Friday, December 11, 2009

Baird Hersey's Year of the Ear, Berlin, 1980

Throughout the latter half of the 1970's guitarist-jazz composer Baird Hersey led a big band known as Year of the Ear. It was a group with a sense of adventure and style. The players comprised some of the Boston area's finest and Baird's charts were original excursions into the land of fusion and the avant garde. His was probably the most distinctive big band of the era working within a fusion framework. There were three albums released, two on the Arista family of labels. The Ear played often in and around Boston and later, New York. Baird was a very talented jazz composer and a fusion avant garde guitarist of note and the records give a good cross-section of the range of his music. now has a page devoted to the band at You can get a fuller sense of the history of the band by checking that page. Most importantly though Baird has posted there a previously unreleased video of a one-hour set the band played at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1980. This was towards the end of the band's existence and it fills out the evolution of the group where the records leave off.

To get a fuller picture of the Ear's contribution to fusion and big band music one should also track down the records and give them a listen. There are several cuts posted on the My Space page and that should help. The video posting however provides a very solid slab of the band in action live, and it is highly recommended listening.

By then the personnel had gelled into a tight-knit music machine that functioned on all cylinders and negotiated the many twists and turns of Baird's charts with real style. The set includes a few numbers the band had previously recorded and some new pieces as well. Baird's long flowing, original line writing contrasts with a churning fusion-funk that owed something to Miles Davis and his electric bands. "The Prince," a kind of Miles tribute, shows this especially. There is also much else of interest on this video.

Check out the beautifully articulated horn parts and the complimentary space for free playing and intensely expressive soloists. The trumpet section is quite exciting, with Stanton Davis, Mark Harvey, and the late Danny Mott contrasting well. But trombonist Tim Sessions and saxmen Len Detlor, George Garzone and John Hagen also have shining moments in the course of the set. Then of course there's Baird's guitar, which really sounds out when the arrangement calls for it.

In the end it's Mr. Hersey's exceptional compositional and arranging touches that put this band beyond a mere fusion-free blow out. He learned well from his apprenticeship with Bill Dixon and reflected something of what George Russell's large group writing emphasized: multi-layered contrasts. But this music is all Baird. Listen/watch the video and you'll get the idea. Baird nowadays concentrates on his overtone vocalizations, something quite beautiful in another way, and leads the very interesting choral ensemble Prana (see my postings on that at

This was a band that deserved far more recognition than it received. The records simply must be reissued. It's a crime that they are not readily available. Baird tells me there are other recordings he has stashed away, unheard by the general public. I believe that as we now and in the future reassess the fusion of the '70s era Baird's work will emerge as some of the best and most creative. And no big band could touch the Year of the Ear on a number of levels.

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