When Jamming Is More Than Jamming

The vanishing art of exploring in the studio.....

Still processing the “Session Outtakes and Jams” disc from the 50th anniversary set celebrating George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

Most of the tracks are song extrapolations, tied to some sort of form; there’s not much open-ended jamming. But as they evolve, these pieces share key traits with the less-structured explorations that were happening across the music world at the time: The musicians are listening in a kind of pins-and-needles hyperalert way. They’re attentive to sudden shifts in the studio weather, and as they look out for the next coalescing idea, they draw on instinct and sharp reflexes (and musicianship!) to respond in a way that is apt. And sometimes galvanic.

This quality of awareness is something we should hang onto. Because not everyone is born with the musical instincts necessary to nurture and develop ideas over extended duration – it’s a skillset and a mindset, requiring chops and the sensitivity to know when not to use them. You have to do it a lot to build confidence.

Examples of this keep popping up. The proliferation of improvisation-based bonus tracks can make it seem that virtually all of the bands and artists participating in rock during the heyday of freeform FM radio were versed in the push-pull art of the jam. They knew how to talk with each other inside the music. They knew when to listen.

More significantly, it appears that many musicians of the era saw these unscripted conversations as a key part of record-making: Maybe they’d get a song out of one, maybe not. But through the process of looking, they would further evolve the communication between the players, grow a set of collective reflexes. If the Deluxe Editions movement has done nothing else, it has pulled back the curtain on a bit of the processes these artists used to create.

Hearing these long-locked-away bits makes you wonder: When it comes time for the complete session reels of the second Greta Van Fleet record (to take one random example among many) to surface for an anniversary edition, will it contain anything like this?

That’s the truth-in-titling piece “Very Long & Good Jam,” one of the outtakes from the 1969 sessions by the “supergroup” called Blind Faith, which featured Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech. The songs on the well-known record are plenty expansive, with some thrilling solo passages. This excursion shows these four going further, building on Baker’s propulsive triple-meter rhythm with soloistic flights and sparring crosstalk. It’s a jam, sure, but it shows a collective desire for musical development; there are peaks and valleys and surprises along the way.

In late July, to mark the birthday of late keyboardist Richard Wright, Pink Floyd world HQ dropped an interesting audio outtake from The Division Bell sessions: A languid 8-minute excursion (working title: “Cosmic 13”) that provided the basis for “Marooned,” a beloved track from the 1994 album. According to the note, this took place on the first day of rehearsals, the very beginning of a new album journey. There’s a weightless feeling to it at the start, and by the time the drums enter a few minutes later, guitarist David Gilmour is already bringing the drama, creating gorgeous sustained sonorities and riveting octave leaps. “This is how “Marooned” was born,” Gilmour recalled in a statement. “For me it was a magical moment.” I’d argue this version has more magic in it than the familiar one.

There are countless more recent examples of in-studio freestyle journeying; someday we’ll put together an exhausive playlist. Until then, one of the more astonishing ones I came across is this short blast from former Megadeth members Chris Poland (guitar), James LoMenzo (bass) and the late Nick Menza (drums) recorded in 2014. Check the whiplash groove changes – they’re bringing an old Megadeth song from 1986 to life with an  agitated and inventive approach that has as much prog-rock in it as metal.

Then there’s the Norwegian band Black Moon Circle, which has earned a following for delicately contoured, vaguely psychedelic space jams. Earlier this year the band issued a vinyl set containing three albums of studio explorations made between 2015-2017. The limited run sold out immediately but some of the music has been posted to YouTube for promotion.

This track, “Sea of Vapors,” lasts more than 13 minutes and has flashes of Blind Faith-style interplay. For me, its very existence offers hope that the deference and sensitivity that animates so many of these older explorations has not vanished entirely from the earth.

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