The Lost Wave
by Charles Underhill
Many jazz listeners cite Miles Davis albums such as Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson as the true origin of jazz-rock fusion. Others, such as critic Alyn Shipton, contend that fusion actually started in England a few years before these records came out. In the recently published book, The Lost Wave, however, author Charles Underhill offers a substantially different look at fusion's origin, arguing that its earliest recordings came from an independent record label in the early 1960s. Due to the limited release and lack of airplay, though, very few people are aware that these recordings existed. Also, since no one else has reissued the records, the potentially groundbreaking material has failed to get any serious recognition.
The Lost Wave explores the vision of Joe Palasota, better known as "Joe Pal." During the mid 1950s, he started his own record company in Dallas, Texas. Capitalizing on quality, high fidelity recordings, Pal named his label Magna-Fi Records. He managed to produce a few regional pop hits such as "Soda Pop Bop" by Betty Dean the Bop Queen and "Promise Ring" by The Brilliant Teens. In 1961, though, his vision took a dramatic turn. He was so impressed by Ornette Coleman's recording Free Jazz that he hoped to someday branch out and make his own jazz records.
One problem keeping him from recording a lengthy piece like Free Jazz, though, came from the available material. The recording plant he used to make his 45's was unable to produce 12-inch albums. This did not stop Pal from holding onto his vision, though, and in 1962, he got his chance to fulfill it. His first attempt at combining jazz and rock came about purely by accident. A surf group called The Del-Tonas had just cut a song for Magna-Fi called "Manta-Ray." While they were trying to figure out what to record for the B-side, Pal had an epiphany. He noticed that one of the musicians, George "Googie-Mook" Taylor, was playing a Fender Jazz Master guitar. This gave Pal an idea and triggered him into action. He made the group listen to Free Jazz over and over for hours, and then told them to just start playing. They recorded close to 30 minutes of manic surf-tinged jazz. Pal later edited the tape down to about four minutes to use for the flip side.
Underhill contends that this B-side, Big Chango, was actually the earliest known example of jazz-rock fusion. The real groundbreaking recordings, however, were yet to come. A few months later, Pal and the Del-Tonas began work on an ambitious project, which timed in at close to 80 minutes in length. Since the only way Pal could get the project on vinyl was to put them on 45s, he released the project as a 12 single box.
The Lost Wave discusses the Magna-Fi recordings and also features excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles along with interviews with the key players in the whole story. In a 1981 interview, for example, keyboard player, Clyde Harrington, Jr. discusses Pal's unique concepts, "Joe loved jazz, but he wasn't a snob about it. When it came to making a jazz record, he sure didn't want to put out something that sounded all pretentious. He just wanted straightforward stuff, that's it."
The group's first boxed recording, Inter-connected Explorations into the Hermeneutics of Non-verbal Dream Manifestation delivered such a pure sound. Unfortunately, considering that this was one continuous piece spread out over 12 individual singles, many potential listeners were less than enthusiastic to check out what Magna-Fi was offering. Also, as guitarist, Bruce "The Brucester" Lamar puts it, "people were gettin' tired of crazy jazz and they quit wantin' to hear surf music after a while, too. So basically we were fightin' a losing battle." The Del-Tonas went on to record three more singles boxes before finally calling it quits in the fall of 1964.
Some critics claim that the quality of these early recordings prohibits them from being seriously considered as true jazz. With the interviews, Underhill allows the musicians to make their points concerning these complaints. Lamar defends the material "I really don't think people were really ready to hear jazz coming from a bunch of rock guys. And a lot of people just thought we couldn't cut it. Well, maybe we weren't the best players, but hey, at least our guitars were in tune." Harrington also addresses this issue, "I'll admit, the Farfisa organ just doesn't have the same grandeur as a Hammond B3, but man it got the job done."