Traffic was a band that flew under the radar during the late-60s and into the early-70s, and was not as big commercially speaking as some of their more famous contemporaries. Why? I don’t know as they not only had one of the best soul/R&B singers to ever come out of England in Steve Winwood but also released some damn fine albums of which John Barleycorn Must Die was one.
Released in 1970, this album originally started as a Steve Winwood solo project as at this point Traffic was still disbanded after Winwood ended the group in order to form Blind Faith with Eric Clapton. But because of a burning desire to play with like-minded musicians, Winwood called on ex-Traffic members Jim Capaldi (drums/percussion) and Chris Wood (sax/flute) to work with him, and henceforth the project became a full-on Traffic reunion and album. Stylistically, John Barleycorn was a massive step away from their previous psychedelic pop sound towards a more jazz and R&B influenced sound, and as an album was one of the earlier examples of jazz fusion, also known as jazz-rock.
The jazz fusion sound the band was trying to create is best exemplified by the first two tracks on the record. The opening track “Glad” which is also an instrumental is a free jazz jam complete with sax flourishes and a jazzy piano riff, while “Freedom Rider” one of the standout tracks on the album is an intense fusion of R&B and jazz and features Chris Wood’s masterful flute playing. Both of these tracks also contain Winwood’s amazingly superb Hammond organ and piano playing, something that is a definite highlight of the record and is the main driver behind a lot of the songs. In order to get the jazz fusion style they were after, it is worth noting that this is not a guitar album by any means, with the music on the album very much based around piano, organ, flute, and sax, with guitar by in large playing a secondary role. The Second side of the album is less jazzy and I guess more rocky with “Stranger To Himself”, the pastoral acoustic folk of “John Barleycorn Must Die” a traditional English folk song which offers a nice break from the heavy jazz and R&B, and album closer the anthemic “Every Mother’s Son” with its swirling psychedelic organ solo and classic rock guitar riff. John Barleycorn Must Die is not a lengthy album with only six songs on it, but the denseness of the tracks with four coming in at over six minutes, as well as the jazzy instrumental nature of the songs compensates for this and ensures the album is probably the right length for the material on display.
On its release, the album went to number five in the US and helped establish the band on the highly lucrative touring rock circuit during the early seventies. It also marked the band’s high point commercially becoming their first gold-selling record. Although it is quite removed from their early work, I think John Barleycorn Must Die is Traffic’s best album and best represents their unique sound, with all of their influences from jazz to folk coming to play. The musicianship and playing on this record is first class, while the overall fusion style of jazz, R&B, rock and even folk is incredibly groovy in places, especially during the free jam breaks where Winwood especially comes into his own. A great early-seventies album and well worth a listen for those into groovy jazz/R&B styled music, fusion genres, and 70s British rock.