An Imperfect Union
Fusion, that cross between jazz and rock, came on strong in the early ’70s. The style seemed to come as a result of the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s, which nearly obliterated jazz. Jazz musicians saw the need to adapt if they wanted to be recognized. So they took up electric arms, began to drop heavy rhythms under the improvised solos, and a new sound was born.And it worked, to an extent: Miles Davis, who helped to pioneer the movement by mixing electric instruments into his late-’60s combos, recorded “Bitches Brew” to great acclaim, much astonishment, and huge sales for a jazz release. Bands like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Headhunters drew considerable attention in rock circles.But fusion quickly began to have the soul sucked out of it. Some of the better groups, like guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, broke up, and the bands that followed weren’t nearly as accomplished. By the late-’70s fusion had become a dirty word. The reigning standards of the period – think disco – seemed to get imprinted on the music: The beats got duller; the sounds got cheesier. Fusion quickly sank into a music with none of the attributes of the styles from which it came – neither the intellectual appeal of jazz, nor the ragged-but-right spirit of rock.Another view is that fusion had no soul to begin with. From the beginning, much of the music exalted empty virtuosity and showmanship over taste. The one-time acoustic jazz players, now fortified with amplification, seemed on a mission to blow one other off the stage with a combination of volume, speed and technique. Often, it seemed the musicians didn’t quite know how to find the right tone from their electric toys. Or they just didn’t have the aural taste to know when an electronic keyboard effect or guitar tone was starting to sound cheesy and grating.In some respects, fusion had been built on a shaky foundation – a forced collision, rather than natural meshing, between styles. There was the commercial aspect – jazz players wanted to sell records and fill large halls. In its lowest moments, fusion was just one step above the dreaded smooth jazz.But the music seems to have started out with purer intentions and a more natural progression. The fusion label was first applied to Davis’ music of the early ’70s, when his bands consisted of mostly electric instruments – guitars, basses, keyboards and even sitars – and Davis himself played his trumpet through a wah-wah effects pedal.Davis had already been on the path toward something different in the mid-’60s. His so-called second great quintet – with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams – had begun in the mid-’60s playing a very modern-sounding form of jazz, but all on acoustic instruments. Quickly however, over a stretch of profound recordings – “E.S.P.,” “Sorcerer,” “Nefertitti” – the music began to progress. In particular, Williams’ blazing drum rhythms seemed to be driving the quintet toward a sound that adopted rock ‘n’ roll’s energy. By 1968’s “Miles in the Sky,” Hancock was alternating between electric piano, George Benson was adding electric guitar to one track, and the compositions were often stretching past 15 minutes. Through it all was Williams, with that breakneck beat.Soon enough things really broke loose. Davis, backed by a large ensemble that included sidemen old and new, recorded the landmark electric album “Bitches Brew” in early 1970.It was the birth of fusion. But what followed was often far from the mold that Davis set down. The re-release of several of his early ’70s recordings reveals a music that was far from bogged down in flashy soloing. Instead, the music was related in a significant way to Davis’ earlier, successful experiments, which brought a more impressionistic, free-form sensibility to jazz.Although classic fusion remains strongly tied to the ’70s, the style hasn’t died out entirely. Christian McBride, the most successful straight-ahead jazz bassist of this era, is a champion of the sound. McBride has been digging through his fusion record collection of late, and recently released “Sci-Fi,” an updated tribute to fusion music, particularly the bassists of the fusion era. In a concert at the Double Diamond in August, McBride led his electric band, Escape Route, through music that showed that there was some soul at the crossroads of jazz and rock.Davis’ music would prove to be a strong influence on future generations. The seeds of funk, hip-hop and acid jazz can be heard in Davis’ fusion work.Following are reviews of CDs, some new and others recently re-released, that show the good and bad of fusion. Miles Davis “On the Corner” “Big Fun” “Get Up With It” All produced by Teo Macero (Columbia/Legacy) In the mid- to late ’60s, Miles Davis was achieving yet another level of music and acclaim, with his second great quintet. When the quintet broke up in 1969, Davis made his next great leap, into the world of electronic instruments and effects pedals. He used recording and post-production techniques becoming familiar in rock, but unheard of in jazz. He took the music into rock venues like the Fillmore and the Fillmore East, where he played double bills with the likes of the Grateful Dead.It was the birth of fusion. But the fusion Davis came up with is a far cry from the screaming guitars and furious rhythms of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. On these three re-released albums, all recorded between 1969 and 1974, Davis’ music is moody, impressionistic and hypnotic. Far from focusing on virtuosic solos, the music is built on a concept – short bursts of sound, often distorted by sonic effects, layered over pulsating rhythms. It was almost totally linear, with few repeated themes or chord changes. It seems influenced by funk, especially that of Sly & the Family Stone, but also by Eastern scales and Indian instruments, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, and the psychedelic rock concerts being played by the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. This is the music Davis would play until going into a six-year retirement in the mid-’70s.On 1972’s “On the Corner” Davis is joined by keyboardists Corea and Hancock, guitarists McLaughlin and David Creamer, and many more. Sounds – electric guitars and sitars, bass clarinet, synthesizers – seem to leap from out of the shadows. On the opening 20-minute medley of four compositions – “On the Corner,” “New York Girl,” Thinkin’ Of One Thing and Doin’ Another” and “Vote For Miles” – those sounds dart in and out from every angle, held together by a pulsing beat of Michael Henderson’s bass and the drum trio of Billy Hart, Jack DeJohnette and Al Foster. Every instrument seems to be run through a wah-wah pedal. The shorter “Black Satin” and “One And One” are even odder and more minimalist, with the rhythm created by bells, whistles and hand claps. “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X” gets closest to a funk groove, but one of the most intricate, intertwined rhythms imaginable.”Big Fun” was mostly recorded before “On the Corner,” but wasn’t released until two years after, in 1974. Recorded just three months after “Bitches Brew,” and with much of the same personnel, it may have seemed too soon to release it right on the heels of that landmark album. In concept, it is similar to “Bitches Brew,” more meditative than funky. The two-disc re-release features four tracks not included on the original.”Get Up With It,” released in 1974, is an extension of the “On the Corner” idea, but was made in a far different manner. Where “On the Corner” was recorded in just over a month’s time in the summer of 1972, “Get Up With It” was recorded in a variety of sessions between May 1970 and October 1974.The two-disc set features Davis on organ as well as trumpet. Through the set, the fundamental idea of the period gets stretched some. “Red China Blues” does in fact resemble a blues – a psychedelic, disjointed blues – with harmonica by Wally Chambers. The half-hour-long “He Loved Him Madly” that opens the set is quieter, slower and spacier; some passages ring clearly with Eastern ideas. “Maiysha” is flowing and funky; “Honky Tonk” moves through minimalism and blues guitar riffs, all over a jerking rhythm.A name that needs to be mentioned, because it is so frequently cited by the musicians, is Teo Macero. Macero had been Davis’ producer from early on, and had collaborated on Davis’ journeys through cool jazz, and the late-’60s quintet. When Davis ventured into fusion, Macero was not only along for the ride, he seemed game to jump in and lead. All of Davis’ fusion albums are marked by the experimental hand of Macero.Though his music is a long way from the later, more bombastic fusion bands, Davis went a long way toward fomenting classic fusion. Weather Report, with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter; Return to Forever, led by Chick Corea; Headhunters, founded by Hancock and featuring Bennie Maupin; Mahavishnu Orchestra, fronted by John McLaughlin; and Tony Williams’ Lifetime all were spearheaded by Davis sidemen. That’s quite a legacy. Tim Hagans/Bob Belden “Re-Animation: Live in Montreal” Produced by Belden (Blue Note) Bob Belden, one can assume, is a great fan of Miles’ brand of fusion. Belden the producer was the executive producer behind the recent trio of Miles’ fusion reissues; Belden the saxophonist, along with trumpeter Tim Hagans, almost explicitly updates the sound on “Re-Animation.”Recorded at the 1999 Montreal Jazz Festival, “Re-Animation” must have been made right while Belden was going through the Miles tapes. Davis’ fusion music seems to have gotten embedded in Belden’s brain. The approach is almost identical: linear, electronic, minimal, moody. Belden and Hagans update things – just as Miles was updating things three decades ago – by using synthesizers, samples and turntablist DJ Kingsize.The differences are minor – generally shorter tracks, a bit more showmanship on such tunes as “Trumpet Sandwich,” attributable to the fact of the live recording. The music of Hagans and Belden incorporates the added element of hip-hop, but this recording seems to highlight the line from Davis’ fusion to modern hip-hop.Belden and Hagans hit the mark here. The approach may be modeled on something nearly 30 years old, but the sound is fresh and modern, the playing inspired, and the result sounds like someone is interested in pulling fusion out of its slump.Another updating of the Miles Davis fusion sound is presented on “Yo Miles,” a 1998 release by guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. The two-disc set includes wildly reinvented versions of Miles compositions, almost all from the early to mid-’70s period. Return to Forever “Romantic Warrior” Produced by Chick Corea (Columbia/Legacy) With 1976’s “Romantic Warrior,” Return to Forever – the quartet of keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al DiMeola – demonstrated all the flaws of fusion. It’s all there – the overblown soloing, the break-neck speeds, the often grating tones. There’s nothing romantic here, though the instruments do seem to be at war with one another, and, as an ensemble, against good taste. It’s very unlike Miles’ fusion, which was about subtleties. Except for fans of vacuous virtuosity, this cannot be recommended. Schleigho, “Continent” Produced by Schleigho (Flying Frog Records) A descendant of fusion, sometimes closely related and sometimes not quite so close, is the modern-day groove-jazz sound. As much as fusion, the groove sound of Medeski, Martin & Wood and the Greyboy All-Stars comes out of the organ trios of Jimmy Smith and Lonnie Smith.Schleigho, a New York City quartet schooled at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, comes at the music from more of the fusion angle. The music is more linear than the funk grooves of the Greyboy All-Stars; Schleigho engages the mind more than the feet. “Continent,” the fourth recording by Schleigho, contains all original material, but the band is known to cover Mahavishnu Orchestra, early ’70s Miles, and more from the fusion era. With Suke Cerulo handling guitar, flute and sax, Schleigho has a more varied voice than one would expect from a four-piece. Mixing bop and funk into the mix, Schleigho has a most promising sound.
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