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Metal Jazz

Fast, difficult, improvised. At the outer limits, there's actually a common thread.

July 29, 2007|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

THE most famous riff in rock is the 3 1/2 -chord skull buster that stalks Deep Purple's 1972 "Smoke on the Water" -- a branding moment in the infancy of heavy metal. And as Deep Purple's set at last year's Montreux Jazz Festival (recently documented on DVD) climbed to its climax, the customers stood waiting for that coup de grace.

Then it came. Sort of. Goateed Don Airey tinkled a sprightly mutation of the "Smoke" melody on piano. Slouching barfly Ian Paice swung his drumsticks into an up-tempo shuffle. Hot-cha, y'all! Fire in the sky!

The band jammed for more than two minutes, but there were no cheers of recognition and delight; the crowd was clearly stunned. So when Steve Morse truncated a blues guitar solo and smashed into the classic dut-dut-dahhh, the thunderous relief that burst from thousands of throats came off like a Pentecostal affirmation. But Deep Purple's little gag shouldn't have been such a shock; heavy metal and jazz have been sipping quite a bit of lemonade on the veranda together lately. Bopsters used to disdain metal as kid stuff; metal dudes thought jazz was for geeks. But both forms -- and forms ain't as pure as they used to be -- tend to make huge technical demands, challenging the outer limits of fingers and mind.

And musicians love a challenge, whether it's traversing the migraine mutations of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," cracking the next level of the Quake video game or sniffing out a new audience by combining styles.

In 2005, Judith Owen, a leading light of eclectic modern balladry, essayed her own Scotch-scented lounge version of "Smoke on the Water." The previous year saw the new-generation Midwestern jazz trio the Bad Plus expanding on Black Sabbath's 1970 metal girder "Iron Man." Dave Lombardo, drummer for thrash-metal progenitors Slayer, has made records with DJ Spooky on the New York avant-jazz scene.

One night in Los Angeles, Jeff Kollman sweats out rampaging, riff-heavy improvisational guitar at Studio City's longtime fusion hangout the Baked Potato; another night he's smelting funk-metal at the Whisky with former Deep Purple bassist-singer Glenn Hughes. Chris Poland spent a good hunk of the '80s (and more recently) ripping guitar alongside Dave Mustaine in the melodic thrash-metal outfit Megadeth; he can also be found at the Baked Potato fronting his space-fusion trio, Ohm.

Above the Roxy at On the Rox in April, you could've caught Brian Haas of the youth-friendly Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey in an ad hoc jam band with Zac Baird, the touring keyboardist for the nu-metal group Korn. And Saturday at East Hollywood's Steve Allen Theater, the Sound series was scheduled to host "Noisy Night": a crew of local electronic improvisers spontaneously meshing gears with members of Southern California metalers Cattle Decapitation, the Locust and the Melvins.

In our current Age of the Extreme -- extreme sports, torture movies, even unsoft soft drinks -- crazy technique and over-the-top solos are turning heads again. And extreme jazz, heavy metal and metal fusion all attract the same kinds of musicians, a breed that's no longer quite so scarce thanks to video games and rapid-cut film editing: people who like things fast and get a charge from personal mastery.

The roots of fusion

THE hookup has been a long time coming.

"I thought Eddie Van Halen was cooler than Lee Ritenour," says keyboardist Derek Sherinian, who plies the instrumental galaxies of what he calls "metal fusion" with the band Planet X and his own solo music; he's also cranked straight metal with Dream Theater and the Swedish metal-classical guitar marvel Yngwie Malmsteen.

"Some jazz players think that by putting a distortion box on their tone, all of a sudden it's rock," says Sherinian, lounging in his Valley home/studio. "But unless you grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, and you have that music in your heart, it's not gonna rock. Jeff Beck was the model for me, because he was a rock player who crossed over to the jazz side."

In the '70s though, it was mainly African American jazz players who were crossing over to rock -- selling out, many observers whined. But when Miles Davis heard Jimi Hendrix detonating sound bombs in the late '60s, he knew jazz needed to twist the volume knob. And electrified Miles begat a generation of fusioneers that included Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and Williams begat the nonpareil six-string speedster Allan Holdsworth.

Similarly, in L.A., Frank Zappa, who'd always tapped jazz sources and musicians, waxed louder and heavier. And Zappa begat the genre-defying guitar monsters Steve Vai and Mike Keneally. (For an in-depth seminar on the practice of modern fusion, check Keneally's recent CD/DVD reissues.)

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