HAROLD MCKINNEY / “Freedom Jazz Dance”
The first time I heard “Freedom Jazz Dance” as an adult, I was disappointed. It’s the fifth cut on the great Miles Smiles album and while I can’t say that the Miles version is bad, it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I had this vague memory of having grown up with the song. I remembered it one way; the Quintet weren’t living up to that memory. Miles, Herbie, Wayne, Tony and Ron (at this point, having heard damn near every note the Quintet recorded together, I feel like we should be on a first-name basis) bring the same off-kilter intellectualism and prodigious musicianship to “Freedom Jazz” as they do to their own material. So I couldn’t say what was missing, but I just felt like I wanted something different. That was years ago. Since then, I’ve heard many versions of “Freedom Jazz Dance.” One of the strangest is by a Los Angeles-based big band called the Don Ellis Orchestra. Ellis is probably best known for having scored the classic Gene Hackman film, The French Connection, but his band is also known for, to quote Wikipedia “the use of odd time signatures.” Apparently, Ellis’ band “could skillfully play in 5, 7, 11, 13 and 33 times.” Like trying to imagine what a billion dollars looks like or how much distance a light year actually encompasses, I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what 33 times actually means (can you really put 33 beats in a single bar?), let alone trying to play in it. In the intro to Ellis’ version of “Freedom Jazz Dance”—which he twice calls “Freedom Dance”—Ellis says that his band is going to play the tune ‘in seven.’ By which he means in 7/4 time—count along, it’s true. It’s also weird. Weirder still is the title of the album “Freedom Jazz Dance” comes from: Live In 3 2/3 / 4 Time. That’s three and two-thirds beats per bar, just in case you’re following along at home; I presume it’s a joke. When Ellis’ band plays the main theme, they do so in such a ponderous fashion that you can almost hear the musicians counting out the time signature. (“And six and seven and..oh shit!”) Or maybe it’s just me. The all-star band assembled by young Czech bassist and future Weather Reporter Miroslav Vitous is having none of that ‘ponderous’ stuff. (Vitous’ version is from his 1969 debut as a leader, Infinite Search.) Sticking to the 4/4 time signature in which “Freedom Jazz Dance” was written, Vitous, Herbie Hancock (piano…electric, I think), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Joe Henderson (tenor sax) and John McLaughlin (guitar) hit the ground running, attacking the theme with both a pace and a ferocity that shows they mean business. Vitous takes the first solo, an appropriately “vituostic” (sorry – I couldn’t help it) funk-jazz-swing thing that sets the tone for the ten minutes to follow. The song may be marathon length, but the band plays it like a sprint. Of particular note is Jack DeJohnette. His relentless cymbal-work calls to mind a drum prodigy of recent times, Brian Blade. I always wondered if Brian modeled himself after any particular drummer (other than Elvin Jones, of course)—maybe it’s DeJohnette. After listening to Miles’ workmanlike precision, Ellis’ highwire act and Vitous’ nonstop propulsion, all of which are clearly in the jazz bag, it’s a surprise to hear how funky, soulful and non-‘jazzy’ the original itself is. “Freedom Jazz Dance,” an Eddie Harris composition, first appeared on Harris’ 1965 Atlantic LP The In Sound. The way Harris plays it, the tune is clearly a ‘soul jazz’ number—not straight ahead at all. Of all the versions, Harris’ is the one where the musicians most clearly lock into the groove. When Harris plays the theme, he does so with a hard, bluesy swing that makes you visualize dancers’ feet moving. Then there’s the funky little tambourine thing (which reminds me a little of New Orleans street music). Given that the original as played by Harris is so funky, it’s a little odd that Ellis, Virtous and Miles all play “Freedom Jazz Dance” as such a ‘composition’ as opposed to a groove. Which brings me to my favorite version. It’s by a little-known pianist and (sometimes) band leader by the name of Harold McKinney. In this one (from the awkwardly-titled 1974 LP Voices And Rhythms Of The Creative Profile), McKinney and Co. refuse to choose—their version of “Freedom Jazz Dance” is as funky as the original, as sophisticated as Miles’ version and as intense as Vitous’. It’s the only version I have with vocals and it also must be the one I heard as a kid. (Kalamu can confirm or refute that.) The arrangement is spectacular. You get high-level musicianship, a groove worthy of a great soul band and musical freakiness befitting the best of the funk masters. As re-visioned by McKinney, “Freedom Jazz Dance” opens with some massive drum licks and a fat, squiggly keyboard sound (a Moog maybe?) that you’ll recognize from your favorite Headhunters tunes. Then there’s some rapturous hyper-speed vocals, a horn (cornet? flugel horn?) solo backed by handclaps a half-beat behind ‘the one’ (gotta love that), and finally a crazed vocal solo that sounds like the sort of thing I do in the shower when I’m home by myself. (Right. I wish.) In short, perfection. —Mtume ya Salaam Jazz is freedom Mtume, I can’t say for sure which version you recall from when we lived on Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Possibly the Miles, but more likely the Eddie Harris, but on the other hand, it just could be the Harold McKinney because that was one of the albums in the collection, and if you remember lyrics, it probably was that one. But on the other hand it could have been…. Regardless of what the factual recording was, this is a fascinating overview precisely because you are letting your ears guide you towards something your memory puts forth and in the process you discuss the music as though it was the soundtrack of your life…you know, like when you say the Miles was not to your taste but you really, really like the McKinney. Well, the McKinney sounds like something we would have taught at Ahidiana, our independent Black school where you and many others were introduced to Black music not as something to listen to, but rather as music you sang and danced to, did your lessons and played to. Mtume, as you know, Eddie Harris is one of my favorites because he combined experimentation and adventurousness (he pioneered/popularized the electronic saxophone) with a fierce dedication to the tastes and talents of ordinary Black folk. Thus, as deep as Harris’ jazz knowledge was, he was even deeper into using grooves. The Detroit connection you are spotlighting is interesting in its contrast and confluence with the Harris Chicago connection, both of which are quite different from the New York sound of Miles, the West Coast sound (think second-generation Stan Kenton) of Ellis and the Euro-funk-influenced sound of Vitous. Detroit had a hard driving post-bop scene, and though it produced numerous soul singers and is legendary for the Motown sound, Detroit never actually matched the other soul-metropoli (such as Philly, Memphis, Harlem, Chicago and New Orleans) in producing heavy funk grooves. I am not saying Detroit didn’t produce soul—I mean how could one even begin to argue that when you consider (just to quickly name two people) that Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder came out of Detroit. My point, however, is more about the type of music associated with the city than an assessment of individuals from that city. But regardless of one’s opinion about Detroit popular dance music, the fact is the foundation of the Detroit sound is found in hard bop jazz rather than in funk, and hence you hear a related but different sound when you compare Detroit dance music to Chicago dance music, or compare the Detroit jazz scene to the Chicago jazz scene. Compare McKinney to Harris and you will see what I mean. Mtume, whether you intended to do so or not, you have given us a fairly accurate summation of different styles of Sixties/Seventies jazz in your appraisals of the five versions. Perhaps it is your hip-hop orientation that is guiding you toward the grooves and away from the swing and experimental jazz approaches. (Note to readers: we covered a bunch of this before in an earlier appreciation of Eddie Harris. Go here to read what we said.) For whatever reason you chose to explore more of Eddie Harris' music, I’m both proud and thankful; proud that you are exploring jazz and thankful that you understand the way forward goes directly through the past…. And by the way, as numerous musicians have said time and time again: jazz is about freedom. No freedom, no jazz. Hence, while I might not like all of these versions, I appreciate that they collectively illustrate and represent how central the concept of freedom is to the music known as jazz, the freedom to explore and at the same time to put one's personal stamp on whatever the source material is. —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. Mtume, you mentioned not having a vocal version. There are many. The vocal version I'm partial to is Eddie Jefferson. Check him out. Lyrics OK, question. I like the Eddie Jefferson. I noticed though, that he's singing a completely different set of lyrics from the ones that Harold McKinney's group is singing. Obviously, Eddie Harris composed the tune as an instrumental. Did Eddie Jefferson write the lyrics he's singing? If so, where'd the lyrics come from for the McKinney version? You said there are many vocal versions. Do most people sing the Jefferson lyrics or the McKinney lyrics? Or do people just sing whatever they want? Strange.... —Mtume ya Salaam No official lyrics Yeah, it's pretty much different folk writing lyrics for the same melody. Eddie Jefferson is not just a pro at writing lyrics for jazz songs, he is one of the progenitors of the style of jazz singing called vocalese. Vocalese uses specific instrumental solos and fits lyrics to those solos, which is very different from composing lyrics for the theme melody. Most folk only write theme lyrics, but a cat like Eddie Jefferson is absolutely in a whole other category. Vocalese was an outgrowth of bebop. When vocalese was in vogue, the recordings were generally three minutes or less, four minutes at the most, so the solos were not that long. Once the LP came in, vocalese as a specific artform was dead because the solos became so long that one would have had to write (and sing) a novel to match the solo. I don't have easy access to my LPs, so I can't check to tell you who wrote the lyrics for the McKinney version. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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