The British jazz-fusion musician Brian Auger is 75 today (18 July 2014) and is still recording and performing. To mark the occasion of this significant anniversary, here is the interview he gave me 40 years ago, and which was first published in Melody Maker on July 27, 1974. It's a time-capsule now - a reminder of how things stood back then, at a moment of great mutual unease between rock and jazz and when a jazz person like Auger was recognising a break-out into pioneering complexity by the pop figureheads of Tamla-Motown:
BRIAN AUGER has been stomping round the commercial radio stations as part of his duty in promoting his latest album Straight Ahead by the Brian Auger Oblivion Express.
“We’ve spent the last three months on tour in America, covering just about everywhere. I have very few plans for working in England: two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s Club starting July 22 and that’s about it. But we are busy on another album.
“We cut a live album while we were in the States and at present we’re mixing that. That’ll take quite a while to sort out because there’s so much to listen to: three nights of it, done at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles.
“But I’m very pleased with it; hopefully we can make it a double, and make a presentation thing of it – and try to get it out for October.”
Did Auger find the contemporary music scene exciting, bearing in mind that he was one of those musicians who started out in jazz, not rock?
“Yes, in a way. I do see something new happening. You have to look at it in terms of various scenes. There’s an English rock scene, for example, which I don’t really think I fit into.
“All the people I feel a connection with – that I’ve listened to and been influenced by – have been out of black American music: from blues through to early jazz, Charlie Parker, hard-bop, Miles Davis, Coltrane, and then people like Herbie Hancock; Ray Charles even.
“And now what’s exciting is that there’s a whole stream got going in the States – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield: those guys have been in Tamla, or round about that sort of level of musicianship, and they’ve now sprung forward, using sort of jazz harmony.
“The whole thing has taken a turn into a new music, in fact. And that’s the kind of scene I’ve always felt for.”
Did Brian think this new black music has been influenced, en route, by any white American jazz-rock fusions? Had anyone like Frank Zappa contributed in any way?
“Well Zappa’s a strange example, because he’s really out there on his own. A brilliant musician, and he’s written some great things – he really knows his music. Up to a point he’s contributed. But people like Stevie Wonder, restricted for years, suddenly came out and did their own thing and knocked everyone out.
“There seemed to be a lull all of a sudden, for a year or so, when in Europe anyway we weren’t hearing those things; and then suddenly there’s a whole stream that’s there.
“The thing is, inevitably the mainstream of rock is feeding on information drawn from either the classical side or the jazz side or both. That’s what’s there: those are the two areas which contain the harmonic knowledge necessary for the rock scene to evolve.”
Brian went on to talk about what was happening when he first started playing music professionally.
“Oh, well, first it was the end of the Cyril Davies-Alexis Korner blues era; I was far more into playing jazz. I was playing jazz organ, and about six months after I started doing that I met Long John Baldry, who saw us in Manchester. Now his Hoochie Coochie Men thing had just ground to a halt and he was looking for someone to act as a sort of MD – someone to just take care of everything for him. So we were talking about putting something together; and he had another guy, name of Rod Stewart, who he said was pretty good – I think maybe we could have him in. And we had a young lady who was just answering Yardbirds fan mail in our office at the time, whose name was Julie Driscoll.
“I’d done a session with Julie on a first single, so I suggested she should come in too, and we’d do a whole package show, which would go right across the whole spectrum from sraight, pure blues – which Baldry did very well – to Tamla and Sam Cooke stuff, which Rod was very much into.
“And then Julie was into a funny mixture of things – some Tamla things, but also Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. And I was doing more jazz material. So, after a year and a half working with all that lot, I knew exactly what areas of rock really interested me. Having decided, I came out, and Julie and I formed the Trinity to do our thing.”
But way back before that, what had been the music that had had real impact on Auger? What had he listened to before he ever started playing at all?
“Oh, right back when I was ten or eleven? I used to listen to early Stan Kenton records, and Shorty Rodgers. West Coast jazz, mainly – they were the more easily available records to buy. Then I heard some of the Blue Note catalogue – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Miles: and that was it. Once I’d heard that, that was it. The guy who influenced me most was a guy called Horace Silver, a really funky bluesy hard-bop jazz player who had his own band (and still does). And then of course one always listens to guys like Charlie Parker: there’s so much information there.
“That’s how it all started off, from there; and because it was bluesy stuff, it wasn’t too hard for me, when I started playing organ, to align myself with the blues field.
“Another great influence I should mention is Eddie Harris – not someone who is too well-known. I’d been listening to Miles Davis – to ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ on the Miles Smiles album, and I’d assumed he’d written that number; and then when I looked I found it was by this guy Eddie Harris.
“I thought, you know, who the heck’s that – he sure writes good things. So I looked round and came up with an album by him on Atlantic, which I really liked. He’s very funky, very down-to-earth. So I listened to a lot, and in fact we recorded a couple of his things later.”
Auger had long been raving too about another jazz keyboards man, McCoy Tyner.
“McCoy Tyner was the late John Coltrane’s piano-player, and he’s my favourite keyboards player. He’s one of those guys who comes along and suddenly makes that strange harmonic turn, and just puts piano-playing from the earth to the moon, and you say ‘Wow! How the hell did we get from there to here?’ And then a lot of people start to work at it. I should imagine that a lot of people like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, all those modern keyboard-players, have all come out from this guy, although he’s relatively unheard of. An excellent, excellent musician – a fantastic player; deserves so much credit and gets so little. He’s definitely my man. Anyone who can continue Coltrane’s work, and has actually broken that harmonic barrier and let everyone else in – if one could ever achieve that in one’s lifetime, that would be enough.”
I picked Auger up on the mention of Herbie Hancock, whom he also admires.
“Yes, I’ve been into Herbie Hancock for a long long time, but more recently he’s been one of the people on which the rock scene has stamped itself – and in a very authoritative way. Some of the very best musicians now cannot avoid its influence. I was in Philadelphia a while back, and I went down to see Herbie Hancock, and I was expecting something very ethereal – horns and close-voicings, pretty and rather nebulous – because the last album of his that I’d got was like that; very difficult music. When I got there it was quite different. He had an unbelievable band. It was rock – or anyway a fusion of rock and jazz. Who knows what to call it?
“It’s just music now, good music, and that’s how it should be. And the fact that the Headhunter album by Herbie Hancock got to about No. 10 on the American charts, and took about six or seven months to do it, means that we’re really into one of those periods when it’s not not impossible to sell good music. I’d like that to be clear to all the record companies.”
I wondered whether Brian Auger looked back at the Trinity with fondness. Did he still regard that as good music, or did he, like many artists, find his old work a slight embarrassment?
“Well apart from one or two tracks, which have faded a bit, most of the stuff I’m happy to say stands up very well. I think it’s because the Trinity was put together for a particular function, and that was to make a bridge the rock scene as it was then – around 1965 – and the jazz scene.
“And those two scenes in England at the time were totally separate. At the time it wasn’t easy. We laboured on for about two years and the pop people said ‘What the hell are they playing?’, while the jazz guys said ‘Oh! God! I can’t listen to that: it’s commercial!’ So we were in a sort of limbo for a while.
“But as you see, it had to go in that direction – because to make the rock scene evolve itself it had to turn to jazz (or to classical music). There was going to have to be a fusion of one or other of those things with rock. And now of course it’s happened. I think the Trinity albums stand up quite well, mostly.”
We turned to the question of what Julie Driscoll is doing now:
“Well, as you may remember, the band came apart around 1969 or ’70 – we had a hell of a lot of management hang-ups and pressures which nearly drove us right round the bend; so what with trying to put up with that, and trying to put up with the pressures of being on the road almost full-time, the quality of our lives suffered so badly that it just wasn’t worth it. It got to a point where you could have offered us anything and we wouldn’t have done it.
“Plus we were let down very badly at the end, and were left with nothing – for four years’ work. So Julie took the attitude that if that’s what can happen in the business, I really don’t want to be associated with the people who can do that. I felt more or less the same way, but I went out and started a new band and set up as an independent, whereas Julie just stayed really in the background.
“She’s done a few gigs here and there, done a little bit of recording but that’s all. We’re still in touch, though – still great friends. She was in a bit of a car accident a while back – which was not only unfortunate for her personally, but also messed things up because at that time we were about to get together to record a new album, and that’s gone by the board now.
“Maybe we can do it later, in the States or something. I think a lot of people would be interested in that, and I’d like to do it anyway.”