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Steven Wilson Goes Jazz

“I discovered this extraordinary period in music, particularly the first five years of the 1970s, and I think you can hear that in the record.”

Steven Wilson has given a very encouraging interview to promote his forthcoming solo album, Grace For Drowning, in which he talks up the influence of jazz on early progressive rock and how he has attempted to take this forward after a thirty year gap.

It may not be a particularly blinding insight that early prog albums were often made by musicians coming from a jazz background (Bill Bruford has claimed that he viewed Yes as “a jazz group with vocals”), but it is a point rarely recognised or articulated by latter day progressive musicians. In using jazz session musicians and co-opting the spirit of early 70s prog albums such as Lizard and Aqualung (both of which, not coincidentally, he has recently remastered for re-release projects), Wilson may still be drawing on the same secondary sources as any number of neo-prog dullards but he does so with an awareness of the underlying primary sources, thus gaining a deeper insight into the material.

It’s an oft-repeated truism that musical genres borne from cross-pollination (think Heavy Metal coming out of blues + rock) tend to stagnate as later exponents draw only on their immediate predecessors and thus lose the vitality of the original elements that were thrown into the melting pot (how many post-Seventies Metal bands could still convey an exposure to blues?). The playing of the bands who made those first prog rock albums was informed by a familiarity with, and often an ability to play, British jazz and blues from the Sixties of the style to be found each week at clubs such as Ronnie Scott’s and the Marquee. Moreover, the musicians were comfortable with incorporating an eclectic range of other genres into their playing, such as folk and country (as may be found in Steve Howe’s cosmopolitan approach to the guitar). A typical criticism of the music from this period is that it is “overplayed”, but this would seem a laughable epithet to the average jazzer; they’re just doing what they’re supposed to, which is actively participating.

Beyond that, prog of the golden ‘69-‘73 period still retains a certain - one hesitates to say amateurish, but perhaps naïve - charm. These people didn’t (yet) know entirely what they were doing, because they were young players striking out into uncharted territory, and sometimes mistakes would be made and sometimes their ideas didn’t quite work out. That these failed experiments still made it to disc is our gain; it adds an edge to proceedings, the vicarious thrill of realising that the music walks a tightrope, that if it doesn’t soar on wings of blessed synchronicity in the next instant then it may instead crash in a flaming heap. Which would you rather watch: Nick Mason accidentally dropping his sticks during an improvised drum solo, or the same guy professionally hitting every preprogrammed, telegraphed cue dead on the metronome beat?

By 1974, such explorations and flirtations with outside influences were effectively over as prog became consciously rock-oriented and the lead bands hunkered down to fill the arenas and stadiums that would occupy the remainder of their tour schedules. Works such as The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Tales From Topographic Oceans and even Red, whatever their undeniable merits and weaknesses, rely on heavier, less acoustic or naturalistic arrangements and are charged with more of the requisite adrenaline and testosterone. Second string acts such as National Health and Henry Cow would continue to question and innovate (at least until their inevitably accelerated demise), but the acclaim and profits now lay in an immense, stately and thoroughly professionalised genre of rock that would see its progenitors through the harder times of punk to eventual renewal in the 80s. By the time prog re-emerged as “neo-prog” in that decade, it had somehow been deracinated and shorn of any rough edges, as the new bands heard the original albums but were unable to comprehend the circumstances of their creation.

I’ve only heard two preview tracks from Wilson’s new album, both hugely impressive, but I am excited and hopeful that it will be a landmark piece amidst the current revival, because his recent undertakings and his comments above lead me to suspect that he gets it in a way that few other prog musos seem to. I’m not expecting or wanting a determinedly retro pastiche, but something informed by the same inquisitive vitality that gave us those early Crimson albums would be a great achievement.

In the meantime, my preparatory research will consist of filling in a few gaps in my collection of early 70s prog:

Islands, King Crimson
The end of Crimson stage one, but a strong one. (Not that I’ll be overlooking In The Wake Of Poseidon or Lizard either.) Without jazz, there’d be no revolutionary solo on Sailor’s Tale.
In The Land Of Grey And Pink, Caravan
Jazz, you say? It’s all over this appealingly pastoral set, culminating in Nine Feet Underground, one of the essential set of side-long classics from the period. As with the Crim releases, recently remastered by Wilson and now sounding better than ever before.
A Tab In The Ocean, Nektar
Roye Albrighton’s syncopated riffing is a delight on “Desolation Valley”.