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Steve Marcus - Tomorrow Never Knows

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Artist: Steve Marcus

Album: Tomorrow Never Knows

Label: Water

Review date: Oct. 30, 2003

Though Miles Davis introduced a fine-tuned version of fusion to the world with Bitches Brew, he was by no means its primary architect. The concept of a union between jazz and rock musics had been knocked around for several years prior to Brew’s release by such jazz musicians as Gary Burton, Larry Coryell, Jerry Hahn, and Charles Lloyd, as well as rock acts like Soft Machine. Sadly, many of their recordings have become lost with both the passage of time and an anti-fusion fervor fueled by the likes of the Marsalis camp; only recently has this fervor calmed enough for the music of this era to be properly reevaluated. The Water label is helping out immensely in this regard by reissuing such albums as Tomorrow Never Knows and others originally released by the Vortex label. Herbie Mann, one of the oft-overlooked godfathers of this early fusion scene, founded the label; in addition to employing scenesters Miroslav Vitous and Sonny Sharrock in his own group, Mann used his stature with Atlantic to form this subsidiary label (as well as its successor Embryo).

Steve Marcus is primarily known for his extensive reed work with Coryell during his electric years; Tomorrow actually marks their first recording together. Having used Marcus’ reed talents for his groundbreaking country/jazz album Tennessee Firebird, Gary Burton cemented a friendship with him, eventually introducing him to Coryell (a member of his own quartet at the time), pianist Mike Nock, bassist Chris Hills and drummer Bob Moses. Together they formed the ensemble Count’s Rock Band and recorded Tomorrow as their first album. Burton has a subtle hand in the recording, acting as a non-credited producer, leaving his vibes at home and limiting himself to tambourine (??) for the session.

Marcus decided to use popular rock songs of the day as material, using them as most jazz groups use Tin Pan Alley standards. Thus “Eight Miles High” starts familiarly, with Marcus’ tenor playing the vocal line of the song until a premature tense blurt from his horn lets it be known that things are not going to stay safe for long. The Byrds anthem soon melds into late period Coltrane territory with Marcus’ horn stretching further and further out with each breath. The track turns into a tug of war between the rhythm section playing it straight and Marcus and Coryell stretching into outer realms of sound. Coryell plays guitar like a member of the Count Five, throwing all jazz rules out the window with ecstatic joy whilst thrashing about in utter abandon. Unfortunately, things fall back into normalcy once again until a slowly petered-out ending gives way to a typical rave-up ending.

Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow” begins as a note for note cover until Nock’s piano enters with the abandon of prime Cecil Taylor, while Coryell backs him with heaps of atonal note picking that would cause Derek Bailey to sweat. Marcus soon joins the foray by overdubbing a raucous horn part, supplementing the screech whilst the original straight cover plays ad nauseum. What ensues is akin to a surreal collaboration between a Hilton jazz lounge act and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble – truly breathtaking. Such a whirlwind of intensity is confusingly followed by a forgettable version of Herman’s Hermits “Listen People”, pure throwaway fluff, the kind of jazz you’d hear in romantic movies of the period and very out of place on the album.

The two Beatles tracks that make up the bulk of the album, “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” fail to work, as they never seem to exceed their bounds. Nock provides some vivid Tyner-like moments and Coryell’s proto-punk thrashing burns, but as an ensemble they stop short of taking the tunes to a higher plane of improvisational inventiveness, as they did remarkably well with the opening tracks. Then again, maybe too many bad instrumental Beatles elevator music moments have ruined it for me; I cannot help but feel that hearing these versions in 1967 would give them more merit.

The true revelation of Tomorrow lies in the early documentation of Coryell’s electric guitar work, never before or since has he sounded so intensely chaotic. Throughout the album Coryell refuses to use blues or jazz idioms, indeed the closest frame of reference would be Lou Reed’s playing on White Light/White Heat. Nock’s piano is also noteworthy as it provides so many of the album’s high points, the closer “Half A Heart” (the only original track penned by an uncredited Coryell) would fall apart without Nock’s unique electric keyboard touches.

Tomorrow Never Knows is a fine example of early fusion and the learning process it entailed. It is definitely a product of the ’60s, though its occasional moments of brilliance allow it to stand the test of time.

By Everett Jang Perdue

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