JC’s Not Ten Progressive Rock list. These are albums that nobody would mistake for progressive rock; records where another genre tried to stretch out and incorporate other styles just like ‘prog’ and did so in a masterful way. They are each very influential within their genre and should be on every progressive rock listener’s radar.
Roger CortonYet another list? Brother, we’re going from extreme no-fun opera to all lists, all the time. What’s up?.
JCHWell first of all, who doesn’t love a TRILOGY! And second of all, these are records that were, for me, what progressive rock was trying to do: start from point a, incorporate point b and end up with something completely different.
RCCompletely different like Monty Python?
JCHCompletely different like the difference between a fruit cake, where you can see all the individual bits, technically a ‘colloid’, and a compound, something genuinely new.
RCThat’s hard. One of the most tired clichés in my opinion has to do with ‘bringing in all styles’. That’s usually a red flag for me.
JCHI know exactly what you mean. Usually when I hear an artist say, “I listen to all styles of music” my eye rolling reflex starts uncontrollably. Which is why this is the hardest of the three lists.
RCBecause so few records really are something new?
JCHYeah, to the extent that this list contains a few ‘noble failures’. I mean at least a couple on this list aren’t really ‘great’ albums. They may be interesting as hell, but nobody would say, “Zeeees one, she is, how you say, zeee masterpiece!” But they swung for the seats.
RCGot it. The final ten.
Igor Stravinsky — Ebony Concerto
After World War I, most classical composers became fascinated by American jazz. They rightly felt that concert music needed a transfusion of fresh blood. What’s fascinating to me is how ‘wrong’ they got it. You know that old saw about ‘people are the same all over’? Well, this sure disproves that. Europeans like Stravinsky did not get jazz; they did not think about jazz the way Americans did. Instead, Stravinsky makes something completely new that still sounds like Stravinsky. It’s angular and jagged, but what’s great is what it isn’t. It isn’t one of ten thousand attempts to try to blend jazz and concert music into bland and completely forgettable mush.
Kurt Weill — The Three Penny Opera
For me, this is the only ‘jazz’ influenced masterpiece in the opera repertory. Even if you’ve never heard this, you’ve heard bits of it in many pop songs (The Doors ‘Whiskey Bar’ comes to mind.) Punk rock for high brows. Melodrama and cabaret raised to the level of high art. Funny, scary, sad. A guy once told me, “you can smell the people.”
Leonard Bernstein — West Side Story
West Side Story has probably brought more people into classical music and big band jazz than any other piece of music ever written. Kids of my generation didn’t know (and didn’t care) that it was a retelling of ‘Romeo And Juliet’, because the adults were smart enough not to tell us. (That would’ve ruined everything.) All we cared about was Sharks and Jets. So many people have tried to fuse jazz and classical music. In my opinion this is one of the few that actually got there.
Pentangle — The Pentangle
A lot of ‘folk rock’ from the 60’s sounds pretty dated. To me, this still sounds very much like good jazz of the same era. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn found a way to make authentic folk music ‘swing’ a bit and then add improvisation borrowed from other genres. And yet it doesn’t sound contrived. They were quirky and raw (out of tune notes never seemed to bother these guys much) but they were a genre unto themselves. Other folk rock bands were surely more influential over the long haul, but these guys really swung for the seats.
Isao Tomita — Firebird
A synthesizer rendering of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and Debussy’s “Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Faun.” It’s not only the coolest piece of synthesizer music I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration just kills. It may be sacrilege to say so, but in some spots it actually sounds better than ‘real’ instruments. Every synthesist bows down before this record.
Joni Mitchell — Hejira
Sure there are a lot of singers with an ‘inimitable’ style, that’s not so hard. But how many singers basically create a road map for an entire generation of artists who sound nothing like the original? That’s what Mitchell did. Not only is this a great record, with a unique blend of jazz-fusion and pop, but it’s pretty much the blueprint for ten billion subsequent ‘singer-songwriter’ albums all over the stylistic spectrum. The style isn’t pop on top of some jazz guys; it’s completely purpose-built. The songs couldn’t exist without these arrangements and without this jazz context. I’ll go so far as to suggest that even the greatest writers and poets–Paul Simon, Tom Waits, etc. were influenced by this record (and it’s successors ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Mingus’).
Weather Report — 8:30
At their height, Weather Report was, for my money, the ultimate band. They could play almost any style with panache and no one sounded like them. I really felt Duke Ellington, West Africa, R&B, rock, post bop and even some pop all authentically flowing through their veins. I like this double album because it takes listeners on a journey through the band’s complete range. It gives one a real flavour for just how huge four guys can sound without backing tracks and tricks.
John Adams — A Short Ride In A Fast Machine
Every time I hear this I wish Keith Emerson were alive to do an arrangement of this and turn it up to eleven! It has all the drive (no pun intended) of great progressive rock. And for me, the finale is one of the most epic and spine-tingling endings in all music. I want to warn listeners, however, that this is not a blanket endorsement of Adams’ work. Most of his music is firmly in the ‘minimalist’ school of music, of which I am no fan. But this piece? He knocked it out of the park.
Stevie Wonder — The Secret Life Of Plants
This is one of those noble failures. OK, it’s a concept album about ‘plants’. But it’s got Stevie Wonder so how bad can it be, right? Stevie became enamoured of the Yamaha GX-1, really the first polyphonic synthesizer (where you can play full chords); especially the string sounds and he seems to have wanted to go all ‘serious’. The synths do get tiresome on occasion and few of the songs are as genius as the predecessor “Songs In The Key Of Life”. But the album has a real unity and tone. Stevie wanted to do something more ‘serious’ and I think he actually succeeded. I keep thinking that all this needs is some great string arranger like Clare Fischer to come along some day and orchestrate it properly. There’s gold in there underneath all the synth-cheese.
Talking Heads — Stop Making Sense
In my opinion, the best concert film ever made, which is no accident given the art school background of the band. The show has an almost perfect arc, starting with David Byrne’s solo rendition of Psycho Killer and gradually adding people with each song. And as they add people, the character of the songs change, getting ever funkier, more West African. You’re literally taken on a journey–the band’s career–from simple art pop to sophisticated poly-rhythms. The pacing is like the best operas and Hollywood movies; just breathtaking.
Bela Fleck And The Flecktones — Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo
There have been a hundred attempts to meld jazz and ‘folk’ music and most of them are just glorified jam bands. Turns out it’s as tough to meld jazz and Americana as it is classical and rock or classical and jazz. The Flecktones came closer than anyone else and the reason is simple: decent tunes. Great improvised music has to have some structure, otherwise it’s just ‘jamming’. The Flecktones grab you with their great melodies and then keep you with some of the best playing of the past couple of decades.