Rusty Bryant: Fire Eater (7″, Prestige, 1971)

7″ single edits of album songs were a necessary concession to the technological limits of record-making. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the average 7″ could only hold ~four minutes of music, give or take, depending on the pressing technique and whether you’d be willing to trade off things like loudness or fidelity in order to cram in a few extra seconds. That’s fine for most pop songs — the three-to-four minute song format had already become the norm decades back (itself a product of the limitations of the 78 format) — but not so much for other genres known for longer recordings, least of all jazz.

(Note: I’m sure there’s a wide swath of jazz fans who question why you’d ever want jazz music in a single format and while I acknowledge that this is a very fine question, I won’t be seeking to resolve it here. I like any format on 7″, personally, logic be damned!) 

Record labels insisting on releasing longer LP cuts on 7″ were stuck with a basic dilemma then: if you have to trim things down, how do you edit the song so that the fits the time limit yet doesn’t lose the “essence” (or whatever) of the original? Let’s just say a lot of labels didn’t put much care into the process, often times assigning some hapless engineer — who may never have been involved with the original recording at all — for what would end up being a literal and figurative hack job.

The simplest and most common route was to simply cut the song in half and create a 7″ with “Part 1” and “Part 2” on each side. However, the effectiveness of this was dependent on the original song’s structure lending itself to still being legible once bifurcated. That’s easier to do with a “Part 1” since you likely don’t have to alter the song’s intro at all and so all that’s left is finding a sensible place to cut and then use a simple fade-out. Doesn’t mean the “Part 1” is going to sound “right” from a compositionally point of view but the situation is almost always going to be far rougher for “Part 2” since you’re basically trying to sell a consumer on the idea that half a song, from the midway point will make any kind of musical sense. Most times, I just treat those 7″s as if they’re one-siders. 

The theoretically better — but considerably more difficult — route is when an original is edited down to a shorter length. Even today, with access to digital, multi-track stems and various post-production effects, creating that kind of edit is a challenge. Now imagine you’re that hapless engineer from 50 years ago and your boss gives you physical recording tape and a razor and tells you “make it work.” 

(Note: I’m sympathetic to how shitty an assignment this must have been but I getrationally angry at the 7″ edit of Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy” which takes an 11 minute masterpiece and crams it down to three minutes and along the way, skips past the majestically epic way the song opens and instead, dumps you into it about 2/3rds of the way through. Sure, it means you still get the awesome electric piano bridge but failing to include the intro in the edit is an unforgivable sin; you can’t convince me someone couldn’t have come up with a better edit than this with just a few minutes of thoughtful intent. I couldn’t even find a digitized version of the single on the webs and that alone should tell you something.)

For all these reasons, I greatly admire what the folks at Prestige did with the 7″ edit for saxophonist Rusty Bryant’s “Fire Eater” from the album of the same name. The original album version clocks in at a respectable 9.5 minutes and it features some incredible solos by his entire band, including organist Bill Mason and guitarist Wilbert Longmire, but of course, the highlight for many of us is Idris Muhammed’s scorching 16 bar run near the end. 

The 7″ version had to slice that down by a full six minutes and there are some painful sacrifices along the way (especially Mason’s solo) but IMO, this does a commendable job of retaining part of the original’s essence in how it reimagines “Fire Eater” as a quasi-funk single vs. a soul-jazz workout. The song opens the same, it foreground Rusty on the sax and then, where you’d expect a bridge on a pop song, whammo!, you still get the uncut raw of Muhammed’s blistering breaks and the song ends in the same way as its album version. I wouldn’t necessarily call the 7″ edit here “brilliant” or “inspired” but to me, it’s very competent and as I’ve tried explaining above, finding competent edits like this already feels like a small marvel. 

(Originally written for the Soul Sides Stray newsletter)