Honing In On Hendrix

If you had told me one year ago that I’d have not only one, but two opportunities to write feature-length pieces on Jimi Hendrix I would have been excited, inspired and intimidated. And not necessarily in that order.

In March I happily grappled with the newly remastered deluxe editions of the official Hendrix catalog here.

The long and short of my piece follows, directly below:

It is exceedingly refreshing to see that Sony’s Legacy Recordings is making the most of this opportunity and reissuing the official Hendrix catalog, with bonus (DVD) material at incredibly—bordering on unbelievably—reasonable price points. Ten bucks for remastered sound and a mini-documentary DVD? This is no brainer, redefined. Which brings us to the crucial question: what more can possibly be said, at this point, about Jimi Hendrix? Actually, it is entirely fair to propose that we have not yet said enough about him. As it has long since been established that he is the Alpha and the Omega of electric guitar, conversation tends to stop there: what more needs to be said, we say, when we don’t say anything more. As a result, the actual scope of his virtuosity tends to, however unintentionally, get reduced to stock phrases (see above) and the sorts of encomiums that preempt elaboration. So how do we explain the truly singular genius that is Jimi Hendrix? Aside from the innovation (he did it first), apart from the obvious (he did it best), what sets him apart?

When it comes to Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

In August I took the opportunity to take exception with Gibson’s list of all-time best guitar albums, with Hendrix at the top of my alternate  list. Here is the key takeaway from my assessment of Axis: Bold As Love:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

I’m currently devouring the latest release, and gift for Hendrix freaks, a four-disc, one DVD box set called West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology.

Interestingly, (at least to me) is that, while the first disc specifically looks into the oft-overlooked, or altogether forgotten/unknown work Jimi did as a sideman before the incendiary double-dose heard ’round the world in 1967, I am finding myself utterly agog (again!) at how perfect a drummer Mitch Mitchell was for Hendrix. I should not be surprised since, a little over two years ago, I wrote about Mitchell (a couple of days after his death, whereupon he became the last of the three original Jimi Hendrix Experience mates to depart our planet) in a piece entitled “The Perfect Engine“. Considering this is some of what I had to say, then, I can’t help but be amazed by how repeated listenings (when it comes to this material and my ears, we’re talking a more than a quarter-century of heavy rotation) only deepen and augment the impression of how perfect Mitchell was on every single song:

Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve–he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.

Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.

A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less. Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.

It is unadvisable (and impossible) to not pay attention to Hendrix on any song (his guitars, his voice) but if you focus as much as possible on the drumming you’ll get an ideal overview of Mitchell’s stunning acumen:

So this is what Hendrix does for me: truly the gift that keeps giving.

As I said, I was excited –and intimidated– enough earlier this year to wrestle with his recorded legacy. I was intimidated and possibly overwhelmed at the notion of doing critical battle with an entire box set, but for understandable reasons, it had to be done. And so as I wallow in all-things Hendrix, in addition to all the new and previously unreleased music (!!!) I’m absorbing, I’m also being driven, once again for the millionth time, to the versions many of us know and love so well.

It is an aesthetic vertigo that only music can so fully and consistently deliver, and obliges me to quote T.S. Eliot:

We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Here is how I concluded my feature in March, when I figured I had written the last word. I should have known better. There will always be more to say, especially if there is even more music in those vaults:

The magnitude of his loss remains unfathomable. There is no question, absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that he had years and years of untapped magic to explore and nourish. On the other hand, perhaps Hendrix did live and record for four decades; he just crammed it into four years. Hendrix and the gift of his music are subjects that can never be exhausted: the songs hold up, they should be studied and dissected, and above all they should be savored. They are, like the man who made them, incapable of ever being forgotten.

To be cont’d…

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