Friday, July 16, 2010

Fusion Week: Can

This week JazzWrap will take a look at some of the important (sometimes forgotten) groups that have helped shape and expand jazz fusion, prog and jazz rock over the last 40 years.

Tago Mago (1971)
Holger Czukay: Bass, Engineer, Editing
Michael Karoli: Guitar, Violin
Jaki Liebezeit: Drums
Irmin Schmidt: Keyboards, Vocals,
Damo Suzuki: Vocals

The legendary German band Can isn’t often lumped in with jazz fusion groups, but the freewheeling, intensely experimental group did have a penchant for improvisational jamming, and it is best demonstrated on the third album Tago Mago (1971).

Tago Mago is the first of three+ Can albums to feature Japanese vocalist Damo Suzuki, who replaced American Malcolm Mooney. It’s a sprawling double album with seven tracks, two of which are sidelong cuts (the groove monster “Halleluhwah” and the trippy “Aumgn”).

The first two sides of the original LP contained the “conventional” rock material, including the hypnotic opener “Paperhouse”, the apocalyptic funk of “Mushroom”, the motoric space rocker “Oh Yeah” and the aforementioned breakbeat gem “Halleluhwah.”

As hallucinogenic as Tago Mago’s sides A and B are, things get really weird on sides C and D. “Aumgn” is a sprawling sonic nightmare that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Dali-esque dreamscape. There is no tune to speak of, just improvisational experimentation with a fair amount of electronic treatment and post-production assemblage. Amazingly, it works. The weirdness continues on the 11-minute “Peking O,” which benefits from a quick electronic pulse after a few minutes of aimless jamming and vocal gibberish, but never quite coalesces. The psychedelic closer, “Bring Me Coffee or Tea,” is a bit more melodic, albeit meandering and ultimately less memorable than the earlier tracks.

Interestingly, most music critics regularly rate Tago Mago as a five-star masterpiece, but I’m guessing that’s based on the strength of the first three sides, because the fourth side is – IMHO – three-star material. It’s still an essential album, just make sure you’re fully baked by the time the sixth and seventh tracks riddle your eardrums. ;-)

On Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, Can’s next two outings with Damo Suzuki on vocals, the band delivered more focused, shorter songs. The core members, Czukay, Schmidt, Karoli and Liebezeit, still demonstrated more experimental mojo than most bands, but they were clearly honing a more direct approach that became more pop-oriented on subsequent efforts, such as Soon Over Babaluma and Landed.

After flirting with reggae in the late ‘70s, Can split up until recording a modest reunion album with Malcolm Mooney in the late ‘80s. The band’s influence on electronica and indie rock warranted a massive reappraisal of their work during the ‘90s. There came a better-than-average collection of remixes (Sacrilege) and an invaluable box set (Can Box) that includes a thorough book, a double CD of previously unreleased concert recordings, and a VHS tape featuring a documentary and fascinating Damo-era concert performance (the VHS material was later reissued on DVD).

While dubbing Can a jazz fusion band is a stretch to say the least, the band (and many of its Krautrock contemporaries, such as Faust and Neu!) often employed improvisatory techniques that are closer in spirit to jazz than to rock. While the band eschewed blazing virtuoso solos typically associated with fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, an album like Tago Mago wouldn’t sound out of place played back to back with the funky fusion work of Miles Davis. Good company indeed.

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