What a strange and curious album this is. The origin of Spaces can be traced back to when Larry Coryell saw John McLaughlin performing at Count Basie’s nightclub with the Tony Williams Lifetime ensemble. Apparently he was so impressed with what he heard, that he invited McLaughlin to join him in the studio and record what would turn out to be arguably one of the very first jazz-rock/jazz-fusion records made at that moment in time. Not that they would have known it. But as Bob Dylan sang, the times were indeed changing, and jazz-fusion, for better or worse (depending on one’s musical sensibilities at least), was beginning to emerge as a far more cerebral alternative to what were perceived as standard forms of music, i.e. rock and roll. At the centre of all this controversy was the chief minister of Jazz himself, Miles Davis, whose own increasingly cosmic explorations were beginning to have a profound impact on how people not only heard to music, but what they thought was even possible.
One thing’s for sure, jazz-fusion can make for a pretty intense listen to the uninitiated, especially when what you’re dealing with is a highly trained and disciplined bunch of brainy instrumentalists who love nothing better than to mess with your mind and overload it with lots of extraneous musical detail.
The album gets off to a terrific start with the title track, where Larry Coryell lays down some extremely jazzy, almost scientific guitar lines, while Miroslav Vitous pumps away busily on the bass. McLaughlin adds his own little bit of magic as well, to what is a supremely satisfying opener. “Rene’s Theme” is a Django Reinhart inspired number, and it’s a lot of fun hearing the two guitarists not only duel it out but enjoying themselves in the process. On “Gloria’s Step” the whole band are once again in analytical mode, exploring all sorts of tones and arty modulations. Mind you there’s probably not a lot going on here that wasn’t explored already by plenty of jazz musicians back in the 1950’s. The same goes with the Coryell penned “Wrong Is Right”, a song which could have quite easily appeared on any Charlie Mingus album, with one exception: As if Coryell was saying ‘I’m trying to expand your consciousness while explore your inner intestines with my guitar solo’.
Things become academic on “Chris”, written by Coryell’s wife as it happens, where Chick Corea bleeps and bloops on the electric keyboard in his own inimitable way, while Larry gives the guitar scales a fine workout. The final track “New Year’s Day In Los Angeles – 1968” lasts for only twenty seconds, and is a delightful way to bring the album to a close.
There can be no doubt that Spaces was a groundbreaking album in more ways than one. But by 1969/70 there was obviously something in the water. It was as if all the fundamental elements of the musical universe had come together to create ever more complex atoms and molecules, which is what Jazz Fusion was – a creation of new worlds whose possibilities were seemingly endless as they were intricate, even if they do pose a question mark over the listener’s head as to what it all means.