5 artists who pioneered the electronic crossover of jazz music – Billboard
Francisco Mora-Catlett is a legend in the field where jazz intersects with electronic music, as it is the space in which he has lived for most of his professional life.
Son of Mexican painter Francisco Mora and African-American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, Mora-Catlett’s career began in Mexico City, where he worked as a session musician for Capitol Records in the late 1960s while making music. experimental with jazz icons (and his own heroes) like Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
At the prestigious Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mora-Catlett studied with Parisian electronic music pioneer Jean Nate Henry and learned reel production, before playing some of the first electronic instruments after joining the Sun Ra Arkestra in the ’70s, as the composer’s drummer and experimental jazz legend. Mora-Catlett went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the 1980s, liaising with pioneering jazz drummer Max Roach in the 1990s.
It was around this same time, when Mora-Catlett was a visiting professor at Michigan State University, that one of his five daughters informed him of the techno revolution unfolding in nearby Detroit, and ultimately introduced him to Detroit techno legend Carl Craig. Soon after, Mora-Catlett was performing with Craig as part of his 1996 jazz / electronic fusion project, Innerzone Orchestra. Becoming Craig’s mentor, Mora-Catlett told the producer that musicians of color pioneering electronic music were nothing new: it had been happening since the 1950s, when Sun Ra started using the first drum machine and Robert Moog’s electric pianos. This mentorship stimulated Craig’s interest in jazz, and Craig went on to release records of the genre on his longtime label, Planet E.
The circle was therefore complete when Mora-Catlett released his latest album, Electric worlds, via Planet E on November 19. Making this music at Berklee College of Music during the pandemic, the nine-track album intersects space jazz with elements of ambient, n’b and other sounds that are both futuristic and vintage. Using little used instruments, says Mora-Catlett Electric worlds seeks to answer a question that experimental musicians like him and the greats with whom he has worked have long been thinking through music: “Who am I, what am I and what is the universe?”
Here, in her own words, Mora-Catlett discusses five key artists who have bridged the divide between jazz and electronic music.
Sun Ra goes a long way. He started using an electric piano in 1952, around the time everyone told him he was crazy to use it in jazz. He was advanced, already using a Moog synthesizer in 1958 that Robert Moog had built for him. It was one of two prototypes – and I heard from Sun Ra that Robert Moog said he wanted it back, but Sun Ra didn’t give it to him.
When I was with Sun Ra in the 1970s, I remember him coming to the house where the orchestra lived in Germantown, Philadelphia, with an old, like a drum machine, like the ones you put on on a Hammond organ. The guy who, when you press it, and you hit the rumba, cha cha, or foxtrot, plays it the old fashioned way. He told me to get on the drums and play with it, and I told him it wasn’t real drums, it was a machine. He turns to me and says seriously, “You’re going to have to learn to play with one of them in your life, so get on the drums.”
He was a true visionary, later in the mid-90s when I was touring with Carl Craig’s InnerZone Orchestra, every time I took the stage I heard Sun Ra in my ear say, ” You are going to have to learn to play with one of them over the course of your life. He was absolutely right. His vision transcended what was happening at the time. I consider him to be the herald of the space age for planet Earth, you know? Because he was already talking about this “Space Is the Place” thing since the 1940s.
I saw Miles Davis in Boston when I went to Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s at the Jazz Workshop. The band started out playing so powerful, but got exhausted playing on their own. Miles heard it, and as soon as he got on stage he only played one note – and all the energy kicked in. Never seen or heard anything like it.
It was during the so-called first electric period from 1968 to 1975. I think his electric period continued until the time of his death, because when he came back after some sort of retirement he continued with it. an electric group, using synthesizers. People think his first experience with the electronic scene was for Miles in the sky, where he used Herbie Hancock on a Fender Rhodes. But when I saw him with the Live-Evil group, I couldn’t believe what was going on. He had also added a wah wah pedal to his trumpet, and the sensitivity was a bit like the way Jimi Hendrix played.
Mwandishi, Crossings, Sextant, Headhunters, Thrust – all these albums really marked Herbie Hancock’s experience with electronic music. I saw him play in the 1980s in Detroit. His equipment was amazing. All he had there, from synthesizers to the vocoder that he brought just to sing along, are major developments.
I think Herbie Hancock really loves tech, and he’s always been ahead, trying to do something new. One of my favorite albums is Thrust. This period for me is something that I have seen and experienced. The wonderful coloring of electronic music behind it, which he really loved. I really loved it, all of his experiments. He would bring an acoustic instrument, with multireedist Bennie Maupin, and Wah Wah Watson on electric guitar, and an electric bass player – it was really an electric band.
His fascination with electronic music equipment is fantastic. He had an R-2600, a Rhodes of course, an Oberheim, an ARP, a Prophet, a Korg, a Vocoder emulator – the list was endless. During his time with the Weather Report, he created an incredible atmosphere. We’re talking about jazz musicians who were actually exploring new avenues in sound and coming out with sound ideas that weren’t there. That brings us back to 58, when everyone said to Sun Ra, “You’re crazy. No one will use electronic instruments in jazz. It was a huge development and a change in this type of mentality.
It is a great contribution to the world of jazz and electronic music. Especially in the idea of combining funk-music, R&B, etc. His work with Frank Zappa, with the Mothers of Invention – he brought with him an incredible amount of synthesizers and electronic instruments. Also works with Jean-Luc Ponty, an avid user of five-string electric violins. And along with so many other artists and a producer, George Duke made a significant contribution to what are now common genres in electronic music.
You can’t get around Chick Corea. The Return to Forever set is the one that released Romantic warrior. I saw this band live, and I couldn’t believe the electronic vibe they created around it. It was unbelievable. Chick had this whole experience with Miles Davis, which they called fusion at the time. Their work was an extension of the larger direction in which the music was heading. It really turned me on, of course.
In the 70s I had the opportunity to work in a music store where I sold some of the first DJ decks available at the time. I presented some of the early synthesizers where I showed them for demonstration, how you interconnect them. I had Korgs and Crumars, Yamahas, that sort of thing. It was quite a stream of jazz musicians who got into working with electronics, and I’m sure people like Chick Corea pioneered what is now electronic music.