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  • Thom Holmes

The Polyphonic Synth Journey of Fusion Jazz

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

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


Fusion jazz of the 1970s and early 1980s was full of synthesizers. Early on, these were monophonic like the Minimoog and Arp Odyssey and fit well with the kind of soloing that musicians were accustomed to in jazz. As the decade progressed, and technology advanced, electronic instruments tcame into being that could play more than a single note at a time. Along with this increased polyphony came added control such as sequencers for storing patterns of notes or simple arpeggiators that any musician could call upon without complicated programming of the machine. With this, the synthesizer industry entered into a kind of arms race to see which company could produce a polyphonic keyboard that would have the most appeal to musicians.


While most of these new instruments landed first in the world of rock and roll, I’ve noticed that a lot of recordings in my archives feature fusion jazz that embraced the beginning of polyphonic synthesis and blended it into the jazz fusion style. This episode will feature of examples from this transitory period when monophonic synths were still being used but being supplanted by polyphonic models as the industry matured. The examples I’ll be playing hover around several specific makers of instruments, so perhaps I will take them in roughly chronological order to work through the tracks.


Know that all the details about each track and specific instrumentation are in the playlist below and on the podcast website.


  • 1975. The Polymoog was a polyphonic analog synthesizer that was manufactured by Moog Music from 1975 to 1980. The Polymoog sounds were preset and limited when compared to the programmable voices found the Prophet-5. Although the individual waveforms could not be manipulated or reprogrammed, the instrument included a variety of dynamic parameter features that could be applied to each preset sound, combining octaves, envelope attack, and LFO modulation depth and rate. It’s preset sounds were reminiscent of the presets on electronic organs and there were 14 of them, including "vox humana", "string 1", "string 2", "electric piano", "piano", "honky tonky", "clav", "harpsi", "brass", "chorus brass", "pipe organ", "rock organ", "vibes", and "funk". Interestingly, the American-made Polymoog had a loyal following with European musicians and jazz musicians. The Polymoog had sounds burned into circuit boards and could not create each voice from individual oscillators and filters, or store sounds programmed by the user. Which is the reason why it was not more popular.

  • In 1975 Oberheim introduced the Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM) to complement the DS-2 sequencer and enable a user to play one synthesizer while the DS-2 played a sequence on another. The audio filter of the Oberheim was done a little differently that Moog and ARP synthesizers, which gave the instrument a distinctively different sound. Oberheim successively introduced the 2-Voice, 4-Voice, and 8-Voice synthesizers by 1977. which combined a 4-Voice with an external module of four additional SEMs.

  • 1977. The Prophet-5 by Sequential was an analog synthesizer introduced in 1977. It was invented by Dave Smith and John Bowen and was the first polyphonic synthesizer to use microprocessors with programmable memory. So named because it had five voice polyphony - two oscillators per voice and a white noise generator, this instrument ws easy for a musician to understand and use and gained wide acceptance into the 1980s, essentially blowing away the competition. It soon became a workhorse for many musicians, outclassing the Polymoog with the ability to store and recall a broad palette of reliable sounds. It was a five-voice synthesizer.


The next two instruments have special personalities of their own. Although they weren’t in widespread use like the other mentioned here, I thought it would be fun to give a listen to some examples.

  • 1978. The Roland Jupiter 4 is heard on a track by Rolf Kuhn. It was introduced in 1978. It was a 4-voice synth and the individual voices could be synced together for one fat monophonic lead. It’s pitch wheel, in addition to change the frequency, could be assigned to the voltage-controlled filter, amplifier. It also had a spectacular arpeggiator. German musician Rolf Kuhn used the Roland Jupiter-4 for the track heard in the episode and it was the only synthesizer used in that session.

  • 1978 Farfisa Syntorchestra. From Italy, this rare keyboard emphasized string sounds. This was a popular string synth in Europe in the late 1970s. It was a hybrid poly synth and mono synth. The keyboard of the Syntorchestra was split into a polyphonic section for string sounds and a monophonic synthesizer section. It’s heard on the track by the Czech group Combo FH.


Episode 74

The Polyphonic Synth Journey of Fusion Jazz


Playlist

1. Jan Hammer, “Darkness / Earth In Search Of A Sun” from The First Seven Days (1975 Atlantic). I am including two versions of the same track from Jan Hammer, a master synthesist who moved from monophonic to polyphonic synths gradually, making the best used of the expressive qualities of each technologh. This track is from 1975 and uses Oberheim modules, probably the 2-voice or even 4-voice, but along with the Minimoog and what sounds like an uncredited Mellotron. Hammer was insistent in the notes for this solo album that none of the sounds were made with the guitar. This makes the contrast of this track with the next version performed live with Jeff Beck and even more interesting contrast. Producer, Engineer, Piano, Electric Piano, Moog and Oberheim synthesizers, Drums, Percussion, Composer, Jan Hammer. 4:30


2. Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group, “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun” from Live (1977 Atlantic). Here is the same tune written by Hammer for his solo album, now performed live with Jeff Beck. I think one can assume that all soloing in done on a Minimoog while all other synth sounds, including strings, are provided by the Oberheim modules and Freeman string synth. Bass, Fernando Saunders; Drums, Tony Smith; Guitar, Effects, Jeff Beck; Moog, Oberheim, and Freeman synthesizers, Electric Piano, Timbales, Jan Hammer; violin, string synthesizer, Steve Kindler. 7:55


3. Billy Cobham, “Leaward Winds” from Magic (1977 CBS). Early days of the Oberheim polyphonic, used again as background comping and fills to back-up the guitar and piano leads. Bass, Randy Jackson; Guitar, Peter Maunu; Piano, Oberheim Synthesizer, Mark Soskin; drums, producer, Billy Cobham. 3:38


4. Herbie Hancock, “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” from Man-Child (1975 Columbia). Along with Jan Hammer, Herbie Hancock was an early pioneer of using polyphonic synths in his ensemble. While I don’t hear the Oberheim module being played until about the 5:30 mark in this track, I wanted to include it because Hancock uses many synths at his disposal to achieve the overall sound. The next two tracks from the Eddie Henderson album Mahal used a similar but updated keyboard ensemble, including the Oberheim 8-voice polyphonic and Prophet 5 synths. Bass, Henry Davis, Louis Johnson, Paul Jackson; Drums, Harvey Mason, James Gadson, Mike Clark; Guitar, David T. Walker, Blackbird McKnight; Guitar, Synthesizer, Melvin "Wah Wah" Watson; Percussion, Bill Summers; Piano, Fender Rhodes, Arp Odyssey, Pro Soloist, 2600, String Ensemble, Oberheim Polyphonic Synthesizer, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Herbie Hancock; Saxophone, Flute, Ernie Watts, Jim Horn; Soprano Saxophone, Wayne Shorter; Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Saxello, Bass Clarinet, Bass Flute, Alto Flute, Bennie Maupin; Trombone, Garnett Brown; Trumpet, Bud Brisbois, Jay DaVersa; Tuba, Bass Trombone, Dick Hyde. 7:27


5. Eddie Henderson, “Cyclops” from Mahal (1978 Capitol). Bass, Paul Jackson (2); Congas, Percussion, Bill Summers; Drums, Howard King; Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, ARP 2600, Oberheim 8 Voice Polyphonic, Prophet-5, ARP Strings Ensemble, Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80 Polyphonic synthesizers, Herbie Hancock; Flute, Hubert Laws; Guitar, Ray Obiedo; Piano [Acoustic], Mtume; Prophet-5 Programming, John Bowen; Tenor Saxophone, Saxophone [Saxello], Bennie Maupin; Trombone, Julian Priester; Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Eddie Henderson. 5:19


6. Eddie Henderson, “Prance On” from Mahal (1978 Capitol). Bass, Paul Jackson (2); Congas, Percussion, Bill Summers; Drums, Howard King; Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, ARP 2600, Oberheim 8 Voice Polyphonic, Prophet-5, ARP Strings Ensemble, Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80 Polyphonic synthesizers, Herbie Hancock; Flute, Hubert Laws; Guitar, Ray Obiedo; Piano [Acoustic], Mtume; Prophet-5 Programming, John Bowen; Tenor Saxophone, Saxophone [Saxello], Bennie Maupin; Trombone, Julian Priester; Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Eddie Henderson. 5:17


7. Rolf Kühn. “Cucu Ear” from Cucu Ear (1980 MPS Records). This German disc features keyboardist Rolf Kühn and highlights the Roland Jupiter 4, a 4-voice polyphonic synth. Bass, N.-H. Ø Pedersen; Clarinet, Roland Sting Synthesizer, Roland Jupiter 4 Synthesizer, Roland Amps, Rolf Kühn; Drums, Alphonse Mouzon; Engineer, Walter Quintus; Guitar, Peter Weihe, Philip Catherine; Steinway Acoustic, Fender Rhodes pianos, Roland Amps and Echoes, Joachim Kühn; Reeds, Charlie Mariano, Herb Geller; Trombone, Egon Christmann, Wolfgang Ahlers; Trumpet, Klaus Blodau, Larry Elam, Mannie Moch, Paul Kubatsch. 5:05


8. Rolf Kühn. “Key-Alliance” from Cucu Ear (1980 MPS Records). On this track the Roland Jupiter 4 is played by Joachim Kühn, brother of Rolf. Bass, N.-H. Ø Pedersen; Clarinet, Roland Sting Synthesizer, Roland Amps, Rolf Kühn; Drums, Alphonse Mouzon; Engineer, Walter Quintus; Guitar, Peter Weihe, Philip Catherine; Steinway Acoustic, Roland Jupiter 4 Synthesizer, Fender Rhodes pianos, Roland Amps and Echoes, Joachim Kühn; Reeds, Charlie Mariano, Herb Geller; Trombone, Egon Christmann, Wolfgang Ahlers; Trumpet, Klaus Blodau, Larry Elam, Mannie Moch, Paul Kubatsch. 5:41


9. Didier Lockwood, “Ballade Des Fees (Quartet Without Drums)” from Live In Montreux (1980 Disques JMS). Look who’s featured on this album by French violinist Dider Lockwood—it’s Jan Hammer again. Only this time he’s using an unnamed “polyphonic synthesizer.” Your guess is as good as mine on this one, although he was using Oberheim and Yamaha CP70 keyboards around this same time. Bass, Bo Stief; Drums, Gerry Brown; Rhythm Guitar, Marc Perru; Polyphonic Synthesizer, Jan Hammer; Tenor Saxophone, Bob Malach; Violin, Didier Lockwood. 4:50


10.Didier Lockwood, “Fast Travel” from Live In Montreux (1980 Disques JMS). Another track with Jan Hammer using an unnamed polyphonic synth. There is a really smart Minimoog solo beginning as about 1:21, polyphonic fills are most apparent around beginning around 4:08. Bass, Bo Stief; Drums, Gerry Brown; Rhythm Guitar, Marc Perru; Polyphonic Synthesizer, Jan Hammer; Tenor Saxophone, Bob Malach; Violin, Didier Lockwood. 7:06


11.Georges Acogny, “Karimagie” from First Steps In (1981 String). This track uses a Polymoog effectively for some nice runs and comping, beginning around 3:40. I do not know what instrument was used to create the the white noise heard in the opening and throughout since I don’t believe you could do that with the Polymoog. Bass, Dominique Bertram; Composed By, Khalil Chahine; Drums, Paco Sery; Guitar, Georges Acogny, Kamil Rustam; Percussion, Sydney Thiam; Piano, Patrick Gauthier; Soloist [Acoustic Guitar], Larry Coryell; Soloist [Bass], Nicolas Fizman; Soloist [Electric Guitar], Kamil Rustam; Polymoog synthesizer, Rachid Bahri. 8:30


12.Georges Acogny, “1st La Rosée” from First Steps In (1981 String). Acogny is a guitar player so the polyphonic synth tends to play a supporting role to the string work on this track. In this case, the Prophet 5 is used, most notably at about 30 seconds into the track. Bass, Nicolas Fizman, Electric Piano [Fender Rhodes], Olivier Hutman, Guitar, Kamil Rustam, Guitar [Ovation], Georges Acogny, Piano, Jean-Pierre Fouquey, Soloist [Trombone], Hamid Belhocine, Prophet 5 Synthesizer, Didier Egea. 4:37


13.Combo FH, “Zelený Muž (Green Man)” from Věci (Things) (1981 Panton). Here is a short track that uses the Italian-made Farfisa Syntorchestra, a rare keyboard made in 1978 that had a split keyboard, part polyphonic string synthesizer and part monophone synth section. Mostly used on European tracks by German composers including Klaus Schulze, here is an unusual jazz fusion example from a group in the Czechoslovakia. This group was known for its unusual instrumentation, including lead bassoon heard on this track. Bass Guitar, Václav Pátek; Bassoon, Percussion, Milan Sládek; Percussion, Richard Mader; Organ, Farfisa Syntorchestra synthesizers, Percussion, Leader, Daniel Fikejz; Percussion, Bořivoj Suchý. 1:48


14.String Connection, “Quasi String Waltz” from Workoholic (1982 PolJazz). Recorded in Poland and distributed by the Polish Jazz Society. This album features some strings sounds played on the Polymoog, which was still being used for its unique sounds even by this late date, because the Polymoog had been retired by this time. Listen for fills and chords beginning around 1:08. Bass Guitar [Gitara Basowa], Krzysztof Ścierański; Drums [Perkusja], Zbigniew Lewandowski; Piano [Fortepian Akstyczny], Violin [Skrypce], Polymoog Synthesizer, Krzesimir Dębski; Piano, Hammond Organ , Polymoog Synthesizer, Trombone [Puzon], Janusz Skowron; Tenor Saxophone [Saxoton Tenorowy], Soprano Saxophone [Saxofon Sopranowy], Andrzej Olejniczak. 3:19


15.Mike Elliott, “For Janny” from Diffusion (1983 Celebration). Another interesting album of guitar-based fusion jazz with synthesizer touches. Seemingly self-produced in Minnesota. Although the Minimoog is also used on this recording, I selected a track that was primarily using the Polymoog, beginning around 50 seconds. Fender Bass, Rick Houle; Drums, Gordy Knudtson; Flugelhorn, Bobby Peterson; Gibson ES-347 guitar, Ryoji Matsuoka Flamenco guitars, solid body kalimba; Mike Elliott; grand piano, Polymoog and Mini-Moog synthesizers, Ricky Peterson; Producer, Mike Elliott. 4:42


16.Martin Kratochvíl & Jazz Q, “Trhanec (The Muffin)” from Hvězdoň Asteroid (1984 Supraphon). From Czechoslovakia, a brilliant ensemble of musicians led by keyboardst Martin Kratochvíl. Here is another mix of monophonic synths and the polyphonic Oberheim 4-voice, heard in the opening riff that’s repeated throughout. Bass Guitar, Přemysl Faukner; Drums [Bicí Nástroje], Pavol Kozma; Electric Guitar [El. Kytara], Twelve-String Guitar, Fender Rhodes, Minimoog, ARP Omni, Oberheim 4-Voice Polyphonic synthesizers, Leader [Vedoucí], Engineer [Recording], Recording Supervisor [Recording Director], Martin Kratochvíl. 4:34


Opening background music: Short piece by Thom Holmes using the Arturia Prophet 5 plug-in. Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz. Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.


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Electronic and Experimental Music

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