In the first half of the 1970s jazz fusion became a hot commodity, with musicians who previously enjoyed modest success suddenly becoming concert draws and selling records in far greater numbers than they did previously. Pivotal building blocks included two Miles Davis albums, In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970); afterwards, sidemen from those projects, including Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and John McLaughlin became some of the top names associated with fusion. McLaughlin wasn’t the only jazz-rock guitarist to enjoy commercial success, as Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, and Steve Khan also achieved prominence. And let’s not ignore the contributions that Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck—two musicians who wandered over from the rock world—made to jazz fusion.
That part of musical history has been well documented, but another trend has largely gone ignored. For all the talk about jazz-rock, the 70s was also an amazing decade when it came to acoustic jazz guitar—in fact, I’m not sure that another decade topped it. Here some of the credit goes to musicians whose focus was always acoustic. As a member of Oregon and as a solo artist, six- and twelve-string acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner came into his own during the 70s. Upon its release in 1977, Egberto Gismonti’s Danca das Cabeças announced in no uncertain terms that a major talent had arrived. Towner and Gismonti both recorded for ECM, a label that would remain friendly to acoustic guitarists.
Also, during that decade some electric guitarists decided to turn the volume way down and pull out their acoustics. Three jazz fusion artists—John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Steve Khan—recorded scaled-down all-acoustic projects that became career highlights for all three musicians. These albums warrant a fresh listen—and cry out for high-quality vinyl reissues.
Exhibit A was recorded and released before fusion became all the rage. John McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond (1971) appeared a few months prior to the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album, but while The Inner Mounting Flame can singe your hair, you could listen to My Goal’s Beyond while sitting lotus style and meditating. On the first half of the album, McLaughlin leads an octet through performances of original compositions evoking both John Coltrane and music from India. On the flip side, where McLaughlin is the sole musician and overdubs some guitar parts, he reaffirms his jazz roots. An inspired performance of a Charles Mingus composition, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” opens the album on a high note. On the Kind of Blue ballad “Blue and in Green” and Chick Corea’s “Waltz for Bill Evans,” McLaughlin plays with startling sensitivity. McLaughlin’s most ecstatic performance occurs on his original composition “Follow Your Heart,” where you can imagine him coming up off his chair as he launches into his solo. “Volume does not equal intensity,” McLaughlin stated after forming the all-acoustic Shakti in the late 70s, and he’d already proven that with My Goal’s Beyond.
As a solo artist and as the leader of the Eleventh House, Larry Coryell was one of the first names associated with the fusion movement. During the height of jazz-rock’s popularity, however, he switched gears. Acoustic projects included duets with Phillip Catherine and Steve Khan, and Coryell was the original member of the all-acoustic trio that went on to record the highly successful Friday Night in San Francisco. In 1978 Coryell released European Impressions, a half-live/half studio LP of solo acoustic performances. A brilliant Horace Silver medley reaffirmed Coryell’s jazz roots. His talent for arranging also surfaces on “Rodrigo Reflections,” where, after riffing on some themes from Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” he throws in some quotes from “Dueling Banjos.” Coryell toured extensively as a solo artist during the late 70s, and European Impressions gives us a taste of what those performances were like, including the open-ended improvisation that developed as the song continued.
Steve Khan’s Evidence (1980) is devoted to interpretations of jazz compositions on acoustic guitar. The ballad-oriented first side includes gorgeous interpretations of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way,” and Horace Silver’s “Peace,” and throughout the side Khan sustains a warm, intimate vibe while paying tribute to jazz masters. The flip side is devoted to compositions by Thelonious Monk, and the performances are alternately playful (“Think of One,” especially) and just plain pretty. An overlooked gem, Evidence is recommended to anyone who loves ballads or has a soft spot for acoustic guitar.
Although none of these artists are obscure, the albums discussed here are either out of print or are hard to find. All of the records are well-recorded, capturing the warm sound of an acoustic guitar with clarity and a strong sense of intimacy. They all deserve the high-quality vinyl reissue treatment. If anyone’s interested, I’ll be happy to write the liner notes.