Rolling Stone has never been a jazz-specialist publication, but in the Seventies, the magazine made sure readers stayed apprised of the jazz world as part of a well-rounded musical diet. In the thousands of record reviews Rolling Stone printed between 1970 and 1979, there were hundreds of jazz albums covered, by names both famous and obscure. Here’s ten of the LPs, from fusion to jazz-reggae, that we had in heavy rotation but are unknown today to all but the most hardcore jazzheads.
Shepp, a tenor saxophonist and sometimes a collaborator of John Coltrane, turned his talents to protesting the death of over 40 prisoners and guards during a 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison — the title track on this album was a collaboration between over 30 people, including a reading of the lyrics by lawyer William Kunstler, and was described as "a tribalistic frenzy of near hysteria that is one of the most amazing sounds ever achieved on record." Shepp continued active careers as both a musician and a college professor.
What We Said Then: "Unless your reaction time is that of a hippo, they've got you like a strong current and there's nothing to do but ride with them to the end. 'Attica Blues' is not just a masterpiece of protest: like the musics of Sun Ra, the Holiness Church, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and others, it is more a politico/religious experience, an appeal to higher human consciousness to, for God's sake, help us out of this torment." — Stephen Davis, RS 115 (August 17th, 1972)
Toshiko Akiyoshi, a Japanese-American pianist born in Manchuria, formed this West Coast big band with her husband Lew Tabackin (of the Tonight Show band with Doc Severinsen): she composed the music, while Tabackin was the featured soloist. What set this West Coast ensemble apart was Akyoshi's compositions, which changed up the standard big-band sound with hypnotic flute grooves and Japanese percussion. She was 20 years into a career in which she would ultimately release over 50 albums.
What We Said Then: "With a name like the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, you'd better be good, and this group is right at the top of the heap of the remaining large jazz ensembles. Like all the survivors worth listening to, TA-LTBB reflects the musical thinking of one person — in this case, one of the most distinctive jazz sensibilities extant." — Bob Blumenthal, RS 266 (June 1st, 1978)
This Brazilian chanteuse with a six-octave range and a penchant for making unusual sound effects collaborated with Stan Getz and Chick Corea and attracted high-profile fans such as Stevie Wonder. Soon after this electrifying debut album was released, Purim served a 16-month prison sentence for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute — although while she was a prisoner, the Terminal Island warden did let her play one all-star concert at the correctional institution. After she served her time, she continued her career and went on to be known as the "Queen of Brazilian Jazz."
What We Said Then: "Flora Purim is a Brazilian who looks like an incandescent cockatoo and doesn't so much sing as instrumentalize vocally. She sounds like the next important female jazz singer. Her percussionist husband, Airto Moreira, leads the impossibly hot little band on this album — George Duke on piano, reedman Joe Henderson and Stanley Clarke on bass… Flora's debut album stands out as one of the best from the jazz world so far this year." — Stephen Davis, RS 166 (August 1st, 1974)
Huey Simmons (a.k.a. Sonny Simmons) came up in San Francisco and Oakland with fellow saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Dewey Redman — but with this incandescent double album, he showed the breadth of his talent, from barnburners like "New Newk" to space odysseys like "Things and Beings." Unfortunately, after this album, Simmons became homeless and spent many years busking before putting his life and career back together in the '90s.
What We Said Then: "Simmons and friends have taken the developments of the past ten years, from Bop to Freedom, from Ornette to Trane, from Dolphy's 'Out There' to Miles' Bitches' Brew, and compacted them into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of spaces and densities that make a lot of what’s au courant seem pale by comparison. If you buy only one LP of 'jazz' music this year, make it this one." — Bob Palmer, RS 97 (December 9th, 1971)
There was plenty of jazz-rock fusion in 1974, but the notion of jazz-reggae seemed revolutionary. (Reggae had not yet broken in a big way in the USA, although everyone was expecting it to happen.) Saxophonist Robin Kenyatta, however, fearlessly mashed up both worlds, covering songs as unlikely as the Allman Brothers' "Jessica" for what we called "a varied and rewarding album, Kenyatta's best by a long shot." Kenyatta relocated to Europe and founded a jazz school in Lausanne, Switzerland — where he died in 2004.
What We Said Then: "The combination of tight, repetitive reggae and improvised solos doesn't seem logical at first, but John Coltrane and his followers have demonstrated the ability to construct interesting lines over droning, trancelike rhythm-section playing, and reggae does offer much rhythmic interest. Kenyatta, a one-time refugee from the Sixties avant-garde, turns Allen Toussaint's 'River Boat' into a stomping, soaring joy with the help of the Kingston rhythm section that backed Paul Simon and Jimmy Cliff." — Bob Palmer, RS 175 (December 5th, 1974)
Phil Woods played with everyone from Bill Evans to Dizzy Gillespie, and in the ultimate old-school move, married the widow of Charlie Parker. In 1977, the same year he played the alto-sax solo on Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," Woods assembled a supple band and released a great album that kept be-bop alive as a Seventies art form, "a terrific selling point for the art of jazz improvisation."
What We Said Then: "Outside of some people in the black avant-garde, Phil Woods is the most interesting alto saxophonist alive. He's rooted in the Forties, yet his style has been constantly assimilating ever since; he's as freely inventive as a mainstreamer gets. Also, he plays as lyrically as the late Paul Desmond, but always with a lot more oomph: because he makes pyrotechnics pretty, he's greatly responsible for moving the jazz alto past Charlie Parker." — Michael Rozek, RS 247 (September 8th, 1977)
On this album, Larry Coryell teamed up with another leading fusion guitarist, John McLaughlin, and they pushed each other "to ever-new heights of wizardry." On both electric and acoustic six-strings, they blew through one instrumental after another, with hypnotic results. How strong was their chemistry? Two years later, they formed a group together: The Guitar Trio, which also featured flamenco player Paco de Lucia.
What We Said Then: "Their fast thinking and quick fingers are phenomenal, but so is their interplay; they never get in each other's way, an amazement considering the breakneck tempos. Both players have a deep understanding of their instrument, of its traditions and literature, so that attaching tags like 'rock' or 'jazz' or 'classical' to parts of the music is futile and impossible. They just burn, and in the process set new standards for the art of modern, improvisational guitar." — Bob Palmer, RS 79 (April 1st, 1971)
Braxton, veteran of the group Circle (alongside Chick Corea) made this impressive major-label debut, making music that was both experimental and highly listenable, with his saxophone floating through jagged rhythms. We hailed this album as a harbinger, saying that Braxton had established himself as "one of the most significant jazz voices of the Seventies. He fulfilled that promise, releasing over 100 albums, becoming a professor at Wesleyan, and receiving a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1994.
What We Said Then: "Where other jazz performers would prefer a mandala, Braxton adorns his new album cover with six enigmatic diagrams; severe in outline, they are strangely evocative of the music within. Yet Braxton's attention to sonority imbues even his most methodical and precisely defined pieces with an affecting pathos, as if Charlie Parker, lost in the bowels of a nuclear reaction, were performing improvisations inspired by mathematical theorems." — Jim Miller, RS 189 (June 19th, 1975)
Cherry, now best-known to pop-music fans as the stepfather of singer-rapper Neneh Cherry ("Buffalo Stance"), was an important figure in avant-garde jazz, long playing flute and pocket trumpet alongside Ornette Coleman. This album, originally released in West Germany in 1968, had already been hailed as an underground jazz classic by the time it made its way to American shores. It drew heavily on Balinese gamelan instruments, which Cherry incorporated into an epic blend of blues, gospel, and beauty.
What We Said Then: "Equally eternal-sounding is 'Crystal Clear,' which appears on both sides. Its theme is actually a four-note scale pattern from Bali; the horns toss it playfully back and forth… 'Turkish Prayer' is a lovely, wistful trumpet melody with a Near Eastern flavor. The other themes are equally diverse, but there is no sense of crowding or unnecessary eclecticism; they emerge naturally out of the album's kaleidoscopically changing textures." — Bob Palmer, RS 117 (September 14th, 1972)
The Argentinian tenor saxophonist tore up the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival at a 3 A.M. gig with a pickup band that included the great drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie (who had come to Switzerland with Aretha Franklin): this album documented the high-flying set. The following year, Barbieri would win a Grammy for scoring the X-rated Marlon Brando film Last Tango in Paris.
What We Said Then: "Gato's great strength lies in the huge, high, wild tone he coaxes from the tenor instrument and in his novel mingling of South American concurring rhythms and melodic tradition with the searing energetics pioneered by Coltrane, Coleman and Albert Ayler. The great appeal of his music is the apotheosis of heartbreakingly gorgeous melodic lines of tunes… into churning, imploding kegs of rhythm and the soaring expression of feeling via tenor saxophone." — Stephen Davis, RS 120 (October 26th, 1972)