Francisco Mora-Catlett is a legend in the area where jazz crosses over with electronic music, because that’s the space in which he’s existed for most of his professional life.
The son of Mexican painter Francisco Mora and African-American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, Mora-Catlett’s career began in Mexico City, where he worked as a session musician for Capitol Records in the late ’60s while also making experimental music with jazz icons (and his own heroes ) like Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
At the prestigious Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mora-Catlett studied with Parisian electronic music pioneer Jean Nate Henry and learned reel-to-reel production, before going on to play some of the first electronic instruments after joining the Sun Ra Arkestra in the ’70s, as the drummer for the composer and experimental jazz legend. Mora-Catlett then studied at Boston’s Berklee college of music in the ’80s, linked with pioneering jazz drummer Max Roach in the ’90s.
It was in this same era, when Mora-Catlett was a visiting professor at Michigan State University that one of his fives daughters informed him of the techno revolution happening in nearby Detroit, eventually introduced him to Detroit techno legend Carl Craig. Before long, Mora-Catlett was playing with Craig as part of his 1996 jazz/electronica fusion project, Innerzone Orchestra. Becoming a mentor to Craig, Mora-Catlett told the producer that musicians of color pioneering electronic music wasn’t new: It had actually been happening since the ’50s, when Sun Ra started using the first rhythm machine and electric pianos from Robert Moog. This mentorship spurred Craig’s’s interest in jazz, with Craig going on to release records in the genre on his longstanding label, Planet E.
It was thus a full-circle moment when Mora-Catlett released his latest album, Electric Worlds, via Planet E on November 19. Making this music at the Berklee College of Music during the pandemic, the nine-track album crosses spatial jazz with elements of ambient, d’n’b and other sounds both futuristic and vintage. Utilizing little-used instruments, Mora-Catlett says Electric Worlds seeks to answer a question experimental musicians like himself and the greats he’s worked with have long been pondering through music: “Who am I, what am I, and what is the universe?”
Here, in his own words, Mora-Catlett discusses five key artists who bridged the gap between jazz and electronic music.
Sun Ra goes way, way back. He started using an electric piano in 1952, back when everyone told him he was crazy for using it in jazz music. He was advanced, already utilizing a Moog synthesizer in 1958 that Robert Moog built for him. It was one of two prototypes — and I heard from Sun Ra that Robert Moog said he wanted it back, but Sun Ra wouldn’t give it to him.
When I was with Sun Ra back in the ‘70s, I remember him coming over to the house where the orchestra lived in Germantown, Philadelphia with an old, like a rhythm machine, like those that you put on top of a Hammond organ. The type that when you pressed it, and you pressed rumba, or cha cha, or foxtrot it would play that in an old fashion way. He told me to get on the drums and play with it, and I told him they weren’t real drums, that it was a machine. He turns to me and says seriously, “You’re going to have to learn how to play with one of these ones in your lifetime, so get on the drums.”
He was a real visionary, later in the mid-’90s when I was touring with Carl Craig’s InnerZone Orchestra, every time that I went on the stage, I could hear Sun Ra in my ear saying, “You’re going to have to learn how to play with one of these in your lifetime.” He was absolutely correct. His vision transcended what was happening at that time. I consider him the herald of the Space Age for planet Earth, you know? Because he was already talking about this “Space Is the Place” stuff since back in the ‘40s.
I saw Miles Davis in Boston when I went to Berklee College of Music in the early ’70s, at the Jazz Workshop. The band started out playing so powerful, but became exhausted playing by themselves. Miles heard it, and as soon as he got on the stage, just played one note — and the whole energy just went up. Never seen or heard anything like that.
This was during the so-called first electric period from 1968 through 1975. I think his electric period went all the way up to the time of his passing, because when he returned back after sort of a retirement, he continued with an electric band, utilizing synthesizers. People feel that his first experiment with the electronic scene was for Miles in the Sky, where he used Herbie Hancock on a Fender Rhodes. But when I saw him with the Live-Evil band, I couldn’t believe what was going on. He had also added a wah wah pedal to his trumpet, and the sensitivity equated it a little to how Jimi Hendrix played.
Mwandishi, Crossings, Sextant, Head-Hunters, Thrust — all of these albums really laid down Herbie Hancock’s experience with electronic music. I saw him playing during the ’80s in Detroit. His gear was amazing. Everything that he had on there, from synthesizers to the vocoder which he brought just to sing into, these are major developments.
I believe that Herbie Hancock really loves technology, and he’s always been ahead, trying to do something new. One of my favorite albums of his is Thrust. That period to me is something that I saw and experienced. The wonderful coloration of electronic music behind it, that he was really into. I really loved that, all his experimentation. He’d bring in one acoustic instrument, with multireedist Bennie Maupin, and Wah Wah Watson on electric guitar, and an electric bass player — it was truly an electric band.
His fascination for electronic music gear is fantastic. He had an R-2600, a Rhodes of course, an Oberheim, ARP, Prophet, Korg, a Vocoder Emulator — the list was endless. During his time with the Weather Report, he created an incredible atmosphere. We’re talking about jazz musicians who were actually exploring new ways in sound, and coming out with sonic ideas that didn’t exist. It takes us back to ’58, when everybody told Sun Ra, “You’re crazy. Nobody’s going to use electronic instruments in jazz.” This was a huge development and a change to that type of mentality.
His is a big contribution to the world of jazz and electronic music. Especially in the idea of combining funk-music, R&B, etc. His work with Frank Zappa, with the Mothers of Invention — he brought an incredible amount of synthesizers and electronic instruments with him. Also working with Jean-Luc Ponty, an avid user of five-string electric violins. And with so many other artists and a producer as well George Duke contributed significantly to what are now common genres in electronic music.
You can’t bypass Chick Corea. The Return to Forever Ensemble was the one that released Romantic Warrior. I saw that band live, and I couldn’t believe the electronic ambience that he created around that. It was incredible. Chick had all of this experience with Miles Davis, which they called fusion at the time. Their work was an extension of the wider direction of where music was going. It really excited me, of course.
In the ‘70s I had the opportunity to work in a music store where I sold some of the first DJ turntables that were available at the time. I presented some of the first synthesizers where I laid them out for demonstration, how you interconnect them. I had Korgs and Crumars, Yamahas, that kind of thing. It was a whole current of jazz musicians that went into working with electronics, and I feel very strongly that people like Chick Corea were the pioneers into what is now the electronic world music.