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Time to revisit Blood, Sweat & Tears' jazz rock landmark

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Jazz and rock had been eyeing each other – rather apprehensively – ever since the latter’s emergence in the mid-1950s. By the late ‘60s, rock was the music of choice for almost everyone under 30, although that’s not to suggest the two genres’ practitioners and audiences were mutually exclusive.
This was the era, after all, that launched fusion, with Miles Davis most notably embracing rock’s adventurousness and aesthetics to bring new forms to jazz. Those years also established jazz rock as a genre as bands with horns found inventive ways to blend sounds and sensibilities, as AllMusic.com notes.

Jazz-rock may refer to the loudest, wildest, most electrified fusion bands from the jazz camp, but most often it describes performers coming from the rock side of the equation. Jazz-rock first emerged during the late '60s as an attempt to fuse the visceral power of rock with the musical complexity and improvisational fireworks of jazz. Since rock often emphasized directness and simplicity over virtuosity, jazz-rock generally grew out of the most artistically ambitious rock subgenres of the late '60s and early '70s: psychedelia, progressive rock, and the singer-songwriter movement. Most jazz-rock was played by higher-energy rock ensembles. Some of them were more jam-oriented, borrowing jazz harmonies and instruments for their extended, rock-flavored improvisations. Others recorded jazz-flavored R&B or pop songs that used the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities of jazz, but weren't as interested in improvisation or instrumental virtuosity.

This month marks the 45th anniversary of a seminal jazz rock release, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album. Combining quasi-big band horn arrangements with a driving rock beat and the distinctive vocals of David Clayton-Thomas, the disc spin off top 5 singles in “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “And When I Die” and “Spinning Wheel” and made BS&T for a time the most popular band in the country. (The group was among Woodstock’s headliners.) The opening track is adapted from Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies,” while “Blues: Part II” incorporates elements of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” There’s even a take on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”
The sheer brawn in Clayton-Thomas’ voice was the unifying factor. He stayed with the band through its heyday before departing in ’72 and returning a decade or so later to front a reconstituted version. In an interview with me a few years back, the vocalist made it clear that BS&T continues to attract musicians as passionate about jazz rock as he is.
"In a big band like ours, we're going to gain or lose a member ever year or so," Clayton-Thomas said, adding that the important thing is to “keep the musical standards improving at all times.”
You can catch the current Blood, Sweat & Tears led by Bo Bice on February 9 in Jackson.
It's not surprising that Blood, Sweat &Tears can attract top players. Keyboard player-producer Al Kooper envisioned as much when he formed the band in 1967. He created a hybrid – a rock band with horns and plenty of soul, welcoming to both jazz musicians and their classical counterparts.
Clayton-Thomas was born David Thomsett in Surrey, England. His family relocated to Canada when he was 5. By his teens, Clayton-Thomas was splitting his time between the nightclubs of Toronto's Yonge Street and stints in a nearby reform school.
Clayton-Thomas was in and out a few times for "being homeless, being a street kid, petty theft. Just generally being a 15-year-old pain in the ass. It's a syndrome you get caught up in and I was 19 or 20 before I broke the syndrome. I broke it with music."
Clayton-Thomas' mother had been the main source of music in the home, singing as she did her housework and playing piano. Her son followed her example, singing along to the pop songs of the day and Elvis Presley's hits. Still among our time’s most distinctive voices, Clayton-Thomas was doing time when he decided to make a living singing.
"There's a story that I tell in (my) biography of sitting in a solitary confinement cell ... singing 'St. James Infirmary Blues' at the top of my lungs," he said. "Outside in the yards, there were 1,500 guys, and everything stopped.
"I heard one guy say, 'Who's that in the hole?' Another guy said, 'I don't know, but he sure can sing.' That's never left me.
“I was always wanting to be a singer, but that was kind of an affirmation. So I started putting together a little band in the joint. We played Easter concerts, stuff like that."
Once out for good, Clayton-Thomas would go down to Yonge Street to see Arkansas-born rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. Sometimes, he'd sing blues with two members of Hawkins' group, future Band greats Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm.
Clayton-Thomas formed his own groups, the Shays and then the Bossmen. He scored hits in Canada with "Walk That Walk" and "Brainwashed," but his ambitions soon carried him to New York.
That's where Clayton-Thomas was – playing for pizza money in Greenwich Village clubs – when Kooper approached him about joining Blood, Sweat & Tears.
The group already had recorded its debut album, the critically acclaimed "Child Is Father to the Man" (1968). That lineup was disintegrating, however, with even Kooper departing to take a staff position at Columbia Records.
While in keeping with Kooper's original vision, the new Blood, Sweat & Tears wasn't nearly as pioneering as its predecessor. That was reflected in the success of the group's second album.
"In six weeks, we had the No. 1 record in the world," Clayton-Thomas said. "We didn't even have the personnel solidified."
Blood, Sweat & Tears became with its jazz rock sound became the pop sensation of 1969. The album sold millions copies and won a Grammy.
Fame, however, proved difficult to handle. There were internal struggles over the band's musical direction, too many drugs and too much alcohol.
"We didn't handle fame, it handled us," Clayton-Thomas said. "Twenty or 30 million dollars was rolling in faster than you could hire people to count it. You're on the road, expected to perform 300 concerts a year. It just turns into a big money machine.
"(Musicians) are just big egotists who want to go out there and be loved. Most of the guys would do it for nothing, and the business types know it."
James William Guerico had produced "Blood, Sweat& Tears," but the band took charge of its 1970 follow-up. Where the former had been created in a virtually pressure-free environment, the latter was recorded with an eye toward maintaining the group's massive success.
In that sense, "3" failed, despite containing the single "Hi-De-Ho." Instead, the band-with-horns sensation of 1970 was the Guerico-produced Chicago.
Blood, Sweat & Tears already was winding down. Persistent personnel changes dogged the group as it recorded the "Owl and the Pussycat" soundtrack (1970) and "4" (1971). Clayton-Thomas went on to a solo career that included "Tequila Sunrise" (1973), "Harmony Junction" (1974 and "Clayton" (1977). By the end of the '70s, Blood, Sweat & Tears were a spent force commercially but would forever be associated with the rise of jazz rock.
"I've had a pretty tumultuous life and when you open up to these people in a biography, you can't tell them to pretty it up,” Clayton-Thomas said. “ It all leads to where you are now and you've got to accept the bumps and bruises."

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