KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – DIXIE DREGS “FREE FALL”

Artist: DIXIE DREGS
Album: FREE FALL

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

I’ve mentioned numerous times how, during my high school & college years, I got heavily into fusion, the jazz/rock hybrid spearheaded in the early ‘70s by Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Weather Report, The Tony Williams Lifetime and…for a brief time…Jeff Beck. The combination of instrumental virtuosity, complex arrangements and rock ‘n’ roll energy was too much for me, my fellow music geeks & musician friends to resist. By the time we discovered this music, however, the majority of these groups had disbanded or altered their sound, so while we enjoyed their classic albums from the not-too-distant past, we also sought out any current artists playing this style of music. Enter the Georgia-based quintet Dixie Dregs, who were led by emerging guitar god Steve Morse. Along with violin/strings man Allen Sloan, bassist Andy West, drummer Rod Morgenstein and keyboardist Stephen Davidowski, Morse guided the group through a hybrid of various styles, including jazz, rock, country & southern rock, even entering jam-band territory. They were “fusion” in the truest sense of the word. Over the course of 6-7 years, the original incarnation of Dixie Dregs…with Morse, Morgenstein & West at the core…released six albums (seven if you count their self-released debut which had very limited distribution) and were the gold standard for instrumental music that appealed to rock & jazz fans alike. Morse later formed The Steve Morse Band but also secured high profile gigs with Kansas in the second half of the ‘80s and (for the past two decades) Deep Purple. He’s also recorded two albums of progressive/fusion/melodic rock with one of my favorite modern (super)groups, Flying Colors. Morgenstein ended up with the highest profile as drummer for the much-derided but ridiculously talented Winger.

Free Fall was released in May 1977 on Capricorn Records, a well-known independent label that was home to The Allman Brothers Band, The Outlaws, Elvin Bishop, The Marshall Tucker Band, Sea Level and many other southern rock, soul, R&B and jam bands. With major label distribution, Capricorn was able to put Dixie Dregs on the map with this record, which I still consider to be their debut. The album cover photo, with the band smiling as they exit an airplane in mid-flight (apparently without parachutes) perfectly captures the overall happy & fun yet musically adventurous music contained within. Although Morse was the star of the show, writing all eleven songs, everyone gets a chance to shine, especially Sloan whose violin lines often provide the melodic hooks. “Cruise Control” is the longest song here at 6+ minutes and possibly my favorite. It features a pulsing rock rhythm, fleet-fingered organ, an impressive percussion breakdown, a middle section with Brian May-esque guitar, a staggered prog-rock interlude and some splashy, heavy rock. In other words, everyone gets to show off. “Refried Funky Chicken” is (unsurprisingly) funky & groovy, with chicken-scratch guitar and elements of funk injected into syncopated jazz fusion. After another funky rhythm in the intro, “Moe Down” morphs into an almost straight-up country hoedown. Album opener “Free Fall” is a jaunty tune that veers from light rock to a funky jam-band groove, and features a fuzzy, distorted guitar solo and some great violin work that carries the melody. There’s a Celtic feel to the speedy guitar melody in the opening of “Holiday,” which also includes some cool rhythmic shifts between each section as well as a killer guitar solo. They slow things down on a couple of tracks: “Sleep” is appropriately titled, with Morse’s slowly fingerpicked electric guitar embellished by quiet acoustic strumming & a liquid-y synth line, while mellow album closer “Northern Lights” has Morse on nylon string acoustic and Sloan providing a haunting violin melody. There’s a fanfare quality to “Cosmopolitan Traveler” during the intro, but then it morphs into a tight, slightly funky (there’s that word again) upbeat arrangement with a hint of country and what sounds like a soprano sax solo. Their most traditional jazz-fusion performance here is “Wages Of Weirdness,” with syncopated rhythms and fast melodic lines on guitar, violin & bass. There’s also a super jazzy middle section with a wonderful piano solo. If you’re new to Dixie Dregs, Free Fall is a great entry point into their discography. They would go on to release albums I enjoy even more, but I’ve always been impressed that they could create such a unique, instantly identifiable sound right from the start of their career. It’s another 40-year-old album that still sounds fresh & contemporary, and that will probably be the case 40 years from now.

 

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24 comments on “Forty Year Friday – DIXIE DREGS “FREE FALL”

  1. DanicaPiche
    July 28, 2017

    I’m intrigued! Thank you for another introduction to new-to-me music, Rich.

    Like

  2. Alyson
    July 28, 2017

    Well, never heard of these guys at all – Hopped over to YouTube to watch the clips (as sadly they don’t play over here but no problem) and really felt like I was back in the ’70s, sitting down to watch one of the many American cop shows around at that time.

    The drummer does some pretty amazing “things” (don’t know what the term is other than simply “drumming”) so can see why you were/are a fan. As is often the case, my musical education had been added to, although not sure if I would ever buy any Dixie Dregs.

    Enjoy the weekend!

    Like

  3. Vinyl Connection
    July 28, 2017

    Although I only discovered the Dixie Dregs (and their Dixie-less successor), I was lucky enough to stumble upon their entire catalogue second hand (at at time just before LP prices went silly). So I became an instant fan, without any background at all.

    Good music, if a little too eclectic for me to call Fusion (note capital letter). Lovely to see the ‘debut’ high-lighted here, Rich.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DanicaPiche
      July 29, 2017

      Dare I ask… eclectic vs Fusion… ?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vinyl Connection
        July 29, 2017

        Do you really want to know? 🙂
        Fusion was a term that appeared after jazz-rock had been around a few years. People say different things about why – that it was a softer, more accessible version of jazz-rock, for instance – but no-one really knows. But the word tends to be used for a fusion of rock and jazz (doh!) and what I found unsettling about the Dregs were the country, folk and other influences. So, insufferable pedant that I am, I call the DDs eclectic rather than (jazz-rock) fusion.
        I warned you. 😝

        (Sorry, Rich)

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        July 29, 2017

        Haha 🙂 I calculated the risk….
        So, you’re not a proponent of evolution in language…? I’m guessing you’re not a supporter of new words added to dictionaries every year?
        Myself, I prefer clarity and accuracy in language so I lean toward traditional uses. Most ‘new words’ added to dictionaries every year should be added to a slang dictionary, not a dictionary proper.
        This would encompass the new use of the term fusion.
        (Hmm… what about fusion cuisine?)

        Btw – you guys are awesome, Bruce and Rich, et al. This post/question/answer made me smile. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vinyl Connection
        July 29, 2017

        NOTHING SHOULD CHANGE EVER.
        (grin)
        Fusion does tend to be used casually for any mixture or blend doesn’t it? Maybe if everything fused together – people, music, food, beliefs – there’d be nothing to disagree about?

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        July 29, 2017

        Haha 🙂
        Yes, I have noticed that.
        You’ve got the recipe for world peace. Hmm… or implosion….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Vinyl Connection
        July 29, 2017

        Prefer the first option, I think.

        And thanks for having Danica and I around for a cuppa and a chat, Rich. Lovely place you have here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Look what happens when I have a ridiculously busy weekend and I can’t read these comments for a couple of days. A whole wonderful conversation takes place and I missed it. I’m sure the two of you have moved on to other things but I wanted to thank you for bringing a smile to my face. I’ve been using the term “fusion” for as long as I can remember. That’s how we referred to jazz-rock in high school, and I’ve used it to describe almost anything that incorporates the two genres and anything else an artist can throw in the mix.

        I always found the whole fusion cuisine thing to be a bit pretentious, but I’m not a food connoisseur. I’m sure casual music fans would scoff at the concept of musical fusion. So we’ll just keep the two groups separate.

        As for Dixie Dregs being eclectic vs. fusion, I’ll just say they’re both and then we can all agree…at least a little. The bottom line is we like what we hear.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Vinyl Connection
        July 30, 2017

        Well said Rich!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Murphy's Law
    July 29, 2017

    The problem with the term “fusion” is that it began to be used to describe a nightmare hybrid of the worst of soft pop and slow jazz – just this side of Muzak.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean but I never had a problem with some of the light or smooth jazz that eventually got lumped into the “fusion” subgenre. I never considered them the same thing, though. Fusion tended to be about improvisation and exploration, while its smooth jazz successor was more melodically structured. And then there’s Kenny G…. 😀

      Like

  5. Daddydinorawk
    July 29, 2017

    I’m shocked at my self that I still have no Morse/Dregs albums. They are right in my wheelhouse.

    Like

  6. stephen1001
    August 1, 2017

    I’m pleased to read ‘refried funky chicken’ delivered the funk, it’s not just a clever name!

    Like

  7. zumpoems
    August 11, 2017

    Great band. Partly filled in the gap of losing bands like Gentle Giant to the jaws of commercialism.

    Like

    • I supposed there’s some truth to that, although when it came to Gentle Giant “commercial” was relative. They were still quirkier & more original than a good number of artists in the second half of the ’70s. I see Dixie Dregs picking up where the fusion masters of the early ’70s left off, with some added country & southern rock influences.

      Like

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