Improvisation is key to the sound of jazz. One night a song comes out one way, the next night it might come out an entirely different way — it’s up to the soloist, his energy, and what he wants to communicate on a given night. This isn’t generally what happens in rock, where many acts play the same way every night, often for years and years. Nevertheless, one of rock’s most famous live albums is a testimony to the power and glory of improvisation — up to a point — and it was recorded 40 years ago this weekend.
At Fillmore East by the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Allman Brothers Band[/lastfm] was recorded over multiple performances at the legendary New York venue on March 12, and 13, 1971. The album presents the best of the shows the band recorded during their stand. In its original, two-vinyl-album form, it did not contain the performances precisely as the audiences heard them — the album was assembled, carefully edited, and mixed by producer Tom Dowd, who trimmed some tracks and patched together other tracks out of parts, blending part of a song from one show with another part from a different show. You can argue that the edits make the album something less than pure improvisation, but the original version of At Fillmore East still gives the band’s featured soloists plenty of time to stretch out. Three cuts run 13 minutes or more, and one, “Whipping Post,” runs 23. (It’s one of the rare extra-long live tracks that doesn’t feel like it’s gone on way too long.)
In the CD era, the album has been re-released at least three times with some or all of the edited material restored, including the massive, 33-minute “Mountain Jam,” which was originally held for release on Eat a Peach in 1973. Also appearing on the re-releases is “One Way Out,” although its path to inclusion was a bit twisty. The Allmans recorded the song at the March shows, but Dowd did not include it on the original release of At Fillmore East. The band played it again during a late-June stand at the Fillmore, the week the venue closed. That version is the one on Eat a Peach, and is included on the re-released versions of At Fillmore East.
There’s controversy among hardcore fans involving the various reissues of the album, some of which contain different mixes and alternate versions from the original. I tried sorting out the differences between the 1971 edition, the 1992 edition, the 2003 edition, and the 2004 edition, but it made my brain hurt and I decided to just listen. There’s a lot of live Allmans video at YouTube featuring songs heard on At Fillmore East, but the performances are all from 1970. Similarly, since most YouTube videos are limited to 10 minutes, several of the key tracks are just too long, but you can hear a couple of them: “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Stormy Monday.”
At first glance, the Allmans’ performances at the Fillmore 40 years ago represent one of the more unlikely fusions in all of rock — improvisational jazz with blues-inspired Southern boogie. Considering the blues roots of jazz, however, maybe the two forms are closer than they appear.