The Moog Minimoog just turned 44 years old, having been introduced to the world on August 20, 1970. For that occasion it was demonstrated by none other than Dick Hyman, at a Jazz in the Garden performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
A press release from MoMA at the time stated that “Dick Hyman and the improvisational jazz group The Children of All Ages will introduce a specially designed mini-Moog in their concert entitled A Different Moog … His performance at the Museum will mark the public debut of the mini-Moog, a portable synthesizer that can play melody and chords together for a live performance, especially designed by Robert Moog. Walter Sear will engineer the performance.”
Well, they almost got that correct. The Minimoog was monophonic just like its older brother, the Moog Modular, so playing chords was not something it could do. But the Minimoog immediately found its niche as a solo instrument for live performance. This month, I want to highlight several outstanding benchmarks in recorded Minimoog performances, some well-known and others largely overlooked in the annals of popular music history.
Several of the recordings highlighted in this blog represent jazz fusion outings. The Minimoog was immediately embraced by the jazz community. This was because the instrument was suited to live performance, solos, and didn’t really require a lot of setup, eliminating the complicated programming associated with earlier modular synthesizers.
The Minimoog was also the first synthesizer to allow a keyboard artist to trade riffs and compete effectively with the solo guitarist, demonstrated early on by progressive rock icons Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman.
“Ayo” from Manhattan Wildlife Refuge (Columbia KC 33090). Bill Watrous, Minimoog solo by Dick Hyman. Beginning at about 5:05 in this track. 1974.
Fittingly, the first solo featured here belongs to Dick Hyman himself. Hyman, of course, was an early master of the Moog Modular (see my blog from April 2014), so it was entirely fitting that he would team up with Bob Moog and Walter Sear to debut the Minimoog.
This example also shows how well the sound textures of the Minimoog worked with a full complement of horns and saxes, especially Danny Stiles on trumpet and Watrous on trombone. Hyman pulls out all the stops, deftly throwing in an entire repertoire of Minimoog sounds, microtones, slides, and using the pitch bend and modulation wheels to great effect.
“Waka/Jawaka” from Waka/Jawaka (Bizarre Records MS 2094). Frank Zappa, Minimoog solo by Don Preston. Beginning at about 1:40 in this track. Lasting more than 3 minutes. 1972.
Don Preston was a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and performed with the group until 1974. He is a versatile jazz-influenced keyboard player and had already been experimenting with his own homemade synthesizer before acquiring a Minimoog.
“Waka/Jawaka” was one of his early Minimoog recordings with Zappa. Like Hyman, Preston knew how to make the Minimoog wail and because he was working with Zappa, was given the opportunity to do extended jamming and soloing. “Waka/Jawaka” was a studio recording, composed and conducted by Zappa. Preston has said that this is his favorite recorded solo because it is so well-executed. He improvised 100% of this to the basic chord pattern laid down by Zappa.
“Blow Your Head” from Damn Right I Am Somebody (People Records PE 6602). Fred Wesley and the JBs, Minimoog solo by James Brown. Opening of song and throughout. 1974.
If you were wondering what James Brown’s first hands-on experience with a synthesizer was like, here it is. Brown’s amazing Minimoog playing appears on this 1974 track by his band Fred Wesley and the JBs.
Wesley tells a story that he and the band had already laid down the instrumental tracks for this song when Mr. Brown arrived, presumably to offer a vocal. Brown saw the Minimoog, which the band was thinking of using somewhere on the album, and his curiosity was piqued. “What’s that?” asked Brown. “How’s it sound?”
Brown jumped in and recorded the wild and funky solo that opens the song and continues throughout the track.[i] Stylistically, this free and funky Minimoog playing is a cross between Sun Ra’s interstellar playing and James Brown’s funky best. Wesley recently retold this story at Moog Workshop (see below).
(Wesley at Moog Workshop.)
“White Rock” from White Rock (A&M Records AMLH 64614). Rick Wakeman, Minimoog. Minimoog throughout but an extended jam beginning at about 0:57 in this track.
Rick Wakeman is a legendary progressive rock keyboard player who first gained widespread attention as an early member of Yes in the early 1970s, then as a solo artist. Primarily a piano and Hammond organ player, he was also an early adopter of the Minimoog. His keyboard arsenal was so crowded, however, that it’s really difficult to find a track on which his Minimoog playing alone is showcased.
However, the title track for this obscure movie soundtrack features only Wakeman on Minimoog and a drummer. This is a multi-tracked tour de force that begins with a rapidfire melody line that is soon accompanied by at least two other Minimoog bed tracks and funky beats. Again, like other soloists, he makes great use of the innovative pitch bend and modulation wheels that were introduced with the Minimoog.
“One Word” from Birds of Fire (Columbia KC 31996). The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Minimoog solo by Jan Hammer during the sequence starting at about 4:10. 1973.
Although John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra made its debut as the grittiest, hardcore fusion rock group of the time in 1971 (Inner Mounting Flame), keyboardinst Jan Hammer didn’t break loose with the Minimoog until the second album, Birds of Fire. From the opening track, the Minimoog has a constant presence, interwoven with the acid guitar, squelchy electric violin of Jerry Harris, and Hammer’s other keyboards, Fender Rhodes, Hammond, and acoustic piano.
But when it came to some of the high-octane solo exchanges on the LP, Hammer unleashed the Minimoog. Most notably on the solo exchanges on “One Word,” beginning at about the 4:10 mark on the recorded track. You will hear a three-way exchange of solos led by McLaughlin on guitar, followed by Jerry Harris on electric violin and finally Hammer on Minimoog.
This exchange builds to a frenzy over the course of two minutes until all three soloists are playing at the same time. I’m also including a remarkable link to a live performance of this piece, with the solo exchanges beginning at around the 5:00 mark.
Live from 1972:
“Trilogy” from Trilogy (Island Records ILPS 9186). Emerson Lake and Palmer, Minimoog solo by Keith Emerson starting at about 3:15 and lasting until 5:00. 1972.
Finding a Minimoog solo by Keith Emerson that isn’t combined with other instruments is as difficult as doing so for Rick Wakeman. This track uses Emerson’s massive, custom-built Moog Modular for the basic bed sounds, over which he solos using the Minimoog (beginning at about 3:15).
This is a good example of how Emerson’s keyboard showmanship could outpace even the most flashy of electric guitarists. I’ve also included a link to a live performance of Bolero from 1973, featuring Emerson playing the Moog Modular (right hand) and Minimoog (left hand) simultaneously.
“Atma—Today/Tomorrow” from Atma (Columbia – KC 33184). The Michal Urbaniak’s Fusion, Minimoog solo by Wojciech Karolak starting at about 1:40. 1974. Or at about 5:00 in the track “Today/Tomorrow.”
Minimoogs and electric violinists seem to be made for each other. The fusion jazz violinist Michal Urbaniak was a leader of the Polish jazz movement in the early 1970s and often featured electronic modification of the violin plus synthesizer accompaniment. In this example, a Minimoog solo is provided by noted keyboardist Wojciech Karolak, a fixture for many years on the Polish jazz scene.
This album features several variations on this same song, each with another version of the Minimoog part. In this case, you can hear Karolak beginning at about 5:00, blending deftly at first with the sustained sounds of Urbaniak’s amplified violin. Now a U.S. citizen, Urbaniak is also known for playing his custom-made violin synthesizer.
“Up From the Skies” from The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays The Music Of Jimi Hendrix (RCA Victor CPL1-0667). The Gil Evans Orchestra , Minimoog accompaniment by Tom Malone or Peter Levin beginning at about 2:55 and also at about 6:20. 1974.
This suggestion gets my vote as one of the wackiest Minimoog LPs. The orchestrations are a muddled mess in many respects, but interesting for the seemingly random real-time experimentation with the Minimoog. The story goes that legendary jazz arranger Gil Evans was scheduled to make a record with Jimi Hendrix but the guitarist died before that could happen. Several years later, Evans put together a big band, two guitarists and two Minimoog players to record covers of Hendrix tunes.
Musicians Peter Levin and Tom Malone were credited with playing the synthesizer, although their individual contributions are not singled out. On this 9-minute version of “Up From the Skies,” the Minimoog wobbles in and out using a variety of effects and sounds, particularly at about 3:15 and 6:12, after which it can be heard throughout the rest of the track.
[i] Interview: Fred Wesley. http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazine/fred-wesley-interview
Thom Holmes is a music historian and composer specializing in the history of electronic music and recordings. He is the author of the textbook Electronic and Experimental Music (fourth edition, Routledge 2012) and writes the blog Noise and Notations.
For his ongoing project The Sound of Moog, he is archiving every known early recording of the Moog Modular Synthesizer.
blog: Noise and Notations
If you want to read more from Thom Holmes, please see his many fascinating historical blogs here: http://moogfoundation.