Monday, April 24, 2017

Jazz Appreciation Month: Fusion

One of the most controversial movements in jazz was fusion, the melding of jazz with another style, usually electrified or electronic rock.  Jazz purists rejected the movement, but the style attracted many fans who had previously been uninterested in jazz.  Several jazz musicians became "crossover" stars, and several rock artists incorporated jazz idioms ("jazz-rock").  For years, many rock musicians had improvised in live shows, and jazz was the source of the rhythm section for rock (guitar, bass & drumset), so the 1970s fusion of the two genres was a compatible pairing.  Some bands also brought in other elements, such as Latin percussion or R&B vocals, but the term's wide umbrella leaves room for them all.

Trumpet player Miles Davis pioneered fusion with his 1969 album, Miles in the Sky, though 1970's Bitches Brew is more well known. He blended electric rock-based sounds with traditional jazz instruments to create a sound never heard before.  Future stars of fusion Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea contributed to Bitches Brew.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a five-member group formed by guitarist John McLaughlin.  Several changes of membership meant that musicians moving on would share fusion with new audiences. including Jean-Luc Ponty (electric violin) who went on to have a solo career.

Electronic keyboardist Herbie Hancock and his group, Return to Forever, released the best-selling fusion album, Head Hunters, in 1973.  The album has been added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry and it is on the list of Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  A funky bass solo opens the all-instrumental album and repeats throughout the first track, "Chameleon." Chameleon runs on for over fifteen minutes, long even by jazz standards.  Chameleon has become a standard for modern jazz artists.

Weather Report, was a tight combo led by keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who had collaboarted with Miles Davis.  It was the most commercially successful group, releasing albums from 1971 to 1985.  Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter had participated in Miles Davis's In a Silent Way sessions, making Weather Report the next logical step in the development of fusion.  Bass player Jaco Pastorius's all-harmonics solo in "Birdland" (from Heavy Weather) demonstrated his artistry and remains an iconic moment in fusion history.  The song helped propel the fusion movement into mainstream markets.  Zawinul, Shorter, and Pastorius would all continue as band leaders and soloists after the dissolution of the band.

The Pat Metheny Group was another group with crossover appeal.  The group consisted of Pat Metheny, guitar, Lyle Mays, piano, Mark Egan (electric) bass, and Dan Gottlieb on drums.  Metheny continues to record and perform,lending his virtuosic technique to a variety of methods.

Spyro Gyra formed in 1974 and produced albums with a softer sound than the other fusion groups.

The Brecker Brothers (Randy, trumpet and flugelhorn, and Michael, saxophone and flute) performed together from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Maynard Ferguson was a squealing trumpet player who began his career as a big band soloist and toured with his fusion-playing big band in the 1970s.  The group consisted of 12 players, many of whom came from American universities with jazz programs. Ferguson traveled to high schools and colleges across the country, leaving his mark on a generation of jazz players and impressionable young audience members.  In addition to jazz songs with rock elements added, he arranged popular songs for his jazz band. Examples are "MacArthur's Park" and the theme from the film, "Rocky" (Gonna Fly Now)

M.F. Horn (1971)
M.F. Horn 4 & 5: Live at Jimmy's (1973)
Conquistador (1977)

Other Fusion Artists:
Matrix was a 1970s group of nine players founded by keyboardist John Harmon and his students from Lawrence University.  Their two most well-known albums were concept albums.

Madeski,  Martin &Wood is a jazz-funk group that started recording in the 1990s and continued to release albums until 2012.  The individual musicians have collaborated with other fusion players, keeping the genre alive until the present day.
George Benson's smooth guitar playing and even smoother vocal talent sometimes qualify him as "fusion," though more in the popular or R&B vein than the rock vein.  He is one of the musicians who ushered in the "smooth jazz" sound of the 1980s.

Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, and the Creation of Fusion:  ML 3506 .F45 2011
Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music:  ML 385 .C2
Head-Hunters: The Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album:  ML 417 .H23 P66 2005

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