Crosby, Stills, Nash and … Jazz?

A look at jazz influences in the music of the legendary folk-rock trio

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Michael Putland / Getty Images

Crosby Stills And Nash perform on stage, New York, July 22, 1977. L-R Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash.

On paper, “The Crosby, Stills and Nash Songbook,” which mated the legendary folk-rock trio with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, looked like an oil-and-water blend. And for much of the May 3rd concert at New York’s Rose Theater it turned out just that way as often jarringly inappropriate arrangements — complete with swing and Latin rhythms, grandiose horn charts and shoehorned improvisations — were uneasily grafted onto CSN signature tunes. Add in the shaky harmonic vocal blend of the weathered threesome, and the going got plenty rough at times. Still, the collaboration was nothing if not ambitious, and all parties involved seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.

Some of the most elaborated rearranged songs actually did succeed, “Déjà Vu,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Critical Mass/Wind On the Water,” among them. Yet the least adorned performance of the evening was the most powerful. With a new trio of Crosby, Nash and trumpeter Marsalis taking center stage, Crosby’s “Guinevere” packed its punch by way of unvarnished beauty.

As unexpected a collaboration as this was, two CSN members — David Crosby and Stephen Stills – were deeply influenced by jazz as budding musicians. Below, are some early examples of Crosby and Stills fruitfully blending jazz and rock, a handful of years before their longtime partnership began and some four decades before their encounter with Wynton and his crew.

“Eight Miles High,” The Byrds  — Some claim that the first genuine example of jazz-rock fusion can be found on this 1966 milestone by the pioneering rock band, The Byrds. With Roger McGuinn’s Coltrane-influenced guitar solo and Crosby’s jagged rhythm guitar slashing across this Indian-tinged modal rocker, “Eight Miles High” was a potent herald for the future packed into a three-and-a-half-minute pop single.

“Everydays,” Buffalo Springfield — Like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield was a rock band ever willing to take chances. Stephen Still’s own, “Everydays,” with the composer on vocals and piano, is a moody jazz-inflected ballad that proves that even in 1967 there were already plenty of musical colors in Still’s palette.

“Everybody’s Been Burned,” The Byrds — David Crosby’s early masterpiece alerted anyone with open ears that a major songwriter and singer, one who was drawing on musical sources far beyond the average pop star, was in their midst. It’s very easy to imagine Miles Davis putting his own stamp on this darkly tinged tour de force, as he did on a later version of Crosby’s “Guinnevere” in 1970.

“Pretty Girl Why,” Buffalo Springfield — Stills must have been listening to his share of bossa nova about the time he wrote this lovely light pop-meets- light jazz miniature.

“Guinnevere,” David Crosby and Graham Nash — In this gorgeous version of one of the best-loved tunes from the 1969 Crosby, Stills and Nash debut album, Crosby and Nash reveal the harmonic underpinnings that songwriter Crosby obviously drew on reflecting his fascination with jazz.

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