The Jazz Club Vol. 5 – Gateway Drugs: Jazz Albums for Metalheads

After we provided a general introduction for the genre in our last Jazz Club, Jimmy and I tossed around the idea of writing an adjacent piece catered specifically to metal fans. As with any genre, it’s easier to crack into the overall style with a handful of bands or albums that incorporate elements from genres that the listener is already familiar with. There are some pretty strong links between jazz and metal, which made it easy to select a well-rounded list of albums to recommend for metal fans who want their jazz to have an added edge. Some of these releases lean more towards one genre than the other, but they’re all excellent in their own right and provide a solid, metallic gateway into jazz.

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T.R.A.M. – Lingua Franca (2012)

Jimmy Mullett: Although I think that Miles Davis was probably where jazz-influenced rock/jazz fusion really started, it’s probably best to start with something a little more contemporary. Since Davis first experimented with rock in albums like Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, a lot of progressive rock has had a good amount of jazz influence, whether it was Soft Machine or even a modern band like Shining. Anyway, all that to say T.R.A.M. is probably a good place to start.

Scott Murphy: I agree, especially since most people reading this are either familiar with T.R.A.M. or the bands that its members play in (Suicidal Tendencies, The Mars Volta, Animals as Leaders).

Jimmy: I know that you got me started on T.R.A.M. shortly after we both discovered Animals As Leaders a few years ago, so what do you think, Smurphy?

Scott: Lingua Franca was a HUGE surprise to me at the time, as I suspect it was for a lot of people. It seemed strange that musicians from such different musical backgrounds would not only end up collaborating together, but choose to make music outside of their traditional styles. But the biggest surprise for me was just how fucking great of an album Lingua Franca ended up being. The way in which Tosin Abasi blends his technical playing with overtones of jazz fusion is nothing short of brilliant, and provides the framework for an eclectic range of subgenres. This truly is a perfect gateway album for metal fans: it covers elements of jazz, jazz fusion, free jazz and more with a sheen of progressive metal that comes together in a fantastic way.

Jimmy: Absolutely, man; I enjoy AAL immensely, and it was cool to hear Abasi not give up his style, yet (paradoxically) bending it to include more jazz influence to his group. I mean, we need to be fair hear; despite the inclusion of those other members from Mars Volta and ST, this is really Tosin Abasi’s show. But his playing and his style has such a versatility to it that it almost encourages other players, which is, in my opinion, a huge asset when you’re playing jazz. Music is all about chemistry between musicians, but there is arguably no other genre that requires as much chemistry and know-how than jazz.

Scott: Oh, without question. Some of the best jazz albums have been born out of an assembly of exceptional players all pushing each other to create the best session possible.

Jimmy: And, seriously, just talking about this album again makes me remember how much I loved it. I can’t believe how long it’s been since it’s come out, too. It’s only been like, what, four, five years? Yet it feels like twice that time.

Scott: It dropped in 2012, but it feels longer to me because of how much I love the album. I’m not sure if I’d want another T.R.A.M. project, though…

Jimmy: Really? Why not? Is it like Madvillain, where you don’t think they could top themselves?

Scott: It’s one of those albums that’s so heavily rooted in a certain period of time in my life. One of the reasons I suggested Lingua Franca for this conversation is because it actually did help me break into jazz back in the day. It’s not that I think they’d put out a bad follow-up, I just worry that I might not be able to appreciate it in the same way. I don’t think that’s a certainty, but it might happen. Regardless, I’d like to potentially reach out to Tosin and bring it up to see if it’s even a possibility.

Jimmy: I could see that being feasible, maybe. It’s been a while since Tosin’s been pretty busy…he might just have something up his sleeve.

 Jimmy: Any final words about Lingua Franca?

Scott: Honestly, I’d place this as required listening for this list and the rest as deep(ish) cuts. If I could only recommend one album to a metal fan looking to get into metal, it’d be this one.

Jimmy: I have to agree with you there. I think a possible contender, aside from the other albums on this list, would be the Between the Buried and Me side project Trioscapes, but even that doesn’t exhibit all the aspects of jazz as fully as T.R.A.M. does.

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Miles Davis – Live-Evil (1971)

Jimmy: I think since I mentioned Miles Davis before, it’s worth bringing up here. His “Electric Period,” as it’s referred to by modern jazz historians, was a huge time of experimentation for him, as not only did he bring the addition of more rock instruments and influences to his music, but he also played around with the theory behind the music’s structure. I won’t go into details, as it’s a little confusing, but the Electric Era holds some of Davis’s most lauded compositions, and some of the most important releases in jazz history, including (as mentioned above) In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and a slew of albums before this that were effectively hybrids of his previous period and the electric period. For this conversation, though, I think that Live-Evil, the album following Bitches Brew, would be the best to start with for rock fans. Both Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, while, good, are incredibly difficult to listen to, as there’s really no set structure. The same is true for Live-Evil, but what it has that those other albums don’t have is a much heavier rock influence (thanks to guitarist John McLaughlin), which, in my opinion, brings us back to earth a little bit.

Scott: You recommended Live-Evil to me because of how much I love Bitches Brew (and Miles in general). Honestly, I don’t think anyone’s every described an album so closely to how my actual experience ended up unfolding. Live-Evil is a very clear and even marriage of jazz and rock, maintaining all of the experimentation of Miles’ jazz playing within a direct, intense rock framework. In a way, it reminded me a bit of Mahavishnu Orchestra, only in the sense that I expected a jazz album and got much, much more rock than I anticipated. I mean all of this in the best way possible, though; it’s such a thoroughly amazing piece of music that carries a bit more immediacy than some of Miles other electric albums.

Jimmy: Totally agreed on that last part; to truly love Bitches Brew takes time; it’s sort of like slowly drinking a few glasses of wine to get a buzz. On the other side of the spectrum though, we have Live-Evil, which is like three shots of Jaeger. Mclaughlin’s guitar hits fast and hard, at least at the beginning. It’s really the first time I ever wanted to headband to jazz, honestly. The album slows a bit down as it continues, requiring a little more patience to enjoy, but the entire experience is nonetheless awesome, and a bit easier than the other electric albums.

Scott: That’s true; the 20+ minute tracks on the back end are a bit denser than the album’s opening.

Jimmy: I mean, that’s true as well, but I was thinking in terms of the activity in the tracks. It’s possible to make 20+ minute tracks that have a lot to hook you in (I personally swear by “Pharaoh’s Dance” on Bitches Brew for that), but this isn’t exactly the case. It’s a lot more subdued than the beginning. However, it’s still formulaic enough that you won’t be bored.

Scott: That’s a fair point. I’d also like to add that Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is phenomenal; some of his solos on the album had me transfixed in a way that few other jazz performances have. After listening to him on Live-Evil, I went out and a bought a couple of Max Roach albums to see what I’d been missing in terms of jazz drumming.

Jimmy: You know, I don’t think I’ve really actively listened to the drums in Live-Evil as much as I have the guitars. I’m a sucker for a well-done guitar solo, so drums don’t usually come up as much for me, except for that weird dog-bark-sounding drum that shows up in Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. I’ve personally felt that jazz drumming is a little samey, at least when it comes to more traditional jazz. But, again, I haven’t really put in a whole lot of time into actively listening to those parts as much as I have the melodies and such.

Scott: Regardless of which instrument you focus on, it all comes together for an exceptional jazz fusion record that truly represents rock and jazz in a balanced – yet blended – way. I’m glad Jimmy picked this record; it’s a great pick for that “next step” album for a metal fan exploring jazz. It’s a jazz record that thinks its a rock record, with that mindset being of great benefit to the listener.

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Merkabah – Moloch (2014)

Scott: Our next two picks start venturing into more experimental territory, with our next pick being more of a combination of jazz and “heavy music” rather than metal. I’ve been a Merkabah fan for a while now, but I’m interested to see what you thought, Santiago Dos?

Jimmy: Santiago?

Scott: Apparently it means James in Spanish, which makes no sense to me, but…

Jimmy: I’ve never heard that. I always thought it was just James, but, you know, with an “heh” sound instead of the normal “j.”

Scott: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Jimmy: Anyway…I was really surprised by this album, and in a good way. I’ve loved the way some metal bands (TesseracT comes to mind with their Altered State album) have used jazz to their advantage, but it’s always been very clean. Merkabah broke that rule by making some gritty, dirty music, and combining it with some really well-performed jazz. I feel that I need to give it a couple more listens, though, because it was a pretty dense release. Where did you even hear of these guys, anyway? I’d never heard of this band until you brought it up for this chat.

Scott: Moloch was introduced to me by a friend who posted about it in a Facebook group formed as a community for a now defunct blog (The NewReview) I used to write for. He pitched it as fusion of noise rock and jazz, which sounded like a mess on paper. But Merkabah make it work incredibly well, especially in the way they blend the two genres. Most of the record makes me question if its truly a jazz record or just noise rock with sax, but I find this to be more of a positive than a detracting factor of the band’s approach. My favorite records all make me forget what genre I’m listening to and just make me focus on the music as sounds rather than style(s). It’s a cacophonous, nihilistic record that’s a slog to survive but ultimately worth the journey.

Jimmy: Hm. I mean, on paper, you’re right, it doesn’t look like it’d work. But it does, and it sounds so individualistic. In a way, though, if you think about it, noise rock and free jazz are sort of kissing cousins, if you will; they have a lot of similarities, in that they don’t rely on the traditional way of making sounds as a core element of their respective genres.

Scott: Exactly: it’s one of those things that I said “Eh” to in my mind but clicked with me as soon as I pressed play. It may not be a great gateway for all metal fans, but for more experimentally-minded heavy music listeners, this should be an absolute treat for your ears. Or it could be sonic punishment; depends on how you look at it.

Jimmy: I wish I had listened to this album more before doing this chat, because I feel like I’d have more input, but, you know, Life Blog is Life. Still, what I listened to I really enjoyed.

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John Zorn – Inferno (2015)

Scott: So I’m going to turn the floor to Jimmy Two for our last pick, since he’s an unabashed John Zorn fan girl.

Jimmy: That’s fan woman to you; and, yes, it’s completely true. John Zorn is basically my obsession at this moment in music; he’s a guy that has remained out of the limelight purposefully and is yet one of the most prolific musicians ever and the de facto king of modern avant-garde music. Zorn has composed music for nearly every genre, including classical, jazz, and even grindcore, if you can believe it. While a good amount of Zorn is exceptionally tough to get into, I think that his more recent organ-based works are pretty accessible, and the album in question, Inferno, is a great place not only for someone interested in Zorn to start in, but also for a jazz fan. Inferno, to me, sounds a bit like all the cool organ parts of Opeth’s Ghost Reveries album, but without Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals or the huge guitar parts. In this limited musical setting, Zorn manages to fuse metal and jazz in a way that sounds like a seance. Did you ever get a chance to listen to it, actually?

Scott: Honestly, I only found a YouTube video for the album’s title track, but I appreciated what I heard on my first listen and grew to love the track the second time around. I’m not a fan of Between the Buried and Me, but some of the metal moments on the album felt like much rawer, more developed and mature approaches to the jazz/metal sections that BTBAM includes in some of their songs. The track falls somewhere between Merkabah and Davis for me: it’s not outright jazz and has a lot of intensity behind it, but it’s definitely rooted a bit more in the genre than Moloch. It’s something I could see as a next step after Live-Evil and a truly enjoyable listen for metal fans, even if they’re not huge into jazz.

Jimmy: That’s an interesting take; I actually didn’t really think about comparing it to BTBAM, but then again, like you, I’m not a huge fan of them anyway. What really blows my mind about this album is how much variety Zorn is able to get. I mean, there really isn’t a lot in this album in terms of instrumentation—just organ, drums, and guitar. Yet, each track, if you listen closely, has its own flavor, so to speak. Zorn has done a lot of organ work, lately, but I feel that this is the best to showcase a blend of jazz and metal. His other organ albums, including the Moonchild project with Mike Patton, have more of an occultist, metal feel to them.

Scott: Honestly, I didn’t even know those were the only instruments on the album (or song, in my case) until now. You’re right: it has a massive and varied sound, to the point that I’m impressed he didn’t need more instrumentation to make it happen.

Jimmy: In a way, I’m not surprised, but that’s my inner sycophant talking; the man is a genius when it comes to composition.

Scott: Sycophant? Shit, that’s a $2 word, man.

Jimmy: It’s all because I ate a thesaurus at a young age. I think that considering that he’s been writing music in a variety of genres since the 70s, he’s developed some serious chops. Then again, though, considering the lackluster quality of some of his other releases, it might just be a big spark of inspiration to be playing with organ at this moment.

Scott: With as many releases as he has, some of them are sure to be duds. But the sampling I have heard from his discography has been fantastic and remarkably eclectic. He’s a perfect jazz artist for metal fans, which you covered in your Starter Kit for his metal albums.

Jimmy: He’s definitely a great artist to get into if you want things a little different. Anyway, you have any last words?

Scott: I think I’m good. As always, we’ve compiled Spotify playlist with these albums (minus Zorn), as well as a few other recommendations. Feel free to peruse our suggestions and sound off on them in the comments, as well as provide us with some album suggestions of your own.


Additional Listening:

Fontanelle – Vitamin F
Krokofant – S/T
Little Women – Throat
Schnellertollermeier – Zorn einen ehmer üttert stem!!
Shining – One One One
Trioscapes – Digital Dream Sequence
Zu – Igneo

Comments

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus






2 thoughts on “The Jazz Club Vol. 5 – Gateway Drugs: Jazz Albums for Metalheads

  1. comanchka Reply

    This is awesome, I’ve always needed this — thanks a lot!

  2. iamspoonbender Reply

    Miles Davis is THEE man !! The T.R.A.M. album, just really didn’t do anything for me.

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