Psych Jazz 1969

I was poking around in the tattered Real Book I got from my first guitar teacher and happened to notice an oddly trivial snippet just below a classic Coltrane tune.

“Memphis Underground”? Wha? So I pulled it up in Spotify. And my mind exploded. I had stumbled across a peculiar and wonderous artifact from the peak (or depths, depending on how you feel) of the psychedelic era: Herbie Mann’s 1969 “Memphis Underground” album.

It’s jazz, in a sense:

  1. Instrumental
  2. Long vibraphone and flute solos
  3. The flute is funky

But then again, it’s chamber jazz noodling packed into the psychedelic rock framework, or vice versa, like a two-person horse costume where the front and back legs are different heights.

The jams are one chord, mainly, which gives them a primal urgency, and the harmonies are designed to accommodate the five-note scale every rock guitarist learns first.

That scale is critical for enabling electric rock guitar. It’s that fuzztone blues rock you’d ordinarily find in garage punk freakouts like Os Mutantes or Psychotic Reaction. In places, it’s out-there noise worthy of Confusion is Sex or White Light/White Heat.

This was 18 months or so *before* Bitches Brew. And regardless of the date, BB was upmarket compared to Herbie Mann. Miles is subtle. He can’t help being high art. He used rock but he was bigger than it.

Memphis Underground had a hint of outsider art. It was raw, awkward and unforgivable. It was not the better album, but it was more punk.

So what the hell was it doing in The Real Book, nominally on par with a John Coltrane piece? The JC thing is unusually short for him, just 12 lightly filled bars. Even so, the Herbie Mann tune – which has a one-bar bass line, a four-bar melody, and one unchanging chord – makes Coltrane’s look baroque.

I think the Herbie Mann thing just happened to fit the page. And maybe also it was a little tiny bit genius.


P.S I couldn’t not add this tune to my Shot and a Beer 1971 playlist in Spotify, which is about butt jazz, not head jazz.