John Mayall - vocals, harmonica, slide guitar, keyboards; Jon Mark - nylon string guitar; Johnny Almond - saxophones, flute; Steve Thompson - bass
Like Eric Clapton and Peter Green before him, it was inevitable that lead guitarist Mick Taylor would eventually conclude his tenure with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. With Mayall's blessing and recommendation, Taylor became a Rolling Stone in June of 1969. Bluesbreaker's drummer, Colin Allen, would also depart the band at this point to join Stone The Crows, leaving Mayall and bass player Steve Thompson as the only remaining members. These events would trigger a major shift in Mayall's music, beginning with the formation of a new group. Although blistering electric guitarists had been a prominent element of Mayall's music for years, he would not pursue trying to replace Taylor or Allen. Instead, Mayall would daringly reinvent his music, forming an acoustic based band that would eliminate drums and electric lead guitar altogether. A distinct departure from the high volume electric blues of his previous outfits, this new group would create rich textural music that would incorporate folk, jazz, and roots-based elements into their blues-based sound. This was a courageous move at the time and Mayall was determined to push his music into new areas. To help him achieve this musical vision, he recruited two new musicians that would prove to be inspired choices.
Mayall brought on board the highly accomplished acoustic finger-style guitarist Jon Mark and one of the most talented multi-instrumentalists in England, Johnny Almond. Both of these musicians had distinguished careers as session musicians. Guitarist Jon Mark had been a member of Sweet Tuesday (a group that also featured Alun Davies, a critical element in Cat Stevens future fame and pianist to the stars, Nicky Hopkins) and had spent the past three years as accompanist to Marianne Faithful. Johnny Almond had been a prominent element in the success of Alan Price and Zoot Money's respective bands and had contributed sax to two of Mayall's most popular albums, the classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and A Hard Road, which firmly established Peter Green's reputation.
This new primarily acoustic quartet, of Mayall, Thompson, Mark, and Almond would immediately hit the road, performing all new material that was quite the departure from previous Mayall projects. The absence of drums and electric lead guitar helped to facilitate the more atmospheric and intimate sound that Mayall was pursuing. One of the most memorable performances by this new lineup occurred on July 12, 1969 at Bill Graham's Fillmore East in New York City, just weeks after the new group's formation. Recorded and released as Mayall's The Turning Point LP, this prophetically titled live recording would capture an outstanding performance that featured a diverse range of sonic textures and moods. Although it was a radical change from the electrified blues that Mayall's reputation had been built upon, the Fillmore East audience would embrace this new direction and help to inspire what has come to be considered one of Mayall's definitive works. The recording would even provide Mayall with the biggest hit of his entire career, with his memorable harmonica workout on "Room To Move."
The recording from this now legendary Fillmore East performance begins with the politically charged "The Laws Must Change." Directly addressing recreational drug use and counter-culture concerns, this song signals a distinct shift in Mayall's writing, which had never previously addressed social issues. Right off the bat, it becomes readily apparent that this is one talented group, capable of deceivingly effortless interaction. With bassist Steve Thompson providing the bottom end and the majority of the rhythm, Mayall has structured this group so that instrumental solos emerge and soar above the intricate backing of bass and acoustic guitar. On "Saw Mill Gulch Road," which follows, Jon Mark's intricate acoustic work thoroughly complements Mayall's haunting slide guitar solos. Throughout this performance, Jon Mark's skillful precision and tasteful improvisations on acoustic finger-style guitar stimulate the other musicians, especially Johnny Almond, whose inspired sax and flute solos take several of these numbers into the realms of pure jazz. It's no wonder that Mark and Almond would team up after their tenure in this band to pursue a similar style that would venture even deeper into jazz textures and instrumentation.
"I'm Gonna Fight For You J.B." is a fine example of Mayall's most personal writing up to that point, while the tight interaction and drifting solos that punctuate "So Hard to Share" approach the type of controlled intensity that often defined Mayall's previous work. The possible peak of this performance comes with "California," where Mayall would soon relocate. Here the use of woodwinds and acoustic guitar, combined with Mayall's harmonica, continue the flirtation with jazz textures and its elegantly flowing groove epitomizes the new approach, free of excess. This song would become an FM radio staple at the beginning of the next decade and along with "Room To Move," help propel the success of The Turning Point LP. Here, all four musicians work to create a crisp, contrasting sound and the acoustic instrumentation works exceedingly well. Almond's sax work is remarkable and his harmonic climb helps to create one of the most beautiful performances of the entire set. "Thoughts About Roxanne" continues to explore Mayall's more introspective and personal writing before the recording closes with the definitive example of his harmonica prowess, "Room To Move."
Throughout this performance, Steve Thompson's unassuming bass playing, Jon Mark's inspired nylon-string guitar improvisations and Johnny Almond's sometimes vigorous, sometimes sultry sax and flute work raise Mayall's compositions to extraordinary heights, while proving that in the right hands, indeed less can be more. Mayall and this group were breaking new ground here and like the best of jazz musicians, they think loose while playing in a remarkably tight manner. In the process, they created a new sort of fusion, combing elements of blues, folk, and jazz that were accessible to a rock audience.
This new music showcased a more introspective side of John Mayall, which few of his fans had ever experienced and represented a turning point in the evolution of all four musicians. In many ways, this recording represents some of the most beautiful and overtly enthusiastic music of Mayall's career. While much of Mayall's previous music now sounds dated and of it's time, much of the music performed here retains a timeless quality and contains a depth that continues to reward repeated listening. Upon their inevitable departure, John Mark and Johnny Almond would team up and further explore this recipe in the critically acclaimed Mark-Almond band.