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story.lead_photo.caption This Aug. 21, 1967 file photo shows bass guitarist Noel Redding (from left), guitarist Jimi Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, at Heathrow airport in London. (AP)

You will know the dominant 7#9 chord -- say it "dominant seven sharp ninth chord" -- when you hear it.

It's the huge dissonant chord you hear in "Purple Haze." Actually, that's an E7#9 that Jimi Hendrix plays in the song, a voicing he used so often that it's widely known as the "Hendrix chord."

The 7#9 is a movable chord, which means you can slide it up and down the neck while holding your fingers in the same position. Go up to frets and it sounds as a D7#9, which you might recognize from the Beatles' "Taxman."

Maybe Hendrix liked to use the chord because it has a kind of ambivalence to it; neither major nor minor, not quite blues, not quite jazz. Depending on the context, it can sound dirty or mean or shiveringly tender. It's a yearning chord; it wants to resolve to the tonic, which is another way of saying it wants to go home. It hangs there vibrating, a little lost thing, before the tsunamic crash of the verse.

Hendrix gave you that. It was one of the things he did in his brief career; the one that's not over yet. Last week a new Hendrix album was released.

Hendrix has been dead for 49 years. He was alive for 27. He played guitar for 12 of those years; and his professional career didn't begin until 1962, after he got out of the Army and secured a place with the Isley Brothers' backing band before moving on to Little Richard's touring band, the Upsetters, with whom he remained until July 1965 when he was fired, in part because his onstage antics upstaged the star.


After that, he moved to New York's Greenwich Village, where he formed a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which included a 15-year-old second guitarist named Randy Wolfe, who Hendrix took to calling "Randy California" to distinguish him from bassist Randy Palmer, who Hendrix called "Randy Texas."

California later went on to co-found the band Spirit ("I Got a Line on You") and only found out that Jimi's last name was Hendrix and not James when Dr. Demento showed him the cover of Are You Experienced?

But while Jimmy James and the Blue Flames -- there's some question as to whether this particular band name was used more than once or twice, the group was also billed as the Rain Flowers and the Blue Flame -- caused a small sensation and drew members of rock glitterati including Graham Nash, Robbie Robertson, John Sebastian, Mike Bloomfield, Mickey Dolenz and Bill Wyman to see them in clubs like the Cafe Wha?, they were primarily a cover band. They typically opened with the The Troggs' "Wild Thing," and played a version of "Hey, Joe" that was more based on the folk version by Tim Rose than the faster-paced hit by the Leaves.

Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was in their repertoire. They played hits like "Hang On, Sloopy."

But the material, the melodies and lyrics, weren't what drew people. It was the way Hendrix pushed around air.

Bloomfield was playing guitar with Paul Butterfield when he saw Hendrix for the first time.

"I was the hot-shot guitarist on the block; ­I thought I was it," he told Guitar Player magazine in 1975. "I'd never heard of Hendrix ... I went across the street and saw him. Hendrix knew who I was, and that day, in front of my eyes, he burned me to death.

"H-bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying. I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument. He was getting every sound I was ever to hear him get, right there in that room with a Stratocaster, a [Fender] Twin [amplifier], a Maestro fuzz [box], and that was all. ­He was doing it mainly through extreme volume. How he did this, I wish I understood. He just got right up in my face with that axe, and I didn't even want to pick up a guitar for the next year.

"I was awed. I'd never heard anything like it. I didn't even know where he was coming from musically because he wasn't playing any of his own tunes ... He wasn't a singer, he wasn't even particularly a player. That day, Hendrix was laying things on me that were more sounds than licks. But I found, after hearing him two or three more times, that he was into pure melodic playing and lyricism as much as he was into sounds. In fact, he had melded them into a perfect blend."

Hendrix was working with volume, distortion and feedback in a controlled intentional way that was far beyond what guitarists like the Kinks' Dave Davies and The Who's Pete Townshend had previously used. Hendrix established the vocabulary of the electric guitar as a rock 'n' roll instrument by expanding not only the technical boundaries (electricity was not only a means of amplification but a new way of shaping sound) but the way music was "experienced."

He didn't invent the electric guitar, nor was he the first to recognize the instrument's special properties. But when, in the summer of 1967, Hendrix arrived with the now-familiar throbbing rhythm of "Purple Haze" (from his incandescent debut), suddenly there was a new kind of music. His songs were inseparable from their sound, and their sound was inseparable from his Stratocaster.

Hendrix was both excessive and precise -- he didn't merely call forth sonic thunder and lightning from his instrument, he commanded it. He mastered the squeal and sustain, using it in an emotive context. In New York in 1966, he met the devil at the crossroads and bargained for four years of glory.

But he had to go to England.

Jimi Hendrix, circa 1970 (AP)
Jimi Hendrix, circa 1970 (AP)

Keith Richards' girlfriend saw him and recommended him to Chas Chandler, the Animals' former manager who was on the prowl for new talent. He offered to take Hendrix and California to London, but Randy's parents wouldn't allow their minor son to travel. Hendrix felt bad about leaving his band. But he flew to England in late September 1966, and a week later he was jamming with Eric Clapton and Cream on Howlin' Wolf's "Killin' Floor."

"And my life was never the same again," Clapton told a documentary crew in 1989.

Within months, Hendrix had three UK Top 10 hits with the Jimi Hendrix Experience: "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze" and "The Wind Cries Mary." He set his guitar on fire after his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and his third and final studio album Electric Ladyland reached No. 1 in the U.S. in 1968. By the time he played his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock in 1969, he was the world's highest-paid performer.

He played the Isle of Wight. Then, on Sept. 18, 1970, six days short of the fourth anniversary of his arrival in London, he died from barbiturate-related asphyxia. He was 27 years old.

He had released three studio albums and the live set Band of Gypsies. There were a couple of dozen other tracks where he'd worked as a sideman on other people's records -- he'd played bass on a 1970 album of LSD evangelist Timothy Leary's raps, a record intended to raise money for Leary's run for governor of California. (Jimmy James and the Blue Flames apparently never recorded, though sometimes work Hendrix did with Curtis Knight or in other groups is misattributed to the band.)

Yet the years since his death have seen the release of (not counting bootlegs) 13 studio albums and 28 live albums. He also left behind boxes and boxes of sketchy tape, filled with noodling and embryonic ideas.

Some of these recordings are controversial, such as the 1975 albums Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning, completed by producer Alan Douglas who replaced the original drum and bass tracks and added guitar overdubs newly recorded by session musicians.

Two decades later, on the compilation album Voodoo Soup, Douglas erased the original drum tracks on two songs and replaced them with tracks by Bruce Gary, best known as the drummer for The Knack.

But as vilified as Douglas' efforts were, the albums were still identifiably and essentially Hendrix, though certainly not essential or particularly enlightening.


Since 1995, when the Hendrix family regained control of Jimi's music and artistic legacy, there has been a steady stream of high-quality recordings released. Whether a particular consumer finds a particular product worthwhile or not likely depends on just how far down the Hendrix rabbit hole one is willing to dive. For some of us, even genius becomes tedious after repeated listening; others could watch The Godfather on a loop.

The news hook to Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts, the five-CD set ($59.98), released by Experience Hendrix L.L.C. and Legacy Recordings on Nov. 22, is that it includes "two dozen tracks that have either never before been released commercially or have been newly pressed and newly remixed."

Which means that while you might have heard them before, you've never heard them sound quite this good. (By my count, only six of the tracks are genuinely being released for the first time here. A $119.98 vinyl version, consisting of 8 LPs, is scheduled to be released Dec. 13.)

On the other hand, if you're reviewing the music in a vacuum, it's a spectacular set. This is Hendrix, his old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass, and Buddy Miles of Electric Flag (and later the California Raisins) on drums and occasional lead vocals. It documents a series of four concerts at the Fillmore East in Manhattan, two on New Year's Eve 1969 and two on New Year's Day 1970.

Hendrix had the concerts professionally recorded because, in order to extricate himself from what he considered a bad contract, he owed Capitol Records an album. He meant to fulfill it with a live record, and the Band of Gypsies live album was made up of material from the two New Years Day Concerts.

Over the years most of the other material has shown up on various recordings such as Band of Gypsys 2 (1986), Live at the Fillmore East (1999), and West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (2010). In 2016, the first New Year's Eve Concert was released as Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show.

There's the obligatory booklet with photos and notably some thoughts by Cox and an essay by Nelson George. It's a nice package and you won't feel ripped off -- unless you realize you already have most of the tracks lying around on a hard drive.

I haven't ripped Songs For Groovy Children to this hard drive yet. It says I already have 23 Jimi Hendrix albums, 267 tracks, more than 24 hours of music. A few thousand iterations of the E7#9.


Style on 12/01/2019

Print Headline: Jimi Hendrix: A perfect blend of melded sounds


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