BOSTON — Bands mixing jazz and rock styles have always faced a daunting task in winning fans over to a tricky hybrid. Rock music is more casual with a simple melody line rooted in a few chord sequences. Whereas jazz is often grounded in complex rhythms and harmonic improvisations, the stuff of "serious" listening.
To successfully fuse such differing styles requires musicians with a sense of what to reformulate and embellish from each source. Newly issued obscure recordings by the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and the rock band Santana offer examples of how to accomplish such an unlikely marriage.
Columbia Records has just released five sets of Miles Davis playing with various jazz/rock fusion groups from the early 1970s, with each two-disc set offering high points from live concerts. One common thread runs throughout: Davis plays jazz trumpet in band settings, reflecting the rhythmic and melodic contours of rock.
Various electric guitarists and keyboardists create rocking soundscapes within which Davis performs startling jazz improvisations, sometimes electronically altering his horn sound through a wah-wah pedal. The results are inconsistent, but on the best of these sets, Black Beauty: Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore West and Live-Evil, a dazzling and raw new music is created, fusing rock's primal energy with the heady improvisation of jazz.
A few years before Miles Davis and his electric jazz bands invaded San Francisco's Fillmore club, a venue identified with rock concerts, guitarist Carlos Santana and his band "Santana" performed there. Columbia Records has finally released the results, and the two-disc Live at the Fillmore 1968 is an overwhelming experience.
The characteristic "Santana" sound loved by millions is readily apparent - blues-flavored rock guitar riffs over Latin-tinged rhythms - but these recordings are jazzy jams, with lengthy guitar and keyboard improvisations clearly inspired by jazz artists like guitarist Wes Montgomery. Three-minute radio hits like "Jingo" and "Soul Sacrifice" are presented as extended works, sure to appeal to Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers fans, long familiar with rock-driven improvisations.
At the heart of these jazz/rock experiments is a love of freedom, a spirit of restless experimentation, reflected by a musician on the Santana disc, "We're just going to let it go, you know?" The result? The ever-fresh and electrifying sound of surprise.