Where Jimi led
If you’re interested in guitar-playing, you probably need to know about Ava Mendoza. I first heard her at Subterranea in New York in 2016, during the Winter Jazzfest, when she played with a band led by the trombonist Jacob Garchik and including two other guitarists, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and a drummer, Vinnie Sperrazza. You can see them in the photograph; she’s on the extreme left, with the Fender Jaguar.
Even in the company of the great Halvorson, Mendoza caught my ear. Born in Miami, Florida in 1983, she studied with Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland, California before moving to New York in 2013. She seemed to have found a way of feeding the sound of early rock and roll guitar — think Dick Dale, Watkins Copicat echo units, and a time before tremolo arms became known as whammy bars — into the kind of thinking shared by the several generations of guitarists freed from the orthodoxies of jazz guitar by Jimi Hendrix, a list going from Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Ray Russell, Vernon Reid and David Torn to Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot and Kim Myhr. She showed strength, inventiveness and confidence.
That first impression is confirmed on a new album which features her in a trio under the leadership of the veteran bassist William Parker, completed by the drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s called Mayan Space Station, and it’s the sort of music you can easily imagine Hendrix making if he were still around today: loose, improvisatory, inspired, collective, which are all the words that come to mind when you think of his playing from more than 50 years ago on tracks like “Manic Depression”, “Love or Confusion” and “Third Stone from the Sun”, carried into the 21st century.
I was thinking about Hendrix anyway, since I’ve been enjoying a newly published book called Voodoo Child, in which two Los Angeles-based writers, my old Melody Maker colleague Harvey Kubernik and his brother Kenneth, compile an oral history of the guitarist’s life and work. It’s not a biography in the usual sense but a sort of 360-degree journey around the short but extraordinary life of the man who arguably had more influence on contemporary music than any individual instrumentalist since Charlie Parker.
The vast majority of the interview material is new, culled from dozens of conversations with those who knew, observed or were affected by Hendrix. They range from Brian Auger, John Mayall and Andrew Loog Oldham through John Echols of Love, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Ed Cassidy of Spirit, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane and James Williamson of the Stooges to Michelle Phillips, Ernie Isley, Michael Des Barres, Kim Fowley, Jerry Wexler, Billy Cox, Jim Keltner, Nils Lofgren, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and many others. Of course there’s lots of stuff about Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, as you’d expect. But the authors aren’t afraid to dive into less obvious areas. In one of the later sections several witnesses, including Hugh Banton, the Van der Graaf Generator organist, and John Etheridge, the Soft Machine’s guitarist for the past few decades, have interesting things to say about the specifics of the equipment Hendrix used.
If I have a criticism, it’s that — like most Hendrix books — it doesn’t follow the money or go deeply into the late period when he became involved with black artists and activists such as the singer Emmaretta Marks and the percussionist Juma Sultan, getting closer to the world where free jazz intersected with political action. But as a kaleidoscopic assembly of impressions from an orbit around Planet Jimi, it has a value of its own.
The eminent composer and flautist James Newton, a professor of jazz studies who has taught a Hendrix course at UCLA, talks about Hendrix’s relationship to jazz: “Check out the floating quality in ‘(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland’. When Hendrix hits the guitar three times to establish the tempo, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, it’s in 3 but not really — most people hear it in 4/4… a polyrhythm is established, which is not something you hear in pop music, then or now. It’s Mitch (Mitchell) channelling Elvin (Jones).”
That was something you couldn’t miss when you heard Are You Experienced or saw Hendrix live in 1967, at least if you were conversant with the work of the John Coltrane Quartet in the first half of the decade. Mitch had clearly paid attention to Elvin’s sense of time — the 3-against-2 which is at the heart of the rhythms that came from Africa and became what we call swing. And Hendrix, who hadn’t (as far as I know) played jazz during his early career on the R&B circuit, responded to what he was doing. In that sense, Mitch was a liberating influence on Jimi.
It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Chas Chandler recruited a more four-square British rock drummer of the time — say, Aynsley Dunbar (who was under consideration), Keef Hartley or John Steel, his former colleague in the Animals — to the Experience, as might easily have happened. John Mayall points out that “Jimi came to England and a blues world… going back to Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who started the blues boom. This attracted a lot of musicians who now had something new to inspire them.” But it was not just a purist’s blues world. Korner’s absolutely seminal Blues Incorporated was packed with jazz musicians, from Ginger Baker and Danny Thompson to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, as were Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation. Even had Hendrix never listened to Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before leaving the US in 1966, he would have absorbed something of their spirit from the musicians he heard and worked with in London.
James Newton connects Hendrix to the huge change taking place in jazz two decades after the heyday of bebop. John McLaughlin (in a quote attributed to Colin Harper’s biography, Bathed in Lightning) remembers taking Miles Davis to the Monterey Pop film just to see Jimi, and the effect it had on the trumpeter. The effect on guitarists — including McLaughlin — was even greater, in terms of encouraging a more adventurous approach to tone, texture and effects, and more enduring. As we can hear in the work of Ava Mendoza and others of her generation, it shows no sign of abating.
* Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s Voodoo Child is published by Sterling. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station is on the AUM Fidelity label: https://williamparker.bandcamp.com/album/mayan-space-station