When Alan Douglas was asked by Warner Brothers in 1974 to oversee the musical legacy of Jimi Hendrix, I’m sure he must have had mixed feelings about the prospect of being expected to successfully market the music of an artist who was no longer living, and therefore hardly viable from a commercial perspective. But that is exactly what he did, and when he released Crash Landing in 1975, the album sold well enough to solidify his position as curator of the Hendrix tape library. However his following effort, the patchy and uneven Midnight Lightning failed to replicate the success of its predecessor, so Douglas had to go back to the drawing board. What he did next was perhaps what he should have done all along, that is release an LP which showcased Hendrix as the consummate instrumentalist that he was, a guitarist who was capable of coming up with more ideas in five minutes than most can produce over five hours. What the hell was happening inside the man’s head? I’m sure that’s something many a musician has asked himself. 1980’s Nine to the Universe was supposed to answer at least a few of those questions, and open a window into what was going on while the rest of the world was sleeping, and Jimi was jamming late into the night.
For a while Douglas had expressed his desire to release an LP which would reflect the more creative, and free-form style which Hendrix seemed to be headed toward. He even purported to have in his possession a recording of Jimi jamming with jazz-fusion pioneer John McLaughlin, declaring that this would be the centrepiece of his next project. But for whatever reason that fabled recording was abandoned in favour of other jams which are no less intriguing and experimental.
We get off to a pretty solid start with the title track, which is basically a heavily edited hybrid of “Earth Blues” and “Message to Love”. The original jam went for 19 minutes, however here it has been brought down to a more concise 12 minutes. Although it was recorded several months before The Band of Gypsys formed, what this track makes clear is the simpatico that Jimi, Buddy Miles, and Billy Cox had between each other. As yet it is to receive an official release by Experience Hendrix, and so is only available on the original LP.
Next is “Jimi/Jimmy Jam”, a free-form excursion between Hendrix and Jim McCarty of the Buddy Miles Express. The two are really pushing themselves on this one, and as rough and messy as it may sound, it’s not as bad as McCarty himself remembers. And if one wants to hear Jimi being challenged and having to extend himself a little, then this is the place.
On side two we have “Young/Hendrix”, and is about as close as the listener will ever get to Jimi playing in a jazz-fusion environment. Larry Young was himself an aspiring avant-garde organist, and therefore knew how to push the envelope, though not only is Hendrix keeping up, but breaking a few envelopes of his own. In fact, if Hendrix had of decided to release this he would have been way ahead of Miles Davis.
The gorgeous “Easy Blues” (recorded with the short-lived Gypsy Sun & Rainbows band follows, and is just that, a strikingly stunning example of Hendrix’s ability to fuse both blues and jazz into one complete whole. “Drone Blues” brings the album to a close, and is an apt title, I must say. When I first heard this many years ago I thought I was at a rave party (albeit in my own living room). In other words break out the Ecstasy and get down. The only dilemma was that this was recorded in 1969 and made by real musicians. Though I must say, it makes for some pretty intense listening. I’m sure if Miles Davis had of heard this while he was recording In a Silent Way, it would have surely blown his blown mind. Because I can tell you, what Hendrix was doing was far more radical and varied than what Miles was hoping to achieve at the time.
On Nine to the Universe Douglas had purportedly filled his promise to deliver an album which hoped to highlight Hendrix’s more creative, jazz-rock approach to guitar. Why it was never officially issued on CD, as the various other albums released by Douglas in the ‘70s is as perplexing as any short story by Conan Doyle. Although the good news is that the majority of this material has been re-released on various compilations in recent years, and in more complete form, offering the listener a far superior insight into what was really going on during those late hours. Obviously Hendrix wasn’t exactly idle as some people thought. And the fact that Douglas chose to release an LP of misshapen jams, especially when people were far more interested in the new wave movement and other forms of pop/rock that young individuals were inventing, really did fly in the face of popular culture. Therefore it’s little wonder that Universe slid under the radar, beholden by a few believers before fading away into obscurity.