harmonica, including a vocal-harmonica duet with himself that at its apogee found him singing an eighth-note, blowing an eighth, and so on for two or three choruses, a la Sonny Terry. It was a remarkable display, though musically not altogether rewarding. They finished the long set with Toad, an 18-bar line divided into repeated six-bar phrases, all based on one chord. A short Clapton solo and a long Baker exercise - again, mainly with 16ths - received a standing ovation.
Cream owes its repertoire to a number of sources. It does Skip James, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson songs. Some of its instrumentalism comes from contemporary r&b players, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. It probably would not have been able to assimilate the blues concept without the pioneer imitative work of the Rolling Stones and Beatles. But the resulting amalgam is all Cream, and it is a moving, powerful, original sound.
(by Alan Heineman, from Down Beat, 25 July 1968)