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Cold Fusion: The Search for the Jazz/Rock Unicorn, Part 3


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Part 3: U.K.'s First Album U.K.


In the second part of this series, I laid out my criteria for what would constitute a fusion of jazz and rock that remained true to both styles, which, in my definition, means that the resultant music would have to appeal to both rock and jazz fans, which is not an easy task. Steely Dan's Aja is a rare example of wildly successful pop music whose jazz elements are a defining feature of the music, but it is not rock music as normally defined—it is a fusion of pop, soul, funk, and jazz.

A search for a rock/jazz fusion that satisfies the criteria is equally difficult. Perhaps the one element that makes it most difficult is the fact that rock music is primarily music with vocals, so the many instrumental rock/jazz fusion offerings do not appeal to most rock fans. On the other side of it, most of the progressive rock bands with vocals, like Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Rush, and others, simply do not have jazz-inflected improvisations. Others, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, feature sophisticated jazz improvisations, but no vocals. The band U.K., however, brought together a mix of musicians that fused progressive rock with vocals and real jazz improvisation, producing their outstanding first recording, eponymously entitled "U.K."

U.K. is one of the first "super groups" to appear in rock. Two of the members, Eddie Jobson (keyboards and violin), and John Wetton (bass and vocals) were prominent musicians in some of the most important bands of the 1970s. Jobson joined Roxy Music at the young age of only 18. He later joined Frank Zappa's band, and toured and recorded with another progressive rock icon, Jethro Tull. Wetton was the lead singer and bassist for the first "progressive rock" band, King Crimson. He was also a member of Uriah Heep, and, like Jobson, was a member of Roxy Music as well. These two accomplished musicians represent the more rock/pop oriented part of the band, with neither of them having any traditional jazz experience or training (although Jobson has strong classical training, which is well demonstrated on this recording). They were also the primary songwriters for the group—half of the material for the first album had already been written by Jobson and Wetton before the band officially formed as a quartet.

The other two members, Bill Bruford (drums), and Allan Holdsworth (guitar), have a stronger background in jazz. Bruford was another King Crimson alumni, and was also a very popular drummer for several of the most revered progressive rock bands, including Yes, and Genesis. His own recordings, however, reflect his strong affinity for jazz and improvisation, rather than prog rock. Holdsworth (guitar), is perhaps the most unlikely addition to this group. He stands out as the one member who does not have the impressive prog rock resumé of the others in the group.

He is, however, an incredibly gifted jazz musician and improviser, as well as being an innovator who pioneered guitar technique, guitar effects, and even guitar design. All of this resulted in a guitar sound that is instantly recognizable. His technical skills, with an incredible legato-fingering technique that accompanies a highly nuanced, often melismatic, rhythmic dexterity, are virtuosic but, unlike other guitarists in the rock/jazz fusion genre, are never used in a gauche display of technical prowess; instead, his sophisticated improvisations are always subservient to melodic concerns, and are thus appealing for jazz and rock listeners. He occupies a position at the top of the pantheon of rock and jazz guitar players, and is to this day revered as a master whose contributions to guitar playing greatly expanded the instrument's expressive capabilities.

Similar accolades could be bestowed upon Bruford, who is certainly a foundational figure in the history of rock/jazz fusion drumming. He pioneered the use of electronic percussion, and brought a melodic awareness not usually found in rock drumming as he explored pitched percussion instruments in the reformed King Crimson of the 1980's. The same cannot be said for Jobson and Wetton. Both are excellent musicians, but neither are revered as innovators on their instruments as is the case with Bruford and Holdsworth. Jobson and Wetton are consummate professionals with excellent technique and musicianship, but their focus was on songwriting and storytelling, not on improvisation in an instrumental setting. (None of this should be read as implying that the jazz players are superior to the the rock players—they simply have different personalities, interests, and proclivities.)

Oddly enough, U.K.'s first album came out in 1978 around the same time as Steely Dan's Aja which was released in 1977. "Peak fusion" in both jazz/rock and rock/jazz occurred at roughly the same time, which makes sense. By the late 1970s, there had been over 20 years of musical engagement with rock and roll by thousands and thousands of largely untrained musicians in their teens and early 20s. The genre they were all working in is fairly limited in scope—most of it is in 4/4 time, it generally uses fairly simple harmony, the song forms are also very limited and formulaic, and the length of song is similarly limited to 3-4 minutes. (Again, this should not be interpreted as a critique of the genre, it's just a broad description.) Not all of the music, however, adheres to these formulae; almost from the outset, there were those musicians who were interested in venturing outside of the genre's limitations, writing music that was harmonically, rhythmically, and formally much more complex. (This includes all of the progressive rock bands I've mentioned previously, but also many who were not in that category, like The Beatles, The Who, and even Led Zeppelin in their mature period.) Steely Dan and U.K. fall in this category—groups that grew up in the classic rock era that included highly trained musicians, who engaged with the rock genre and brought with them their knowledge of jazz and classical music. The two groups did so from different directions, but they emerged with their finest rock/jazz fusions at the same time, which I do not think is coincidental; to the contrary, it makes sense that the most refined fusions would appear after a long period of successful and unsuccessful experimentation which revealed the different artistic paths possible. This allowed for successive generations to refine and hone their approach, building on their own work and on the work of previous groups. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the release of these two albums coincides with the end oof the classic rock era; after two decades with thousands of groups working in a fairly constrained genre, the materials had been exhausted, and new generations were going in different directions (Punk, New Romantic, Synth Pop, etc.).

Progressive rock had, by this point in the late 1970s, been thoroughly explored by many groups, including those listed earlier. Thus, the subgenre was fairly well-defined: longer songs, more complicated harmony, longer forms that in some cases invoked "movements" as found in classical symphonies, mixed meter and irregular time signatures, and lyrics that were more philosophical in nature. To illustrate the successful fusion of jazz and rock that takes place on the first U.K. album, let's listen to "Thirty Years," the fourth song on the album, which was already largely composed by Bruford and Wetton during a six-week period when they were rehearsing as a trio with former Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, prior to Jobson joining the band.

Thirty Years Form

The song begins with lush synth strings and a gorgeous acoustic guitar solo by Holdsworth (0:00-0:57). This functions as an introduction to a romantic "aria" which is, lyrically, a melancholic and jaded rumination on the impermanence of life and love. The long, "rubato" aria is largely solo voice with synth string accompaniment with some improvised cymbal and solo acoustic guitar. Towards the end of this section (around 2:50), Bruford begins using soft mallets on the tom-toms, becoming more prominent and ominous. He plays freely and out of time, and the texture builds, culminating in a fermata (a note or chord held for a long time, which in this case is about eight seconds, from 3:15-3:23) on a very common jazz harmony (F#7, #9). Now the first section, what I'm calling an "aria" is over, and the more traditional rock format begins with a "verse without lyrics" in 4/4 time, which features a lovely and lyrical synthesizer solo (3:23) by Jobson that is composed, not improvised (he plays the same solo in live concerts

This instrumental "verse" leads to the chorus (3:56), which is in 6/4 time. Interestingly, the chorus initially hides its true nature as a chorus; the first two iterations are entirely instrumental, and as such, it makes the entrance of the lyrics somewhat of a surprise, as the listener realizes that this has been withheld in the first two versions of chorus. It's a clever piece of musical trickery—there's nothing in the hat until the magician pulls out the rabbit—so when the chorus finally arrives, it packs considerable punch. The chorus begins with a guitar/bass duet in featuring an angular figure played in unison. It is agitated and feels almost scolding with its insistence. Jobson then enters in kind and raises the stakes with aggressive and punchy synth horn figures, that interlace with the guitar and bass. The overall effect is somewhat menacing, like a possessed timekeeper, stealing away the minutes from your life, one by one. This nicely foreshadows the grim lyrics ("All the things you planned—fading") that eventually arrive in the third chorus.

The end of the third chorus brings a varied return of material from the 'A' section. This version is in time and features the entire band. This leads to the return of 'B,' however it is now also altered. It is much slower, it is repeated, and Holdsworth plays two new melodies that are temperamentally similar to the original melody played by Jobson. Both melodies are lyrical, but with the slower tempo, the effect is haunting and soulful. The song then fades out with melancholic slowly moving synth string voices which are similar to those found in the introduction of the piece.

"Thirty Years" thus provides us with a reasonable snapshot of what is found on the rest of the album: The harmony throughout is advanced and complex, mirroring that which is found in jazz and classical music. For example, there are quartal harmonies throughout, which are found regularly in the music of Hindemith and Bartok, and many other 20C composers. The music is also awash with jazz harmonies, linear harmony, slash chords, and surprising chromatic bass movements similar to what is found regularly in the music of jazz artists like Kenny Wheeler, Herbie Hancock, or Wayne Shorter. Improvisation is also an integral part of the texture, and it is sophisticated jazz improvisation. There is even one instance, in "Nevermore," where Jobson and Holdsworth revive the venerable jazz practice of "trading fours," in which two of the musicians would each improvise over four or more measures, then another (often the drummer) would take the next four and keep "trading" back and forth for a chorus or two. This usually happens after everyone has had their turn at improvising, and it functions like a "stretto" in classical music—it heightens the tension and excitement as the two players try to outdo each other just before the piece ends. This is quite common in jazz, but is not found in rock music for the most part. At the end of trading eights (starting at 3:05 in the recording below), they do something that never happens in jazz: they play the end of the last solo before the chorus returns in unison---one of them, therefore, is actually playing a transcription! The unison line sounds like something Holdsworth improvised, so my guess would be that Jobson transcribed it and overdubbed the part on top of Holdsworth's solo. (It works well and it's surprising and impressive, it's just not something that any jazz musician would even consider when trading fours.)

Rhythmically, Bruford provides a rich array of non-standard beat patterns (as in the chorus of Thirty Years) that are influenced by world music and classical music. Irregular time signatures and metric modulations abound, with one piece so difficult, it's hard to imagine them performing it live, but they did. Here is a transcription of "Presto Vivace and Reprise," which looks like it could have been penned by György Ligeti or Frank Zappa:

The classical influence is not limited to the harmonic and rhythmic elements, it is also found in the formal elements of the music. While not a "concept album," it has elements of thematic unity that are common in classical, uncommon in rock (prog notwithstanding), and almost unheard of in jazz. The album begins with a 13-minute suite featuring three pieces that are thematically linked ("In the Dead of Night" followed by "By the Light of Day") and end with the piece mentioned above, "Presto Vivace and Reprise," with the "Reprise" being a truncated return of "In the Dead of Night." Similarly, in "Thirty Years," each section returns in varied form, and the song closes with a short reprise of the introduction. These unifying formal concepts from classical music were utilized by the group to great effect in developing their own unique approach in the prog rock genre.

It is remarkable that these different styles were so successfully merged on U.K.'s first album that both rock and jazz listeners were satisfied. The difficulty lies in the fact, as I've mentioned previously, that jazz and rock have aesthetic priorities and characteristics that clash, which is why most attempts at jazz/rock fusion are one-sided—one style dominates, and the other style is used in a superficial manner. Somehow, U.K. was able to meet this challenge by finding a thin patch of common ground between all of the players, but, apparently, the underlying tensions between the aesthetics of the jazz contingent (Holdsworth and Bruford) and the rock contingent (Jobson and Wetton) came to a head rather quickly when they toured together. The studio setting allowed for aesthetic compromise, but live performances are so intimate and revealing, that the performers' personal aesthetic sensibilities cannot be contained for long—"What's bred in the bone, will come out in the flesh."

It is fascinating to see how these aesthetic fissures reveal themselves in the live recordings of the original group. Here is a live version recorded in Toronto in 1978:

As noted previously, Jobson plays the same solos, with minor embellishment, as he plays on the records, while Holdsworth improvises, as does Bruford (to lesser degree). Holdsworth doesn't even stick to the script on the orchestrated guitar parts! For example, listen to the second chorus (4:54) in the live version and compare to the studio version of any of the choruses. Holdsworth plays the figure, but he's toying with the phrasing—instead of the short staccatto figures on the studio album, he plays over the beats with legato phrasing, which is answered by Jobson joining in, hammering out the figure with Wetton as if to say "Come on Allan, play your part right!." (Pure conjecture on my part, but it sure sounds like that to me.) This is the more compositional prog rock aesthetic clashing with the improvisational jazz aesthetic, and while it may seem somewhat trivial, this kind of thing can, over time, really be a problem in a musical relationship, and that is exactly what happened with U.K

Here's what Holdsworth had to say in an interview with Anil Prasad from 1993:

I got on really good with all of them, but what went wrong is that everyone wanted to do something else. I think there were two factions in the band: Bill and myself and Eddie and John. And they were kind of at war really. So, that's what made it miserable—they wanted me to play the same solos every night and it was a completely alien thing for me. I would have probably been able to adapt to that now, but what I wanted to do then was so opposite to that. Whereas now, I could have maybe said "Well I know what I want to do, but this is what this is." I enjoyed making the album, and that was great, but it got to be not too much fun on the road. It was purely a musical question. I don't know, maybe the other guys in the band hate me, but it wasn't that for me— it was just the musical thing. It was "Geez, what am I doing here?" It wasn't that I didn't like the people. I did—I really liked all of those guys, even though they probably don't realize that! [laughs] It was purely and simply a musical problem.

Wetton's take is similar, but he reveals even more elements of the aesthetic mismatch in a television interview on The Boffomundo Show from 1979:

Wetton: . . . So we rehearsed as a three piece [Bruford, Jobson, and Wetton]; Bill says I've got this great guitarist that I've been working with, Allan comes in, floors everybody because he is [a] sensational guitarist, no doubt about that. And so, I thought, this guy is gonna kill 'em in America when he gets there. He's really good, you know, and, he didn't. A lot of people liked him, but not everybody.

Interviewer: He didn't have a charismatic stance on stage.

Wetton: Exactly.

Interviewer: He isn't very animated, he just kind of stands there, he's more like a traditional jazz player.

Wetton: It's like having a great book inside a case that's locked. Now, the book can be absolutely fantastic, but unless you can open the box to see the book, you'll never realize its true potential...And I think that's what most people's attitude towards Allan was—this guy's good, but he's not really telling me that he's any good. I mean, he used to take two steps backward as soon as the spotlight hit him. He's always fiddling about with stupid boxes...that are always crackling.

Wetton praises Holdsworth's musicianship, but is clearly somewhat annoyed by the fact that Holdsworth doesn't pay any attention to his image or the group's stage presence. Holdsworth sees his role as purely musical; he clearly is not comfortable striking a "rock star" pose and putting on a show for the audience. Wetton, on the other hand, sees their role as both musicians and entertainers who need to communicate with the audience using all means possible. The aesthetic differences between jazz and rock are, once again, presented in stark contrast.

Holdsworth and Bruford left after the first album, and U.K. reformed as a trio with ex-Zappa drummer, Terry Bozzio. The second album "Danger Money," was still progressive rock, but without Holdsworth's contributions, the jazz element was no longer present. The live album Night After Night showed them moving further away from prog and closer to the pop/rock that Wetton embraced with his super-group Asia that was so successful in the 1980s. In his solo work after Asia, Wetton remained firmly in the rock camp, never returning to the progressive rock genre. Jobson continued with a solo recording, "Zinc" in 1983 that was still, for the most part, in the progressive rock style, but abandoned it after that, except for live performances in U.K. reunion tours with Wetton from 2010-2015.

Somehow, this unlikely combination of first generation prog rockers and modern jazz fusion musicians came together to create what I think is one of the only successful and authentic fusions of the two styles. Remarkably, given this unlikely hybrid, it did quite well, reaching #65 in the US, and enjoying 15 weeks on the Billboard charts. The album is also recognized by Rolling Stone magazine as the 30th best prog rock album of all time. Sadly, both Holdsworth and Wetton recently passed away, Bruford is retired from performing; Jobson is the only member of the group who is still active today. These four remarkable musicians gave us a masterpiece of rock/jazz fusion that marked the end of the first prog rock era with a stunning display of musicianship and creativity whose power to enthrall has not diminished to this day.

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