Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Divine Wind: The Best Rock and Jazz Flute Pieces Ever

Flute 1996
Mad Dog tries to impress gullible bystanders with his overblowing technique, London, c1996.
For more years than I care to remember I've owned a flute with the idea that one day I'll be a jazz musician. Currently it's rusting away in my study and the way things are going I probably won't get time to reintroduce myself to it until retirement. Anyway I've always loved this instrument so when Josephine in Brussels enquired if I knew any examples of the flute being used in rock music I thought this would make a great topic for a post. Specifically she asked: "...I'm looking for pop and rock where the flute gets nice solos as a part of the whole piece next to vocals and guitars etc...."

Well Josephine, your question is excellent and I don't know if have the answer. In the 70's there was quite a bit of progessive rock and jazz fusion music that featured the flute. In the 60's there was some great jazz. Jethro Tull (we're not worthy) is just about the only band to have featured the flute consistently as a lead instrument in a large portfolio of eclectic music for the past 40 years. So from the top of my head, here are ten artists that might meet your criteria (note that the flute part does not appear until quite far into these pieces -be patient).

Soft Machine: Facelift
This clip is Part II of this piece. It's circa 1970. You might want to find Part I also (there's no flute but it's great) -I always thought this band was very underrated.

John Coltrane: My Favourite Things
Fan-bloody-tastic 1961 classic by the tenor sax master. The most excellent Eric Dolphy takes the flute solo.

Barbara Thompson: The Adventures of Water
At Ronnie Scotts club in the mid-80's. Possibly not the most exciting song in BT's repertoire but her only performance on YouTube featuring her playing the flute.

Quintessence: Giants
Ah, Quintessence. Possibly the British equivalent of the Grateful Dead but with loads more talent and much more exciting (I've seen both bands live). Filmed at the second Glastonbury Festival, 1971, and a lot more interesting to watch than the wretched Amy Winehouse punching a fan (I wonder if she'll be Dame Amy in 40 years' time?).

John Mayall: Dream with Me
Offering from the bluesmeister from 1970. The brilliant Johnny Almond is on flute.

King Crimson: Court of the Crimson King
Super lead vocals and guitar by the peerless Greg Lake, c1969. Flute by Ian McDonald (I think).

Yusef Lateef : Love theme from The Robe
Perhaps my favourite jazz flute piece ever. Elegant simplicity.

Rahassan Roland Kirk: Serenade to a Cuckoo
All time classic from amazing multi-instrumentalist, the late RRK.

Jethro Tull: Bouree
I couldn't write a piece on the flute without mentioning Ian Anderson et al. The above solo is from a performance in 1976 but this one is contemporary.

Bullitt: Soundtrack
The flute pyrotechnics in this piece impressed me as much as Steve McQueen's driving when I first saw this movie (was it really 40 years ago?). In more recent years I've been told that the composer-jazz musician, Lalo Schifrin, actually played the flute part and that the female hottie in the scene was just "acting" (this story may be apocryphal as I'm not aware that Mr Schifrin is a flautist). I think the bass player is Charlie Mingus doing a cameo -can anybody confirm this?

Josephine, I hope that one or more of these pieces may fit your bill. As you mentioned the lyrical Moody Blues and the attacking Focus I haven't cited them again here. Besides I think I've written about them in other posts. Other bands featuring the flute you might explore include the eccentric Stackridge (now reformed), Audience, Blodwyn Pig, If and Ginger Baker's Airforce. And Herbie Mann should be in there too. All offerings from the 1960's and 70's I'm afraid but I'm not aware of any modern bands playing this instrument.

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