• Thom Holmes

Electronic Jazz Part 2: Gadgets and Modifiers

Electrifying the jazz instrument

Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music

In part 1 of this series we listened to examples of jazz musicians who introduced electronic music through the use of the tape recorder. Although this method incorporated some of the abstract sounds found in electronic music, it was no means produced spontaneously in a way that jazz musicians are accustomed to performing. In part 2 of this mini-series of my podcast. we’ll listen to musicians who added electronic sounds live while performing with their electrified instruments.

In the late sixties, rock and roll was beginning to dominate the market just as jazz had once done. Album-oriented rock and FM radio appealed to young music consumers who once spent their dollars on jazz albums.

What was a jazz player to do? On one hand, booking agents with foresight began to book mainstream jazz artists in rock and roll venues, when Sun Ra was booked as opening act to Ten Years After, the Miles Davis Quintet shared a bill with the Grateful Dead, and Don Ellis and his jazz Orchestra opened for Quicksilver Messenger Service.

This atmosphere also resulted in some attempts to modernize the jazz player’s equipment, which is where this episode of electronic jazz comes in.

We’re going to explore add-ons that a jazz player could use to amplify and change the sound of their instruments. The most prevalent of these was the Selmer Varitone, but other devices, related first to the guitar and then adapted to woodwinds and wind instruments included the Hammond Condor, the Conn Multivider and the Maestro series of analogue effects boxes including the echoplex and ring-modulation units. To adapt these for use in jazz, a pickup was mounted on the horn or neck of the instrument to convert the vibrations of the instrument into an electrical signal that could processed.

This phase of electronic jazz was short-lived, maybe ten years tops. It was quickly eclipsed by the synthesizer which soon became a necessity for any fusion band and the future of electronic jazz. But the experimentation with sound gained from this phase of electronic jazz has lasting effects on the conception of jazz going forward.

Let’s begin with brass and woodwind maker Selmer and the Varitone. In the case of Selmer, the pickup was welded in place and the instruments became part of a new Varitone product line. From the pickup the signal was fed to a guitar amplifier with a variety of effects, all controlled by a small switch-box mounted on the horn or worn around the neck of the musician. This was all hard-wired stuff. The basic effect was to produce simultaneous sub-octaves and amplify these sidebands. It could also add tremolo (an undulating shift in the loudness of a note) and echo, which in this case was actually reverb because it did not repeat the original signal.

The effect was loud and often noisy. The gentle, blown sound of the instrument became a flat, gritty tone with barely a hint of breath. It wasn’t so much an expressive sound, but it produced a satisfying change of pace for veteran jazz players who were able to master the amplification and effects.

Albums featuring the Varitone often had a picture of the amplifier and effects box on the album cover along with the musician. The relationship between Selmer and the record companies must have been close because each of these examples goes to great lengths to mention the Varitone and includes testimonials from the musicians in the liner notes. “Man, I’ve got to get me one of these,” is reportedly how Sonny Stitt responded to what was called the “revolutionary new sound” of the Varitone. The appeal to youth culture was obvious I have scores of these records with photos of Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, and Melvin Jackson all pictured with these devices. Yet, the Varitone, as we will hear, was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to electronic jazz. The sound altering capabilities of the Varitone paled in comparison to some of the examples we will hear using other, competing devices from Maestro, Conn, and even Hammond.

What did the Varitone sound like? Here are some snippets [see podcast] of what was typical when the Varitone was plugged in. In most of these clips, the player is making use of the suboctave setting, creating a harmonizing tone below the melody. It’s subtle but the sound of the horn is also flat and electric. Sonny Stitt was an early adapter. He used it to color his sound like this on the track What’s New.

Buddy Terry also used the Alto Sax Varitone to get this sound on the track “Electric Soul.”

The trumpeter Clark Terry also used the Varitone to give his trumpet a different sound, like this dialog with his horn in the track Electric Mumbles.

And the great Cannonball Adderly used the Alto saxophone Varitone for the track Gumba Gumba from the album Accent on Africa.

So, those are some typical Varitone sounds used on a variety of instrument. Now we’ll listen to some other devices that really pushed the sound of jazz into the electronic age.

Maestro company sold an amp with special effects filters and also the Echoplex, a tape style echo device with variable repeat adjustments. These were much used in rock music, but several jazz players also picked-up on it. Let’s listen to a pretty unusual example of these devices being used with an upright string bass on the album Funky Skull by Melvin Jackson in 1969. It will be followed by one of the all-time innovators in electronic jazz, Eddie Harris. We’ll hear the track Electric Ballad from the album Blowin’ Gold, also from 1969. After that we’ll hear tracks by tenor sax player John Klemmer called Excursion #2 than then a short clip from his version of Hey Jude, both featuring what he called “electronic horn effects” using the Conn Multivider. This is also from 1969. The Conn Multi-vider was able to add one, two, or three octaves plus some tone control to the sound.

Now to listen to the extremes of the Echoplex in a jazz context from 1970 and 1971. Guitarist John McLaughlin used to Echoplex for the album Devotion. The first time I heard this I thought it was kind of gimmicky, you know, too much Echoplex. But today it makes more sense to me to have every player working with the rhythms created by an extended session of echo. It is actually quite brilliant in its total embrace of the Echoplex rhythms. Following that is perhaps the most famous passage in modern jazz using the Echoplex: Miles Davis and the opening to the track Bitches Brew. The trumpet echoes over a sparse landscape of other instruments. Davis also used the Maestro ring modulator on this track. After Bitches Brew, we’ll hear a quieter track from the Davis album Live-Evil in 1971. It is called Nem Um Talvez and shows great restraint in the use of echo with the percussion sounds.

In the next set we’ll depart from the standard off the shelf effects devices to listen to a rare example of handmade electronic instruments used by jazz musicians. Gil Melle (Gil MIL-ay) led a jazz sextet and equipped the various players with devices he had constructed himself. The string bass player has an envelope generator, the piano player has a melodic device called an Electar, and Melle himself used a purpose-built effects generator for his sax playing. These instruments were one of a kind and were played along with the musician’s other instruments. We’ll hear the Electar in a track called “The Love Song” from a scarce album called Waterbirds released in 1970.

For the track after that, recorded live in France in 1970, the group The Fourth Way uses an Oberheim ring modulator to modify the sound of the then-new Fender Rhodes electric piano. The keyboardist in this little heard track is Mick Nock.

The two final tracks really show the extremes that could be achieved by electronic jazz with electrified instruments.

The first track puts a lot of these devices together for a live performance by the Don Ellis Orchestra recorded in 1970. Ellis played his Hendrix-styled rendition of Hey Jude using his 4-valve, quarter tone electric trumpet, Echoplex, Conn-Multivider, an Oberheim ring modulator, plus a wah wah pedal and fuzz tone.

The final track is from Eddie Harris using the Hammond Innovex Condor SSM guitar synthesizer. The Innovex Condor was a guitar synthesizer that could also be adapted to work with a horn or woodwind. I think that Hendrix used one. A kind of all-in-one effects unit, it included Vibrato, Tremolo, Echo, “Room Rocker”, Phaser, and Spring Reverb. There were three models of this, two for guitarists and one for reed players. Harris used the one for guitarist with his tenor saxophone.

Let’s listen to the great Eddie Harris, using the Hammond Innovex Condor SSM guitar synthesizer with his tenor saxophone, for the track “Why Don’t You Quit” from 1970.

In the next part of this series, we hear how early electronic jazz embraced the synthesizer.

For the Archive Mix here are two additional tracks of electronic jazz and amplified instruments played at the same time:

1. Moe Koffman, “Funky Monkey” from the album Turned On. Varitone flute and Varitone dual alto saxophones. 1968

2. Miles Davis, “Stuff” (excerpt) from Miles in the Sky, 1968.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.


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