May 1977: The Year of the Ear
On May 19-20, Baird Hersey and his little big band, The Year of the Ear, recorded tracks that would be released on the 1978 LP, Lookin’ for That Groove (Arista Novus AN 3004). It was the group’s second recording, and first on a major label.
Apart from being called “eclectic,” Year of the Ear defied categorization, and the descriptions of it were fanciful. The Real Paper published my favorite, in 1976, when Mike Baron called Hersey’s “radically different” band “an avant-garde space funk jazz group” that could “hit more strange and wonderful sounds in one tune than most bands hit in a year.”
Guitarist and composer Baird Hersey arrived in Boston in 1974 with a broad range of musical interests and influences, a grab-bag that included Bill Dixon, Duke Ellington, György Ligeti, Carl Ruggles, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown. He studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University and composition at Bennington College, and led a rock band called Swamp Gas in the early 1970s. He formed The Year of the Ear in 1975.
Lookin’ for That Groove weaves in bits of all Hersey’s influences. The ballad “It’s Been a Long Time” sets a mood reminiscent of Weather Report, while “Greedy” has the dance floor feel of the Average White Band, and “Miles Behind” takes its inspiration from the electric Miles. But the distinctive arrangements are all Hersey’s, what he himself called “a blend of hard-driving grooves and avant-garde horn arrangements.”
The 1977-78 edition of Year of the Ear included two musicians still active on the Boston scene, saxophonist Stan Strickland and trumpeter/bandleader Mark Harvey, whose Aardvark Jazz Orchestra sometimes recalls the earlier band. Saxophonists John Hagen and Len Detlor became integral members of the downtown scene in New York (Hagen was an early member of the Microscopic Septet), while the appropriately named trombonist, Tim Sessions, became a first-call New York studio musician. Percussionist David Moss, a longtime Hersey collaborator, subsequently won numerous accolades as a singer and performance artist. Bassist Ernie Provencher moved to Honolulu. Tommy Campbell became a drummer of the first rank, as did his replacement, Doane Perry. Although Arnie Clapman still plays congas, his life’s work has been primarily in the graphic arts. I could find no current information on this unit’s remaining member, trumpeter Kenny Mason.
Four musicians were added on some of the Lookin’ for That Groove recording sessions: saxophonist George Garzone, trumpeters Danny Mott and Tiger Okoshi, and trombonist Ray Anderson.
Hersey moved the band to New York in 1979, where it made its third and final recording. They played at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1980 (much of the performance is on YouTube), and sometime after that, Hersey broke up the band. By 1981 he was on to his next project, the trio FX. His emphasis today is on voice, through vocal harmonics and his vocal ensemble, Prana. That group is also well represented on YouTube.
Baird Hersey and the adventurous The Year of the Ear made a memorable contribution to the mid-1970s Boston scene. Here is the title track from Lookin’ for That Groove.