Jimi Hendrix - Running the Voodoo Child Down
Essay Keith Shadwick
Jimi Hendrix would have been 60 this year had he lived. Since his death the influence of his music and general fascination with his celebrity has grown year on year. While rock fans claim Hendrix as one of their own it’s becoming increasingly accepted that Hendrix was also a major influence on jazz musicians and on subsequent jazz/rock hybrids. But how did Hendrix influence jazz? Did he influence musicians by his spirit as much as his technique and was he really a jazz improviser? In a special 8 page feature Jazzwise surveys Hendrix’s impact, reveals little known facts about jazz musicians he played with and talks to two iconic guitarists influenced by Hendrix, John McLaughlin and Vernon Reid.
In December 1970 Jimi Hendrix won Down Beat magazine’s Readers’ Hall of Fame vote. He was not the first to win it posthumously on a wave of sympathy in the year of his death – Eric Dolphy had in 1964, to the unfeigned distaste of the traditionalists, and Wes Montgomery again in 1968 – but he was the first non-jazz musician to do so. Two questions emerge from this rather odd juxtaposition: what was he doing being voted for in a poll where he’d not previously troubled the compilers, and why was there such a concerted outcry afterwards in the letters pages of the magazine as well as from sundry jazz critics?
This goes to the heart of Hendrix’s position in popular music. It is only in hindsight that we can look at such a result and say that it is entirely appropriate, given the enormous influence Hendrix and his musical ideas had on the subsequent development of not just jazz-rock and fusion, but all of jazz. For, like other musical titans, he brought to the music a helping of ideas that could be used by everybody. Thinking of Hendrix at the position he was in at his death, and of the musical scene he was central to, there is little overt connection with contemporaneous jazz, apart from the embryonic jazz-rock scenes in NYC and London. After all, Hendrix had built his entire musical vocabulary squarely on the solid foundations of the blues, not on blues and the standard song, which is where post-war jazz usually makes its entrance in a musician’s consciousness. The closest jazz approached Hendrix’s entry point was with the ubiquitous early-60s organ-guitar-drums trios on the Chitlin circuit. Where Hendrix had mapped out his territory was as the baddest guitarist in rock: countless other rock guitarists of the time have testified to his shattering impact, firstly in the London of late 1966 and later in America via Monterey in summer 1967. In all the fuss generated by his songs, his lyrics, his stage act and his general anti-establishment stance, there was little time for the majority of onlookers to wonder about jazz tie-ins.
But they were there from the first album Hendrix released under his own name, Are You Experienced? Recorded between December 1966 and March 1967, the (14) tracks that made up the initial British release covered a lot of stylistic territory, from the Wilson Pickett/Otis Redding strut of ‘Remember’ to the open-form experimentation of ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ that had no previous parallel in all rock music and had its roots in an improvisatory dialogue between Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell that owed most of its conception to the convergence of Mitch’s studies of Elvin Jones and Hendrix’s obsession with sound for its own sake. This obsession was long-standing but had most likely been encouraged to take its particular form on this track by Jimi’s combination of fantasy films and novels with the sorts of extended improvisations that were common on the New York jazz scene he was living amongst prior to his relocation to London. Being Hendrix, of course he developed it in his own unique way (the instrumental theme sounds like nothing so much as a supercharged Ventures surf melody), instructing bassist Noel Redding to stick to a very basic three-note riff throughout the long improvisatory section – a device that beds the whole performance, unites it and keeps it within what was then defined as a rock ambit, rather than taking the approach Cream were starting to develop where Jack Bruce often took more adventurous bass lines in collective passages with Clapton and Baker than Clapton – always and forever primarily a blues player – was willing to go for.
The majority of Hendrix’s improvisations on this track use the guitar not so much as a solo instrument in the jazz tradition of single-note lines or even chorded passages, but as a source of sound. Using and moulding an array of feedback techniques, Hendrix constructs a wild soundscape that bounces off and comes up in between all the other elements on the track, including his distorted spoken word passages. That this is a good trip rather than a nightmare is made clear in the humour the words contain – especially the allusion to surf music. The track concludes in a conflagration of sound that has no precedent in rock but whose violence and shrieks can be heard as a translation of the wild sounds prevalent in New York City avant-garde jazz circles from 1964 to the end of the decade. The leader of that particular young coterie, saxophonist Albert Ayler, was often quoted as saying that ‘it’s no longer about notes – it’s about sound.’ As with Hendrix’s most extreme electric explorations, their music was often performed over simple drones or with the absence of any precise tonality, and the colour and vibrancy of the sounds being created in, say, Albert Ayler’s famous 1965 live recording, Bells, is directly comparable to the conflagration with which Hendrix concludes ‘Third Stone From The Sun’. There is a similar melée at the end of I ‘Don’t Live Today ‘where once again Hendrix abandons traditional guitar picking and fretting for manipulation of electric amplified distortion and feedback while the bass continues the song’s main riff pattern and the drums cut loose from keeping any specific metre in spectacular fashion. On the original 1967 LP release the savagery of this passage’s attack was mitigated by Hendrix’s fading up and down of the music track so as to deliver the occasional laconic spoken line. In the past decade earlier mixes of this track have come to light on the collectors’ circuit where this free-for-all is presented in full and with no vocal overdubs. Its exuberant intensity is overwhelming, its musical invention remains as fresh as the day it was played. The Experience was outstripping everybody else out there in doing what was done on these tracks. What was unique about Hendrix’s achievement was that he managed to do this within a popular music format that stood very much at the heart of the rock, blues and R&B tradition of the day. This unique juggling act, as well as the adventurousness of the audiences of the day, allowed Hendrix to quickly build a phenomenal popular support and public profile that was sustained for the rest of his short career.
This was a fantastic position to be in, and one that even the most popular jazz musicians of the day – Miles Davis or John Coltrane – could only dream of. As for the likes of Albert Ayler and those who populated the avant-garde in his wake, their musical stature seemed to be reflected only in inverse proportion by popular acceptance or approval. What is interesting about all this interlinking of music and day-to-day careers is that, while Hendrix quite likely felt the green light for his own casting off of the musical chains through his checking out of the wilder shores of jazz at this time, no-one in the jazz scene quite knew how to deal with what Hendrix was laying down. It would be years before his message was digested and re-interpreted in a coherent way by the jazz firmament. It’s also worth pointing out that the earliest attempts to do so came not from American musicians, but from European ones, who had a much longer history of fusing different forms and genres together. John McLaughlin, for example, was extending the sonic boom long before he left England for New York, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. And after all, Hendrix himself had to leave the US to get a deal that would for the first time allow him to front a band and express himself to appreciative audiences.
Source : http://www.pacosvillage.com/articles/archives/May2003/hendrix.htm