Monday, March 2, 2009

Swingin' With the Best of 'Em: Led Zeppelin and Eclecticism, Part 1 - Jazz

From day one Led Zeppelin is a band determined to be musically eclectic. In the early 70's, when asked which bands/artists he fancies, Jimmy Page reply's "[P]eople...fusing styles of all kinds of music," citing Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra as particularly apt examples. Zeppelin's love affair with the Blues and Folk is well known and well documented. But what of traditional Jazz? A relationship between Led Zeppelin and Jazz may seem a stretch, but is it?

In their young and most impressionable years both members of Zeppelin's highly formidable rhythm section are exposed to, and intimately influenced by, traditional Jazz masters. For John Paul Jones, such luminaries as Scott La Faro, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Charlie Mingus spark his bass aspirations. (Source: Guitar Player Magazine interview, July, 1977.) As for John Bonham, the two fathers of jazz drumming, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, play indispensable roles in his earliest drum explorations. But how does this jazz influence find manifestation in the confines of Zeppelin's rock base?

The use of swing rhythms is one way in which this jazz leaning finds voice. Used sparingly but consistently throughout Zeppelin's eight official studio releases, swing brings a welcome element of rhythmic sophistication to the bands already broad approach. In Jones' own showcase piece, "No Quarter", he, Bonham and Page (with Jones on piano) engage in some jazzy interplay during the extended instrumental solo section for 1975 live versions. A particularly playful version of the acoustic gem "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" from LZ III, as performed during the acoustic set in Seattle, WA, 1977, develops into an impromptu jazz excursion with Jones on amplified stand-up acoustic bass and Bonham in full Krupa/Rich mode. But perhaps the shining example is the opening section of LZ I closer "How Many More Times" in which Bonham and Jones swing like mad as they establish a groove over which Page and Plant unleash their blues explorations.

Jazz may be an occasional diversion for Zeppelin, but what an enjoyable diversion it is. And Zeppelin's eclecticism, as evidenced by their jazz inclinations, seems to know no bounds.

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