Jazz Fusion

History of Jazz: Part 7

Jazz fusion is a pretty big category, and we’ve lumped a lot of material together here. Basically, these are the granddaddies of the marriage of jazz with electronics, rock, funk, and technology.

Miles Davis is the grandfather of fusion–but don’t tell him that. As he once said, “A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.” Nonetheless, he pretty much started the ball rolling back in 1969 when he released In a Silent Way, an album that uses ambient sound washes created by no less than three keyboards and the guitar of John McLaughlin as a base over which Miles soars. All in all it’s a pretty subdued album, but the same cannot be said of the masterpiece Bitches Brew.

Released in 1970 as a double LP, Bitches Brew mixed free jazz blowing by a large ensemble with electronic keyboards and guitar, plus a dense mix of percussion. The result isn’t like anything that had been done up until then, and it doesn’t sound much like other fusion, either. Miles followed that up with Live-Evil, a mind-blowing monster album that mixes studio work with live recordings done at the Cellar Door. As on the previous two albums, producer Teo Macero’s studio manipulations of the recording done by the musicians is a major part of the album. Tribute to Jack Johnson is pretty straightforward and probably the most rock-oriented album Miles ever made. There’s a lot of John McLaughlin guitar work on it as well.

On the Corner started a new phase for Miles, one which was heavily influenced by the funk of Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown, and which ended up being extremely influential on today’s DJ culture and drum ‘n’ bass experiments. The dense, percussion-heavy music heard on this album is very afro-funk/rock centered and remains very controversial to this day among jazz fans. Miles continued to mine this sound on Get Up With It, his last studio release before a five year period of retirement. The album is known for the track “He Loved Him Madly”, a tribute to Duke Ellington that inspired Brian Eno’s ambient experiments. Also excellent and similar in nature are the live recordings Agharta and Pangea, recorded at afternoon and evening concerts the same day in Japan.

Following his 1980 comeback, Miles played a much more straightforward funky style of music, and his studio recordings often don’t convey the musical intensity he and his groups were capable of reaching live. Still, there are some good moments to Decoy and You’re Under Arrest as well as the import only Star People.

His best post-comeback moments were three albums he did for Warner Brothers with Marcus Miller recording most of the parts besides Davis’ trumpet. For all practical purposes, these are the first true jazztronica recordings: Tutu, Siesta, and Amandla. All three are heartily recommended. Still looking ahead, Miles planned an album that incorporated rap, collaborations with Prince, and his own brand of funk/hip-hop, but he died before the project was completed. The album was finished with the help of rapper Cool Moe Be and released as Doo Bop. While not worthy of Miles’ legacy, it does show that he was on the cutting edge until the very end.

Not surprisingly, many of the first wave of fusion musicians came out of Miles’ first electric bands. One of the first such innovators was keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Hancock began using the Fender Rhodes electric piano at Miles’ insistence, and soon he was at the forefront of electric keyboard players, customizing his Rhodes and experimenting with the new synthesizers that became available in the early 1970s.

After leaving Miles, Herbie worked with a sextet known as Mwandishi (all the musicians in the band took African names, Mwandishi being Hancock’s). Their first album, Mwandishi was fairly straight-ahead free jazz, but the next two, Crossings and Sextant, incorporated the Moog synthesizer work of Dr. Patrick Gleeson, and the combination of the band’s ambient spaciness, Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, and the Moog make these essential listening for anyone interested in the roots of electronica.

The music and the cover paintings by Robert Springett helped create the still unnamed aesthetic that would define Afrofuturism. The first two are available on Warner’s 2-disc Mwandishi: The Complete Recordings, while Sextant, on Columbia, has been remastered as a single album. None of these albums sold very well at the time, though, and Hancock went for the booty on his next release,

Chameleon 12″ Single version

Featuring the incredibly funky track “Chameleon” as well as a reworking of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, the album sold immensely and was extremely influential on the jazz fusion to come. Hancock’s next release, Thrust, featured more funky grooves, including the beautiful ballad “Butterfly.” Herbie continued to fluctuate between acoustic and electric jazz with mixed results.

In the early ’80s, he collaborated with Bill Laswell on three albums that fall much more under the electronica/jazztronica banner than fusion: Future Shock, Sound System, and The Perfect Machine. The first of these included the hit single “Rockit”, which was the first hit recording to utilize DJ scratching, and which influenced later DJs such as DJ Qbert and DJ Krush. More recently Hancock released Future2Future on which he works with a number of electronic musicians who were influenced by his early jazz-electric-fusion experiments.

Guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Tony Williams were both Davis alumni, and they, together with organist Larry Young (who played on some of the Bitches Brew sessions) formed the group Lifetime. Unfortunately, they were poorly managed and made only a few albums, but they are classic jazz/rock fusion works that helped propel McLaughlin into his next project, Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The most recommended Lifetime works are Emergency!, the group’s first album, which combines Williams’ turbulent post-bop drumming with McLaughlin and Young’s psychedelic jamming stew. The next album, Turn It Over, is dark and angry, and highly recommended. The only thing that mars both albums is Williams’ less than wonderful vocal work. Also worth checking out are The Ultimate Tony Williams and Wilderness.

Before forming Mahavishnu John McLaughlin recorded the psychedelic jam album Devotion which featured Larry Young along with bassist Billy Rich and the drummer from Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles.

The two most classic Mahavishnu Orchestra albums are undoubtedly Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. Both feature the stellar work of keyboard player Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham, and both are considered among the very best jazz/rock fusion albums of all time. Too bad the original group wasn’t able to hold it together, though the later released Lost Trident Sessions provides a missing piece of the group’s legacy. Though subsequent albums, featuring replacement violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, have some sublime moments, none come close to these albums.

McLaughlin has continued to explore fusion and world elements throughout his career, and the influence of Miles is always somewhere in the mix. Other McLaughlin albums well worth checking out are Love, Devotion Surrender (with Carlos Santana), Electric Guitarist, and Friday Night in San Francisco (with Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola). Then there’s his work with the Indian-influenced Shakti, which includes Handful of Beauty and Natural Elements. The group, now called Remember Shakti, reunited for the excellent Saturday Night in Bombay.

Another graduate of the school of Miles Davis was Chick Corea, who toured extensively with Davis after the recording of Bitches Brew. Corea can play free jazz, heavy duty jazz-rock, or acoustic straight-ahead jazz with equal aplomb. After leaving Davis he formed the original Return to Forever with Stanley Clarke, saxophonist Joe Farrell, drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira, and vocalist Flora Purim. The band was very light and airy, and the music demonstrated how beautiful and introspective fusion could sound. This lineup made only one other album, Light as a Feather before Corea retooled Return to Forever into a heavy, technique-focused band.

Return to Forever, Vulcan Worlds
1974, PBS Chicago, Soundstage

The new Return to Forever retained only Corea and Clarke supplemented by drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors, and their first album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy was very different indeed.

Connors was subsequently replaced by Al DiMeola and the next release, No Mystery, was the blueprint for subsequent RTF albums. While fusion later suffered a backlash because the music was focused too much on technique at the expense of having something to say, this album shows a group of young, accomplished players at the height of their youthful energies. Romantic Warrior, which was a concept album of sorts, was either one of the best fusion albums or a sign of the genre’s bloatedness, depending on how you feel about its rocklike music, long solos, and perhaps overblown, romantic European grandeur.

The other members of the group went on to release their own fusion classics: Stanley Clarke did Stanley Clarke and School Days, Lenny White released Venusian Summer and Big City, and Al DiMeola created Land of the Midnight Sun and Elegant Gypsy in addition to working with John McLaughlin. Corea later returned to electric jazz with the Electrik Band, but his main contributions to the format were made with RTF.

One of the most celebrated of the original fusion bands was Weather Report, formed in 1971 by Davis alumnus Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Originally featuring Miroslav Vitous, Airto Moirera, and Alphonse Mouzon, the group’s first two albums, Weather Report and I Sing the Body Electric were logical extensions of the spacier work found on Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. There are no real solos, but the elements of melody, harmony, and accompaniment are passed around between the players. The sound is not what people normally think of when they think of fusion, and the arrangements sound fluid and highly improvised.

Weather Report Live in 1975, Berlin

Elements began to coalesce into a more tune-oriented band on Mysterious Traveller, and Alphonso Johnson replaced Vitous on bass, providing his slick and much-sampled composition “Cucumber Slumber.” Tale Spinnin’ provided more of the same, though it now sounds like a transitional album on the way to Black Market. Leon “Ngudu” Chancler, a veteran of Miles’ 1973 touring band, rotated into the drum chair.

Black Market brought in percussionist Alex Acuna and bassist Jaco Pastorius (though he only appeared on two numbers, he quickly became a focus of the band’s live performances). The album features some excellent writing by Zawinul and Shorter, notably “Cannonball”, “Elegant People”, and “Barbary Coast.”

The next release, Heavy Weather, featured Pastorius and is the best known of the group’s work due to the hit Zawinul composition “Birdland.” There is a lot of other great stuff on this album: the ballad “The Remark You Made”, Jaco’s “Teen Town” and the celebratory Shorter composition “Palladium.” The next album, Mr. Gone, is sometimes seen as the start of the group’s decline, but there is still a lot going on that is interesting. The rest of the group’s output becomes a little formulaic at times, but there is something on each one for the careful listener. The later collection Live and Unreleased provides a glimpse into some of the excellent live work by the group that went unheard.

Joe Zawinul has released a number of solo albums, both under his own name and his new band, The Zawinul Syndicate. These albums explore similar territory to that investigated by Weather Report, with an even greater emphasis on world music influences. Check out Zawinul, Dialects, World Tour, or his last studio disc, Faces & Places to see why Joe remains the master of fusion. Bassist Jaco Pastorius managed to release a few good solo albums before his untimely death as well. The best of these are Jaco Pastorius and Word of Mouth.

This only scratches the surface of what is arguably one of jazz music’s larger umbrellas, but it provides a good starting point to grasping some of the major things that developed in the wake of fusion.

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