Fusion – endless energy source or theoretical concept only?

Is fusion an endless energy source – or just a theoretical concept? While this question appears to be unresolved with regards to nuclear fusion, there is an answer when it comes to musical fusion in terms of Fusion Jazz.

At the end of the sixties the music industry needed a new power source. The popularity of Jazz had been on a decline basically since the end of World War II. Sales of Jazz albums within the total record sales were at a low single digit percentage, down from 70% in the late 30ies! The famous Newport Jazz festival had to put rock musicians on the line-up to attract a bigger crowd. And the death of John Coltrane in 1967 did not help to stop the decline.

But also Rock in 1970 had its “Götterdämmerung” – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison all died that year and then the Beatles split up.

Would fusion propel Jazz and Rock out of the misery? The answer is – yes, it did! But the fusion reaction did not result in a controlled, steady energy stream but rather it created a short and very intense burst of energy, followed by a smouldering.

But let’s start at the beginning. Here are two early examples from 1969:

These were not the first ones putting Jazz and Rock together in the same song. Maybe the “Free Spirits” in 1966 with Bob Moses and Jim Pepper were the first true Jazz-Rock group. And Rock groups such as Cream, Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix Experience began incorporating Jazz elements into their music.

But the record which planted Jazz-Rock firmly on the musical map was “Bitches Brew” from Miles Davis.

This record showed that fusion can create brilliant music. It became the fastest selling record in Jazz history and won a Grammy award. If only nuclear fusion worked that well! Miles Davis had been listening to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly Stone and had developed a desire to move towards a less abstract, more guitar oriented sound.

The important aspects of the new Jazz-Rock genre were extensive use of electric/electronic instruments. This included the studio, which was seen as another instrument, promoting the audio engineer into a much more important role. The rhythm section abandoned complex Jazz rhythms in favour of a simpler Rock beat. And much more emphasis was put on composition and arrangement compared to Jazz.

Miles Davis was not only a source for great fusion records, he also influenced strongly his musicians. “Miles Davis alumni” were largely responsible for driving the Jazz Fusion development forward.

Chick Corea, who had played on “Bitches Brew”, formed “Return to Forever”. They released between 1973 and 76 four records in the original formation, which is considered the best one.

Tony Williams had been a drummer in Miles Davis “second great quintet” and later formed his own band “Lifetime”. Their 1969 record “Emergency!” is a Jazz Fusion classic.

Also a member of the above mentioned second quintet was keyboarder Herbie Hancock, who released under his own name as well as with “The Headhunters” several Jazz-Rock records.

The mastermind behind one of the most important Jazz Fusion groups, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was John “Mahavishnu” McLaughlin. He had played guitar on “Bitches Brew”.

The band’s original line-up featured Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass guitar, Jan Hammer on electric and acoustic piano and synthesiser, and Jerry Goodman on violin. In this composition the Mahavishnu Orchestra released “The Inner Mounting Flame” (1971) and “Birds of Fire” (1973).

Besides high-volume electrified rock sound as heard above, the records also feature very serene, chamber music-like tunes, such as “A Lotus On Irish Streams”.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra appeared later in various incarnations with changing sounds, however the output of the first orchestra was the best.

Drummer Billy Cobham, who had played with Miles as well and had been a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, later released two of my favourite Jazz Fusion records under his own name, “Spectrum” and “Crosswinds”.

A key formation in the Jazz-Rock development was “Weather Report”. Wayne Shorter (saxophone) and Joe Zawinul (keyboards) formed this fusion group in 1970 and co-led it until the band’s break-up in 1986. Weather Report outlasted all of its contemporaries despite (or perhaps because of) frequent changes of personnel.

From the start, Weather Report took the unusual and innovative approach of abandoning the traditional “soloist/accompaniment” demarcation of straight-ahead jazz and instead featuring opportunities for continuous improvisation by every member of the band. This position remained consistent throughout the life of the band.

Already their first self-titled record won the “Album of the Year” award in the “Down Beat” polls. It featured a free, extended improvisational method, similar to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew-period work. “Sweetnighter” (1973) and “Mysterious Traveller” (1974), another Down Beat “Album of the Year”, showed the band’s move to a more jazz funk- and groove-oriented style.

Pretty much all the records mentioned above were released in the first half of the seventies. The fusion of Jazz and Rock initially resulted in a lot of creative energy, leading to a number of very good records. And then all musicians had made enough money and went away. Obviously not, but the influence of record companies in Jazz-Rock was heavy, putting a lot of emphasis on commercial success, which led to a quick erosion of the musical innovation.

But also amalgamating the two genres was not easy. Rock music has no swing which makes it difficult to bring in interesting Jazz elements. And on the other hand, Rock already incorporated elements from Jazz, respectively rhythm & blues, therefore did not bring a lot of new elements to the table.

For these reasons already in the second half of the seventies hardly any important Jazz-Rock records were released.

For once, Europe was actually leading the development of a new Jazz genre, which shows that it had emancipated into an own strong movement. Bands like IF and Soft Machine released Jazz Fusion albums already around 1970. However, what started early in Europe also lost power early, i.e. the development was similar to the one in the US.

So Jazz Fusion was rather an explosion than a steady energy stream. But on the other hand, many elements introduced on a broad scale with Jazz-Rock were important for the further development of Jazz. In the work of bands like Rusconi, Mehliana and many others, the influence from Jazz Fusion can be seen still today. Fusion, at least in music, does work!

Thanks for reading all the way to here.

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6 thoughts on “Fusion – endless energy source or theoretical concept only?

  1. Great post! I was introduced to jazz by those jazz fusion bands back in the seventies, founded by some of Miles’s alumni. Attracting new audiences, success was fatal for a genre that tried to join two very distinctive and peculiar music categories. I became then a jazz listener almost in a purist way of thinking – I wasn’t enjoying the ways that fusion was going.
    I heard Rusconi (quite interesting!). Mehliana and Dave Holland’s Prism – are they simply introducing jazz fusion elements or are they trying to find younger and fresher audiences to a musical genre that could be watching the ageing of both its musicians and listeners? And of course there are always money issues involved – Mehliana and Prism can attract larger audiences and of course less scrupulous musicians. Same old story again?

    1. Thanks for your comment! Glad you liked my post.

      I fully agree, for me Fusion Jazz is certainly not my favourite Jazz genre.

      When it comes to Rusconi, they have gone down this path of melting Jazz and Rock from the beginning. In their “Sonic Life” record, they used Sonic Youth’s music as basis for their own sound.
      In my view, they manage to create something interesting, which is quite far from straight-ahead Jazz however.

      Brad Mehldau obviously can do whatever he wants with his track record. I saw him with his trio, as a piano duo with Kevin Hays and as Mehliana. The guy is really great and masters very different things.
      I do not believe he did Mehliana for the sake of money. In his case, I really think he just likes to do different things.

      1. I do like Mehliana – Taming the Dragon. Eclectic and prolific Mehldau is also genuine, creative and intriguing, supported by a solid classical formation. Clearly one of my favourites when it comes to improvisation.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      Honestly, I do not know Fela Kuti. But from a quick check of the usual sources, it seems indeed that him and Miles could have been a great fusion project.
      Apparently Miles Davis thought highly of Fela.

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