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Jazz’s evolution over the decades has begat a series of subgenres: be-bop, post-bop, free-jazz, spiritual jazz and fusion, to name a few. But by the end of the 1970s, after fusion players mixed funk, jazz and ridiculous chops to create tightly wound sounds, the notion of genre in jazz seemed to dissipate.
Is there a name for jazz in the 1980s? Do we need one?
Below, five unsung jazz records from the 1980s (okay, one is actually from the early 1990s).
Bengt Berger – Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM)
Swedish percussionist and composer Bengt Berger released a string of rhythmic albums across the 1980s, and each is its own world. A virtually unknown entity in the U.S., his stuff is informed by rhythms he’s absorbed across decades of travel. The mesmerizing 1980 album with Don Cherry, Bitter Funeral Beer, is a sublime first-glimpse into his work. Praise Drumming, from 1987, is equally awesome.
World Saxophone Quartet – Revue (Black Saint)
Four free-jazz saxophonists who played together in various incarnations across the decades, Hamiet Bluiett (baritone), Oliver Lake (alto), Julius Hemphill (alto) and David Murray (tenor) joined forces starting in 1979 for a run of stunning records. Like string quartets but with brass, the works can be challenging listens at first – it’s a lot of skronk – but once your ears adjust, the sensation of four experts playing off one another is a glory to behold.
Herbie Hancock – Perfect Machine (Columbia)
No one tapped the power of first-generation rap and synth-rock with as much confident curiosity as Herbie Hancock. Yes, we all know “Rockit,” his revolutionary dancefloor smash that exploded the possibilities of the music. That track, along with the rest of his 1983 album Future Shock, is an essential addition to any collection. Perfect Machine is even weirder. In addition to synth beats, Hancock explores sample culture, synthetic pop and post-disco funk.
Derek Bailey and Cyro Baptista – CYRO (Honest John’s)
The great British experimental guitarist Derek Bailey found his audience in the 1980s after years of underground appreciation. A visionary who worked in free jazz, dance music and drum ‘n bass, his 1988 album with Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista finds him tapping his immediately identifiable style – punctuated bursts of guitar notes that stab, jerk and mumble – through Baptista’s fascinating mess of rhythmic energy.
Henry Threadgill and Very Very Circus – Carry the Day (Columbia)
This one’s from 1994 and therefore most easily found on compact disc (at dirt cheap prices). Henry Threadgill was one of the great composer-saxophonists of the 1980s and ‘90s, and this record, produced by Bill Laswell, reveals why. The second collaboration between Laswell and Threadgill (after Too Much Sugar for a Dime a year earlier), Carry the Day draws on New Orleans brass, West African funk, and a ton of Brazilian percussion, and the result is an absolutely exuberant ride.