I haven’t done one of these in over a year and I was well overdue. I feel like my best writing comes when I’m prompted to do so and channeling a bit of flow; as opposed to predetermining or overthinking the process too much. In that respect, this essay could be regarded as a love letter to John Mayall and his unique legacy as an artist. The prompt was two-fold: hearing something on the radio earlier this week that sounded a lot like his music from the early 70s; and – also this week – reading that he’d had to suspend a recent tour due to ill-health. He’s 85 years old.
John Mayall – Jazz Blues Fusion (1972)
November 2019: I’m in the car with my partner, Lauren as we make a short trip across the Eastern suburbs of Adelaide. I’ve got the radio on the independent station Three D, which – depending on the time of day and week – will play practically anything. It’s mid-morning on a Monday, so the current segment appears to be dedicated to a palatable intersection of blues, jazz and funk. Ideal for going to pick up a carton of milk at the shops or running your partner to a dentist appointment (I’m doing the latter.) On the drive, Lauren and I are having a conversation over a busy instrumental playing in the background, consisting of jazz tropes grafted to a mid-tempo 12-bar blues. Horn vamps come and go, and there’s an insistent rhythm section of drums and upright bass. Something within me piques slightly. Then, a harmonica honks and my attention is wrested away from the conversation and fixated wholly on the radio. For a moment my thoughts are contained internally, but are now channeled out through my mouth:
“Far out, this sounds a lot like John Mayall!”
It doesn’t merit or require any kind of reply from Lauren; she’s well accustomed to these kinds of in-situ observations. As the song continues its bluesy progression, more out-aloud observations come:
“..is that Blue Mitchell on trumpet? …ooh, that’s got to be Clifford Solomon on sax.”
“..surely that’s Freddy Robinson on guitar?”
The song sounds distinctly like the kind of music that John Mayall was making from 1971 to 1973, but I’m unfamiliar with this track. I break from speaking out aloud – probably to Lauren’s relief – and think to myself: “what is this?”. Our trip in the car is thankfully long enough that I get a chance to hear the DJ announce the previous bracket: “[…] and ‘Blue’s Blues’ by Blue Mitchell.”
So, I was right! That was Blue Mitchell on trumpet, and I was certain it was Mayall on harmonica and probably some of the other musicians I’d mentioned. The apparent Mayall-isms led me to assume that Blue Mitchell and others were somehow in there. Later, I check Wikipedia and match up the track, “Blue’s Blues” with the 1972 album of the same name by Blue Mitchell. Sure enough, John Mayall and Freddy Robinson are listed in the credits along with some other musicians I don’t recognise. The album’s recording date lands it firmly in the middle of John Mayall’s jazz fusion era, which would explain why it sounds so much like my favorite Mayall album – 1972’s live document Jazz Blues Fusion.
February 1997: I’m in my bedroom in Normanville and my dad comes into the room with three CDs I’d asked for my birthday: Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Charlie Musslewhite’s The Blues Never Die and Mayall’s Jazz Blues Fusion. Hendrix takes precedence for the afternoon and then later in the evening I move onto Musslewhite’s honking blues, followed by Jazz Blues Fusion. Mayall’s albums from the early 1970s had handwritten liner notes on the back which feature a chart for each song, detailing which of the musicians are featured on each track and what key the song is in. Everything’s a little more compressed on the back of a CD (essentially LP artwork shrunken down to CD case dimensions) but I’m able to make out the details. With barely a year of guitar playing under my belt, I clumsily play along to bits of Jazz Blues Fusion on an acoustic guitar.
I’m still not entirely surely why Jazz Blues Fusion is my favorite John Mayall album. But I love it. Absolutely love it. A vinyl copy I picked up a few years ago is a regular fixture on my turntable on a given Sunday morning, especially during the Summer months.
Plenty of people will cite Bluesbreakers or A Hard Road as their favorite Mayall album and I can appreciate this popular sentiment. Each of these albums respectively feature the embryonic guitar virtuosity of Eric Clapton and Peter Green and are excellent, progressive British Blues albums in their entirety. Some might even go as far as saying the later, more conceptual, jazz-infused and psychedelic Bare Wires or Blues from Laurel Canyon are their favorites. I really like these albums too, but Jazz Blues Fusion stands out.
Born in 1933, John Mayall started his career as a young musician utterly besotted with American blues and boogie-woogie music. Never possessing a particularly attractive voice – predominantly flat, nasal and residing somewhere on a contemporaneous index of Robert Johnson, Kermit The Frog and Neil Young – he would bash out blues on piano, organ and harmonica with various bands around London. By the early 1960’s and in his late 20’s he’d moved out of the huge treehouse he’d been living in since his teens, married, had several children and became the bandleader of the Bluesbreakers by 1963. A popular fixture around London, the Bluesbreakers would begin making records in 1965 with a live album that does exactly what it says on the box, John Mayall Plays John Mayall. Mayall has been – since 1965 to the present day – been effectively doing that: playing himself.
By 1969, Mayall had grown tired of living in England, disbanded the Bluesbreakers and relocated to California, where a dedicated American college audience and new multi-album record deal with Polydor was waiting. Between 1969 to 1971, Mayall would release a string of stripped back folk blues albums for Polydor (mostly eschewing drums and favoring acoustic instruments) before taking a hard turn in late 1971 to commence a two-year jazz-blues odyssey. Prior to the release of Jazz Blues Fusion, no African American musicians had featured on a Mayall album. With this album that changed. On the rear of the album’s sleeve are photo portraits of trumpeter, Blue Mitchell; saxophonist, Clifford Solomon; guitarist, Freddy Robinson; and drummer, Ron Selico. Ex-Canned Heat bassist, Larry Taylor fills out the unit, along with Mayall. The portraits – bathed in afternoon sunshine – were possibly taken at Mayall’s home in Laurel Canyon. Everyone looks groovy and laid back, like they’re chilling out together before a gig. Mayall looks particularly relaxed in his photo. He is crouched on the ground; his back to a wall of earth, squinting into directly the camera and wearing a leather waist jacket over a singlet, with a lock of hair around his neck.
2002: I’m broke and short of cash for the week. I’ve mishandled my finances again, so a bunch of CDs I don’t listen to much anymore are going to the record store to pay for a cheap pair of jeans, food and train fares for the next fortnight (though maybe not in that exact order of priority.) I flick through my CD collection and half a dozen Mayall albums are marked for pawning, however Jazz Blues Fusion is spared. I don’t think the CD is taken out of its case for another ten years.
By 1973, Mayall was beginning to pull away from jazz-blues, and his only album from that year – Ten Years Are Gone – is essentially a consolidation of his musical explorations from, you guessed it, the last ten years. An upbeat jazz-blues, “Driving ‘Till the Break of Day” remains my absolute-favorite track by Mayall and sums up a lot of what I love about this era of his music. Mayall sings lyrics (that he probably wrote on the spot) about drinking himself blind, hopping in his car and cruising about looking for women. It’s got an irresistibly funky groove. The horn vamps respond to the vocal melody: “Yeah, that’s me / driving while the moon is high.” Freddy gets a guitar solo, Clifford gets a sax solo, and Blue does his thing on the trumpet. Without Mayall’s vocal, “Driving ‘Till the Break of Day” sounds a lot like “Blue’s Blues”. Those Mayall-isms.
2012: I own a car for the first time in half a dozen years and it has a CD player. I find my old CD wallet (remember those?) and go through my CD collection to compile an in-car library of tunes. As I run through my alphabetically sorted library, my finger reaches ‘M’ and lands on Jazz Blues Fusion. Sometime later that year, whilst driving, I’m reacquainted with this album and I fall hard for it. I marvel at the musical sophistication contained within the relatively straightforward blues of “Country Road” – Freddy Robinson’s guitar work, Ron Selico’s deft smacking of the toms; the brevity of “Mess Around”; the slow, smoky blues of “Dry Throat”, which again features Robinson’s rapid-fire guitar playing, as well as beautiful solos by Clifford Solomon and Blue Mitchell. In the thick of this, Mayall’s voice can be heard on the periphery of the action; enthusiastically calling out cues and encouraging his band to push things along. Much like the 1973 track, “Driving ‘Till the Break of Day”, I’ve always assumed that Mayall was a songwriter who impulsively jotted down lyrics or even improvised on the fly to fit around the music. That’s not to suggest that the lyrics are so much as tossed off, but rather are more straight-up and uncomplicated in the vein of the blueman’s journeyman schtick; which is, a conscious inverse of Van Morrison lucidly channeling the mystic, or Bob Dylan vomiting a wild stream of poetic non-sequiters.
In interviews Mayall has consistently come across as honest and down to Earth, with shades of a certain inscrutability; a casual aloofness which could be put down a quintessential English sensibility. In a video interview from 1983, he is polite, charismatic and calm, with occasional flashes of impatience and contempt for journalistic bullshit. There’s little tolerance for the interviewer attempting to mine juicy gossip or prompt a philosophical tangent about Mayall’s views on the past (or the future.) Just imagine how sick he must get of being asked about Eric Clapton. He quickly moves a question like this aside. He doesn’t dwell on the past, over-analyse or overthink the process of what drives him to make music. He just does it.
After Jazz Blues Fusion, Mayall would release another live album a few months later and expand his band by a couple more players. He calls it Moving On.
To further emphasise the restless spirit of Mayall, he’d laid down this maxim early on in his recorded career. As the 60’s wore on, what could be simply attributed to an homage to the blues tradition of ‘bottlin’ up and moving on’ (in both a literal and proverbial sense) steadily became more of a reinforced stance of self-determination. Consider his self-penned hit from 1969, “Room to Move”. The song itself is an ode to the joys of non-monogamous relationships and the desire to stick it wherever one likes and if you don’t dig it, tough. That’s that, and – in a localised and broader sense – sums up the restive nature of Mayall as an individual and artist. To contextualise this attitude further and situate it within his jazz-blues fusion period, by late 1971 he’d tired of performing “Room to Move.” On Jazz Blues Fusion, as the band finishes “Mess Around” (which no-one had probably heard before prior to this performance) there’s a brief exchange with a couple of audience members yelling out for Mayall to play his hit, “Room to Move”:
Audience: “Room to Move! Room to Move!”
Mayall: “We have time for just one more number…”
Audience: “Room to Move! Room to Move!”
Mayall: “..and we’d like to make this one where everybody gets featured..”
Audience: “Room to Move! Room to Moooove!”
Mayall: “No, there’s no more “Room to Move”..that’s all way in the past.”
Mayall: “What’d you all come here for? To hear an old record or something?”
Along with progressive rock, fusion music was at its commercial zenith for the first half of the 1970’s. Genres were smashed together with little regard for the consequences, and often resembled the musical equivalent of following the storyline of an orgy. In the realm of jazz and its melding with aspects of rock music, some of this worked incredibly well. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and On the Corner are thrilling, fascinating records – where, despite the sonic tumult and technical overload – there are moments of restraint and space which afford the listener an opportunity to reflect on and appreciate the sophistication of the work. Other exponents – and I would say the bulk of it – suffer the indignity of, well – to apply that analogy again – a non-stop orgy. I’m sure it’s fun if you’re a participant in the action, but to a passive observer the overall impression is alienating and indulgent. In one particular case, I’d even take this lurid analogy further and suggest that a group as extreme as John McLaughlin’s jazz-rock enterprise, Mahuvishnu Orchestra is akin to eavesdropping on a secret society who get together once a month to furiously masturbate together in a cloistered sanctum.
This is probably why fusion music melding jazz with the meat-and-potatoes of straightforward blues is a safer and more accessible endeavor – for all involved. It sounds like a pretty good party, as opposed to a spectacle of constant humping and jacking off. If I want some of that in my ears, I’ll listen to a sweaty Prince record. As I mentioned at the outset of this essay, the grafting of jazz noodling to the strictures of a 12-bar blues contains things enough, insofar that everyone can get their virtuosic moment on, but stay within the confines of three-and-a-bit chords and keep it that way. Keep it in your pants lads. Sure, you can go all crazy here and there, but just remember the turnaround chord is coming up and John is watching you. Keep it real. Ultimately, Jazz Blues Fusion sounds a lot more like a blues record than jazz and contains those indelible Mayall-isms that keep it relatively consistent with the progression of his work in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The next record, the live album Moving On did wobble the blues foundations a little too much, which is perhaps why the largely studio-based eclectica of the following Ten Years Are Gone – whilst retaining most of the fusion-era unit – began the steer away from Jazz Island and return to a more authentic blues-oriented territory.
1979: Mayall has just released a universally panned foray into disco and his house in Laurel Canyon has burned down in a massive wildfire. A few years ago, there was a photo on his official website of him sitting in a deck chair in the driveway, peacefully painting a picture of the smoldering ruins. He’d lost practically everything in the fire including tour diaries, instruments, live archives, not to mention his extensive pornography collection. In the true bluesman spirit, the heartache came and went, he bottled up and moved on. As the next decade comes around, he’d all but dispensed with making studio albums, regrouped a version of the Bluesbreakers and hit the road.
2002: I’m watching John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers take the stage at the Governer Hindmarsh in Adelaide. At 69, Mayall is very tall and stands center stage with his keyboard. He has a shock of white hair pulled into a pony tail and a neatly trimmed beard. He is wearing a black singlet and a tight pair of jeans. His agility and enthusiasm belies the fact that this is guy going on seventy. His long-standing trio of Bluesbreakers surround him and he belts out the brand of high-power blues rock he’d been hawking since the early 1980’s. The packed crowd laps it up, and I enjoy it thoroughly. There’s nothing overly memorable about it, aside from the fact that I’m witnessing John Mayall play John Mayall. I had neither raised nor lowered my expectations for the gig; they resided in that middle ground that I always afford to whatever Mayall has done or will continue to do – be it on record, or on stage.
I believe that what ultimately makes Mayall’s music so special to me is its honesty and directness, which is consistent with the idiom of the blues: three chords and the truth about how one feels about stuff. He is a bit of an oddity and unique in the respect that – as a bandleader – he could attract a variety of fine musicians across his storied career and mold their playing into something resembling the blues. From the 1980’s, things normalised somewhat stylistically, but the Mayall-isms are still there. They’re still evident in a fan-shot YouTube video I watched last night of him performing onstage – at 85 – on a recent tour through Europe. That – in itself – is miraculous. An artist’s integrity is still intact and thriving after all these years. I have nothing short of admiration and love for the guy.
I’m thankful that John Mayall has produced so much music; that Jazz Blues Fusion still resonates with me to this day; and that – for about two hours in 2002 – I existed in the same room with the guy I’d been fascinated with since I was twelve.
Get well soon, John. X
November 7th 2019