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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

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Colin Harper #

    From memory, that quote from John McLaughlin about taking Miles to see ‘Monterey Pop’ was, unusually, one of the few used in ‘Bathed in Lightning’ from my own (sole) interview with John during an allotted hour in 1997 in a London hotel during which he promoting ‘The Promise’ – an hour to squeeze in a ton of questions about the (pre-Miles) past that nobody else seemed to ask him, plus give respectful space to talking about his latest thing. It’s interesting to me that the long, arpeggiated solo improvisation Jim did at Woodstock seemed to hint at the world of the ‘Mahavishnu arpeggios’ that underpinned so many of John’s compositions in the MO era – as if Jim was musing towards the same ideas. (On a tangent, I’m fairly confident that one factor nudging John towards this approach was the preponderance of arpeggio motifs in the Beatles’ late music – ‘I Want You’, ‘Because’, etc.) Jim would almost certainly have ended up going in a musical direction shortly after 1970 that would have baffled many of those who bash out ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Voodoo Chile’ in pubs 50 years later.

    December 28, 2021
  2. Rob #

    Thanks as always for your recommendations. Mendoza is terrific but the others seem a bit pedestrian. Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell remain unparalleled; the subsequent Band of Gypsies were a tremendous let-down. I heard somewhere there had been talk of Jimi getting together with Gil Evans (whose own take on Hendrix is a lovely tribute). Now that would have taken ‘sky church’ to a new level!

    December 28, 2021
  3. Paul Crowe #

    I don’t know Ava’s work – yet – but have long maintained that Hendrix is the musician I regret most not seeing live.

    December 28, 2021
  4. Mick #

    This is really interesting – thank.It touches on my inarticulate, long held, gut feeling that Hendrix was somehow standing on Coltrane’s shoulders. There seems to have been a moment in the late 60s where jazz/rock/blues had not yet fully separated into distinct continents – I’m thinking, for example, of Rory Gallagher in Taste (https://youtu.be/qtu9vW10-iY) – where Rory even picks up the sax (he was famously a big Ornette Coleman fan). Much to chew on.

    December 29, 2021
  5. Ronald McNeil #

    There’s a very good article that might be of interest, Jimi Hendrix and Jazz, from an early edition of Jazzwise magazine and now available online. The only time I saw him perform live was on that 1967 package tour with The Move and Amen Corner, where his playing wasn’t at its best.

    December 29, 2021
  6. Tom DeGroot #

    Ava Mendoza, not convinced, but maybe Jimi would have liked her.
    “Voodoo Child”, like every Jimi bio I’ve read, is amateur writing, and that includes Charlie Cross’. How do they reduce a force of Nature to “greatness”? I guess it says a lot about me that on a topic dear to my heart, Jimi, I couldn’t get through a quarter of it. I wish Jonathan Gould would write a Jimi bio, wrapping in the times and the changes, as he did in “Can’t buy me Love” and “Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life”.
    Or another terrific writer, Richard Williams.

    December 31, 2021
  7. The original Experience is my favourite period of Jimi’s career, and the earlier the better. I find that to be the same with many artist’s careers. When the fame and the money enter the scene its gets a bit boring; much better to consider the Stones gigging around London bumping into Cyril Davies than taking coke in LA.
    And with regard to the Band of Gypsys, it seems to divide people like football supporters, and is also very USA v UK, which I really don’t understand. There is a You Tube film of Chris Squire explaining to an audience about seeing Jimi trying to show Noel Redding a riff before a gig, and NR struggling. Cue sniggering and laughter from the audience, and praise for Billy Cox. Of course they know better than Jimi don’t they. It always amazes me that people think that Hendrix lowered his standards ( for three years !! ) by using Noel Redding, when he was the perfect foil for the music produced. It all worked perfectly.
    Its funny, until clever dick journalists and social commentators told me the BOG was the crowning point in Jimi’s journey and how socially aware etc blah blah, I always thought it was just great music.
    As my mum said when I was doing my O Levels, ‘just do your best and don’t think about Jimi Hendrix’ It didn’t work, but somehow I still managed to get my O Levels

    March 29, 2022

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