THE most famous riff in rock is the 3 1/2 -chord skull buster that stalks Deep Purple’s 1972 “Smoke on the Water” -- a branding moment in the infancy of heavy metal. And as Deep Purple’s set at last year’s Montreux Jazz Festival (recently documented on DVD) climbed to its climax, the customers stood waiting for that coup de grace.
Then it came. Sort of. Goateed Don Airey tinkled a sprightly mutation of the “Smoke” melody on piano. Slouching barfly Ian Paice swung his drumsticks into an up-tempo shuffle. Hot-cha, y’all! Fire in the sky!
The band jammed for more than two minutes, but there were no cheers of recognition and delight; the crowd was clearly stunned. So when Steve Morse truncated a blues guitar solo and smashed into the classic dut-dut-dahhh, the thunderous relief that burst from thousands of throats came off like a Pentecostal affirmation. But Deep Purple’s little gag shouldn’t have been such a shock; heavy metal and jazz have been sipping quite a bit of lemonade on the veranda together lately. Bopsters used to disdain metal as kid stuff; metal dudes thought jazz was for geeks. But both forms -- and forms ain’t as pure as they used to be -- tend to make huge technical demands, challenging the outer limits of fingers and mind.
And musicians love a challenge, whether it’s traversing the migraine mutations of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” cracking the next level of the Quake video game or sniffing out a new audience by combining styles.
In 2005, Judith Owen, a leading light of eclectic modern balladry, essayed her own Scotch-scented lounge version of “Smoke on the Water.” The previous year saw the new-generation Midwestern jazz trio the Bad Plus expanding on Black Sabbath’s 1970 metal girder “Iron Man.” Dave Lombardo, drummer for thrash-metal progenitors Slayer, has made records with DJ Spooky on the New York avant-jazz scene.
One night in Los Angeles, Jeff Kollman sweats out rampaging, riff-heavy improvisational guitar at Studio City’s longtime fusion hangout the Baked Potato; another night he’s smelting funk-metal at the Whisky with former Deep Purple bassist-singer Glenn Hughes. Chris Poland spent a good hunk of the ‘80s (and more recently) ripping guitar alongside Dave Mustaine in the melodic thrash-metal outfit Megadeth; he can also be found at the Baked Potato fronting his space-fusion trio, Ohm.
Above the Roxy at On the Rox in April, you could’ve caught Brian Haas of the youth-friendly Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in an ad hoc jam band with Zac Baird, the touring keyboardist for the nu-metal group Korn. And Saturday at East Hollywood’s Steve Allen Theater, the Sound series was scheduled to host “Noisy Night": a crew of local electronic improvisers spontaneously meshing gears with members of Southern California metalers Cattle Decapitation, the Locust and the Melvins.
In our current Age of the Extreme -- extreme sports, torture movies, even unsoft soft drinks -- crazy technique and over-the-top solos are turning heads again. And extreme jazz, heavy metal and metal fusion all attract the same kinds of musicians, a breed that’s no longer quite so scarce thanks to video games and rapid-cut film editing: people who like things fast and get a charge from personal mastery.
The roots of fusion
THE hookup has been a long time coming.
“I thought Eddie Van Halen was cooler than Lee Ritenour,” says keyboardist Derek Sherinian, who plies the instrumental galaxies of what he calls “metal fusion” with the band Planet X and his own solo music; he’s also cranked straight metal with Dream Theater and the Swedish metal-classical guitar marvel Yngwie Malmsteen.
“Some jazz players think that by putting a distortion box on their tone, all of a sudden it’s rock,” says Sherinian, lounging in his Valley home/studio. “But unless you grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, and you have that music in your heart, it’s not gonna rock. Jeff Beck was the model for me, because he was a rock player who crossed over to the jazz side.”
In the ‘70s though, it was mainly African American jazz players who were crossing over to rock -- selling out, many observers whined. But when Miles Davis heard Jimi Hendrix detonating sound bombs in the late ‘60s, he knew jazz needed to twist the volume knob. And electrified Miles begat a generation of fusioneers that included Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and Williams begat the nonpareil six-string speedster Allan Holdsworth.
Similarly, in L.A., Frank Zappa, who’d always tapped jazz sources and musicians, waxed louder and heavier. And Zappa begat the genre-defying guitar monsters Steve Vai and Mike Keneally. (For an in-depth seminar on the practice of modern fusion, check Keneally’s recent CD/DVD reissues.)
Jazz has also worked its voodoo on rock guitar heroes through the unlikely agency of bop piano theoretician Lennie Tristano, tutor to Joe Satriani, a key supercharger of electric-guitar technique. And Satriani begat the eight-string guitarist-bassist Charlie Hunter and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and co-begat Vai.
The common factors between metal and jazz? Technique: the wonderfully unnatural feats the human limbs and brain are forced to accomplish when running down riffs at quicksilver speed, or playing 11th chords in 11/8 time. Improvisation: Always at the root of jazz, it’s also the process through which most modern metal structures are created. And advanced harmony: Both metal and jazz discarded folk basics long ago, and hybrid artists come up with chords that would scare Schoenberg.
Axman Greg Howe, the ultimate hybridist, stretches from sideman spiels with Prince to his own funk/fusion/metal explosions; recently he guested on a Jeff Beck tribute album.
“Back in high school, my one group of friends was into Ronnie James Dio, and my other group of friends was into disco,” says Howe by phone from his Long Beach home. “And if I ever said that I liked this song by Kool and the Gang, and I also liked this song by Black Sabbath, people looked at me like I wasn’t allowed to say that.”
Zakk Wylde, now 40 years old, was too young to have posed with the first generation of rock guitar gods. But his electric exploits in Ozzy Osbourne’s band since age 19 and later with his own Black Label Society kept the shredding aesthetic visible during the thud-and-rap generation of nu-metal.
Sherinian has employed him frequently on his metal-fusion solo albums; he’s broad-minded enough to admit his admiration for Neil Young and Elton John. Wylde will sit down with an acoustic guitar or a piano -- even a banjo. And fusion? He got his chops the old-fashioned way, via his New Jersey guitar teacher, Leroy Wright.
“If somebody shows you the way it’s actually done, you go, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me. That’s all he’s doin’?’
“A bunch of Leroy’s buddies were just amazing, amazing musicians. They’d come over and they’d be shredding like nobody’s business, playing John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth, Dixie Dregs -- all this fusion stuff. It was nuts. These guys were, like, bricklayers during the day.”
THERE are many ways to wail. Kevin Fetus is a member of the Fetus Eaters and Watch Me Burn, two L.A. modern-metal groups that fragment and reassemble musical forms. (Both play the Knitting Factory next Sunday.) Feeding his cannibalistic mini-lobsters in his Atwater Village apartment, the dreadlocked and tattooed guitarist vibrates with enthusiasm for John Zorn’s Naked City, whose noisy guitar-sax interplay and conglomerated structures drew equal reactions of pain and praise in the 1990s. He thinks the group had a lot to do with fusing metal and jazz.
“These guys knew everything about music, and they were saying, ‘Screw it.’ ”
Jazz has made a particular gift to some heavy music -- one that Joe Lester, bassist of the local prog-metal band Intronaut, draws on.
“It’s the use of ‘tall’ harmony,” he notes, “and of chord progressions beyond those that are common in pop.”
A metal-jazz connection is rarely articulated, says Lester, who studied music at UC Santa Cruz; at 24, he’s been a practicing musician for 10 years. “Guys that are into technical music, death metal and extreme metal love amazing drumming, amazing guitar playing, and they know that jazz is amazing technical music,” says Lester. “But they might not know any names beyond Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.”
Who are these supertechnicians? Early bloomer Wylde made an easy connection with Sherinian, who copped a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston at age 16. But these gents are prodigies -- as rare as honest politicians. Right?
Not necessarily. Bizarre as it seems, kids may actually build requisite dexterity for the speed thrills of extreme jazz and metal through gaming. The relationship is clearest in the Guitar Hero game, where a player pokes color-coded buttons on a miniature plastic guitar to match famous songs. On June 23 in Newport Beach, David Briers of Richmond, Ind., was crowned Play N Trade’s national Guitar Hero II champion for his synchronization with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘70s staple “Free Bird.” But that’s not the only game that links music, skills and reaction time.
“I am a game fanatic,” says Howe, who’s 43. “Playing online, I was in a lot of the Quake tournaments. And I was into Unreal Tournament, Half-Life, even the newer versions of Doom. I got to the point where I’d walk into my studio at 9 o’clock in the morning and go, ‘One game, and that’s it.’ And next thing you know it was 4:30 in the afternoon, and my guitar was giving me dirty looks.”
Fetus thinks the zinging pace of video games helped make his thinking quicker, and their cartoony music left its own imprint. A decade or two ago, he loved going to the arcade. Control buttons in hands, he’d flash through the on-screen obstacles, which were accompanied by hooky, dramatic computer music.
“You got that music stuck in your head,” says Fetus, “and you’d try to figure it out on guitar: ‘Now I’m gonna play that heavy.’ ”
“It seems like lots of people my age, and lots of people that are into metal, love video-game music,” says Lester. “And I do too -- all those weekend mornings playing Mario Brothers. A lot of bands, like Minibosses, play video-game music in a metal style.
“There’s definitely a fair amount of hand-eye coordination and rhythm that goes into gaming. And I think the Guitar Hero game has lent itself to the current rise in popularity for heavy music. What’s funny is kids play Guitar Hero so much that they can copy a tear-it-up Zakk Wylde solo. But then you want to say, ‘Dude, do you realize if you had spent all that time playing a real guitar, you’d be onstage and not in your apartment?’ ”
Technique is just a tool; the big thing is what the music expresses. Case in point: Miles Davis’ ‘60s acoustic quintet, which attracted Lester with its originality and virtuosity. But then, he says, “It was so visceral and emotional. It was about some real, raw feelings.”
Lester sees that combination growing in metal. “There’s been a real change in the climate for heavy music, both how big of an audience it appeals to and possibly even what aspects about it are appealing to those people. When I was growing up, metal was a real loner’s choice -- like, the kids with the long hair around the schoolyard. And we didn’t care that other people couldn’t get it.”
Asked what qualities unite the kinds of sounds he digs, Fetus names intensity, passion and mood. Though he doesn’t think of himself as a virtuoso, he can play fast and weird. And that does something for him.
“We’re in practice playing, and riffs come in, and our drummer’s playing faster than he ever has, and we’re trying to keep up, and we’re sounding good,” says Fetus. “And you start laughing, because you’re like, ‘This is fun. This is great. This is the moment. This is why I play. Because I’m ecstatic. I’m on top of the world. Nothing can kill me. Nothing can crush me now!”
Greg Burk’s website is MetalJazz.com.