Features | Retconning

XIV :: Fusion I (Early '70s)

By Mark Abraham | 8 April 2008

Poor beleaguered fusion, the elephant in the room of indie cred. I think part of the problem fusion faced and faces is that, despite a large range of styles, the various strains are often conflated and, outside of On the Corner (1972), reduced to its two worst offshoots. So let’s clarify: while fusion means fusing basically anything to anything it normally means, as I’ve argued before, that fusion was mostly jazz musicians appropriating rock and funk. But more specifically, fusion essentially came in four brands.

First, we have the expanded rock-combo of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, or Steely Dan. Rock structures, bright horns, occasional flirtation with overblown instrumentals. Second, we have the jazz-heavy type of, for example, Freddie Hubbard; this style made moves to follow Miles Davis down the rock/funk rabbit hole but hedged in order to try and maintain a traditional jazz audience. In other words, slick, firm on the corners, and steady drumming. I mention these two in tandem because they together have had the greatest effect on what today most non-jazz listeners understand as “jazz”: the Kenny Gs, the Diana Kralls, etc. The former—especially if we’re talking Blood, Sweat & Tears—made the mistake of exploiting the sunny hippy-ness of the ’60s in a ’70s that looked back and declared, “no edge,” which in turn did a lot to drive folks to the more ragged work of glam and punk rockers throughout the decade. Whatever. I’m a huge Phil Collins fan too. The latter, in trimming the jazz-fat to be funky, consequently lost all of the internal tension that made bop soloing palatable—instead, the audience was left with slick, streamlined jazz that privileged consistent rhythm over innovation. Somewhere in the middle, a space opened up where more commercially-minded jazz musicians could somehow play at being “traditional” at the same time that their smaltzy crap bore absolutely zero resemblance to bop, swing, or whatever else happened before the ’60s. And, sure, that was a slow, indirect result, given that I’m about to tell you some of these albums are the my favorite jazz records of the ’70s, but that’s there, and it complicates the way fusion gets viewed.

A view even more complicated by the more notorious brand that followed the Mahavishnu Orchestra school of proggy fusion. The least jazzy, this sort of modulates between the more adventurous stuff Mahavishnu Orchestra did and the Weather Report pocket of smooth guitars and bass bending all over one another. Especially by 1976, where approximately 300 albums were released that typify this school. Jaco Pastorius, Bright Size Life, and Hejira—all of which I really like, mind—solidified electric stringed instruments in the context of jazz musicianship in a way that fundamentally modified its sound. And that’s a complicated thing to say, since it has little to do with composition and everything to do with the instruments themselves, but the guitar/bass blurs and hammer-ons and slides that are prominent in this style of play sound nothing like the sharp notes of, say, a trumpet. It’s a frequency thing, or a velocity thing, or just like somebody sanded off all the edges, but this brand of fusion is almost always equated by certain critics with “wankery” or even “self-indulgent wankery,” because, again, no edge, and therefore those certain people react, like: there’s all this shit going on but it’s irrelevant. Which is taste, of course, but then Chicago had to go and release “The Glory of Love” and wrap all this up into the Fogelberg/Loggins/Messina/De Burgh box of easy dismissal. Next time you want to walk up to some Pat Metheny-wannabe in a New York jazz club and say, “You were amazing!” remember: that’s a line in “Lady in Red.”

But also remember that this stuff in context was crucial to expanding pop boundaries (especially in bass playing) in the ’80s and pretty fucking cool on it’s own merits, if you can just listen to it away from some fanboy who’s closing his eyes and dreamily playing air-slap bass while acting like it does have more edge than horn jazz because it’s on a guitar. Not that I’ve ever suffered through that particular experience or anything. It’s dorky on both sides, is my point: people who refuse to hear it, because they think the corners are too curved and therefore there’s nothing to hang onto, and people who can’t get outside of the minutia of what are essentially jazz solos, like Zappa fans who think that every minor drum whatever is somehow synergistically produced as a result of his band’s utter unity and it’s like they’re talking to one another and their instruments are having a conversation and, yes, of course, another legacy of fusion—which, keep in mind, the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah (1975) and Terrapin Station (1977) came out around this time and they are definitely indebted to Mahavishnu—is everybody’s favorite punching bag: Phish.

And finally, of course, the Bitches Brew/On the Corner brand of fusion, where Davis found catharsis somewhere between voodoo and the urban environment. This is the brand that maintains the most critical legitimacy, even if traditional jazz aficionados haaate On the Corner and you’re most likely to hear it when some skinny white kid decides it’s a good time to explain to me exactly how much it expresses the urban setting. Not that I’ve ever suffered through that particular experience or anything. But whatever, dude. Hint: Davis wasn’t trying to express your urbanity, or mine, so let it be and just listen to the record. It’s amazing and one of the four integral components in the history of hip hop, along with R&B/Funk, Reggae/Dub, and the Lost Poets. I mean, uh, “spoken word poetry.” Since On the Corner isn’t on this list—I’ve done Davis elsewhere, and it should be obvious, anyway—let me just say, Teo Macero deserves a spot right up there with Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby as early innovators in hip hop production.

That fusion came out of jazz is in some ways irrelevant—certainly, the influence of jazz musicians affected the early aesthetic, but in a post-Hendrix/present-Funkadelic world, Davis and his ilk searching for relevance in what was increasingly a post-non free jazz world makes sense. Y’know, plus the heroin. But when free jazz took root in the early ’60s, rock was still a variable, untested and immature. When fusion took root in the ’70s, it was far more cognizant of the effect of popular music and of the shifting political climate. Even if Davis flirted with the dark side of vague voodoo on In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitch’s Brew (1969), it says something that he dropped the world/mystic/goat’s head imagery almost entirely as the United States careened into a ’70s that seemed to betray the promises of the ’60s. Black or white, the musicians who followed him down the road of fusion didn’t necessarily follow him into the occult. But what they did do was take his cue and strongly situate their music in contextual space, whether that space was the Hindu spiritualism of Mahavishnu Orchestra, the galaxy of Herbie Hancock, or the Africa of Phil Ranelin. And that search for meaning in a very interesting way situates fusion in direct opposition to the other preeminent strain of jazz in the ’70s: if free jazz and free improv sought to deconstruct the traditions and values of the old order, fusion nostalgically looked to spiritual imagery with roots in the old world. There’s exceptions across the board, of course, and certainly African-American free jazz was deeply rooted in local communities and the Civil Rights movement, but that to me is the biggest difference: fusion tried to find meaning; free jazz tried to rip it apart. And even at the points where the two met (which happened a lot, but e.g. Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Yo Yo”) that tension played out in interesting ways, showing that both strains—one that defines present tense commercial jazz, and one that defines present tense underground jazz—were trying to make sense of a world that had maybe left jazz behind. Or at least didn’t view Jazz as a thing that meant much as prog and rock musicians increasingly rubbed genres together.

Part one analyzes the early days of fusion, till 1973.