By March 11, 2013 1 Comments Read More →

Hendrix and other dead things, like jazz.

(above) Audio file of Jimi Hendrix playing on the the 1965 Isley Brothers recording “Testify”.

Jimi Hendrix’s People, Hell and Angels collection has been out for a week now, and with the dust from that event settled, one can make a couple of observations. It’s a mostly-unremarkable set of studio odds and ends from the period right after Hendrix and producer Chas Chandler parted company. It is Hendrix after all, so it’s unremarkable only in that it’s a by-now typical posthumous regurgitation of unfinished, or at best not yet polished, studio noodlings and sketches of the type that have been surfacing almost since the moment he died in 1970.

Hendrix’s playing on People, Hell and Angels is fine, and is what one would expect of him as he practiced and slowly developed this material for possible future release. What grates on those who value the decision making of the auteur-creator, however, is that there is no indication that Hendrix ever intended that any of this posthumous material be released. The producers will give you the impression that it was simply a matter of fixing the mix, or deleting some hiss and pops, that separated this material from the music that Hendrix did approve for release during his short life. And, anything “new” by Hendrix suits his biggest fans just fine, much as scratchy, distorted Charlie Parker rarities do for his devotees when undiscovered material turns up. But, we’re simply not buying any “it was almost finished” or “these are new, undiscovered masterpieces” arguments.

The “bootleg” Charlie Parker material that has been released over the years falls into two categories: early playing by a very young Bird which allows us to hear a genius developing his style, and live material from his prime years that allows us to hear him stretch out beyond the confines of studio time limits and atmosphere. Hendrix’s posthumous material also falls into two camps, but it’s all from his prime years. Essentially there is unfinished studio music and a seemingly endless supply of unauthorized live recordings. The live stuff can be quite good, even if the recording of it often falls below industry standards of that era. Regardless, it’s always exciting to hear the best improvisors, like Hendrix, playing their music live. That presumes, of course, that other factors weren’t in play during the recordings, and the common thread that ruins many a live Hendrix tune is the same thing that trashes plenty of Parker’s recordings: drugs and alcohol.

Parker was having a heroin-induced nervous breakdown during the infamous studio sessions that yielded the Dial recording of “Lover Man”, and producer Ross Russell endured years of scorn for having released this material. Receiving less criticism was Norman Granz, who allowed an obviously high Bird to play quite bad and technically-compromised solos on probably borrowed equipment during the live recording of a 1946 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. It’s one thing to let a guy go ahead and play the gig when he’s too high to function at anything like a normal level of proficiency. There’s a certain “the show must go on” morality that precludes giving in to the performer’s condition. It’s quite another matter when one releases, and profits from, a recording of that sort of thing. Not one of Granz’s finer moments, although he was certainly otherwise capable of generosity, and was typically fair in his dealings with musicians.

Interestingly, a Bird excerpt from this recording appears on the revised Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. We’ve praised this collection here already for its brilliantly concise liner notes and its succinct choice of material, but when it was revised for its first re-release on CD, the producers decided to add a long solo by Bird from this concert. While it contains some quintessential Parkerisms and a couple of nice flourishes, it’s mostly a squeaking, out-of-breath mess, and we’ve never been sure why it was included. The live Bird material recorded later by hobbyist Dean Benedetti, on the other hand, typically features Bird showing up with his “A” game, even if the recording quality ranges from poor to terrible.

Hendrix’s live playing occasionally shows these same signs of excess, and while new material is welcome, there doesn’t seem to be as much curation as one would hope. Even Hendrix in the West, one of the first “official”, posthumous, live Hendrix albums, has everything from great solos to the self-indulgent noodlings of a drug addict. And that was when producers still had everything to pick from. What we cherish much more than this uneven, unintentionally released material are Hendrix’s early, informative recordings—however brief the solos or chitlin’ circuit-centric the approach—that show us how his sound developed. The Isley Brothers’ “Testify” from early 1965, for instance, features a very bluesy, but quite advanced Hendrix. Despite recordings with Little Richard, King Curtis and quite a few others, there is very little else in the way of pre-1967 Hendrix as a soloist still extant.

If People, Hell and Angels, then, is simply more of the same Hendrix, what would knock our socks off is finding the Hendrix equivalent of Bird’s “Honeysuckle Rose” from 1940. That’s a recording discovered some years ago featuring a 19-year old Parker playing something like his mature self. So, imagine discovering a long, screaming blues solo recorded by Hendrix in 1962, instead of listening to the latest crap from the vaults, most of which would have embarrassed Hendrix much more than hearing himself as a young man. One can hope.

1 Comment on "Hendrix and other dead things, like jazz."

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. jridetroit says:

    By the way, here’s a link to the “Honeysuckle Rose” recording mentioned above:

Post a Comment