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Home » Jazz Workshop: In Defense of Fusion, Part 1 – The Case for John McLaughlin

Jazz Workshop: In Defense of Fusion, Part 1 – The Case for John McLaughlin

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In my inaugural column I didn't even mention jazz fusion iproper, barely touched upon it in the comments, and yet it still managed to take over the comments thread with the classic argument of Fusion Sucks vs. Shut The Fuck Up. This could be a commentary on some of our Blogcritics writers/commenters (and it surely is), but even more to the point, it's a commentary on how fusion remains a controversial development almost 40 years after it arrived.

I've got a number of things to say in defense of jazz fusion – in fact, I've been working on ways to say them all week. But I've decided to break them up into a few installments, primarily because I realized that I can't really defend fusion without giving a solid definition of the music we're talking about. And to do that, I think I have to establish my own perspective, which includes giving more attention and credit for the movement to a man frequently overlooked or regarded as a second-tier fusion guy:

John McLaughlin.

Don't get me wrong. There can be absolutely no doubt that Miles Davis was, to borrow Howard Mandel's metaphor, jazz-rock fusion's commander-in-chief. It was he who recognized the inevitability of that direction; it was he who put together its first important ensembles and textures; it was he whose recordings established the genre, at least in the minds of the jazz audience; and it was he whose hand-picked musicians would soon venture off to become fusion's movers and shakers in their own right.

But let's be honest. Miles himself didn't really quite have the feel for rock that's necessary in a true fusion. For example, the mother of them all is supposed to be the 1969 Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew. But is it really? It would probably be more aptly described as an electric avant-garde album. Does the fact that most instruments are electric make something rock-oriented. by default? If so, that would make Benny Goodman’s orchestra (which had Charlie Christian, the first great star of the electric guitar in any genre) and Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” quintet (which had electric organ player Joe Zawinul, the man who played that instrument on both In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew) both fusion bands as well. The backbeat? Bitches Brew doesn’t have a rock backbeat, but a funk one. They’re far from the same; indeed, the musicians who had pioneered funk rhythms for both Motown and James Brown were schooled jazz musicians.

No, sir. The only thing that gave Miles' 1969-70 fusion albums are real rock edge was the guitar.

For you see, not only was the guitar traditionally the dominant element in rock & roll, but it's crucial to remember that it was jazz that introduced the world to the electric guitar. Two big-band players, George Barnes and Eddie Durham, made the first-ever recordings with the instrument in 1938 (15 days apart); the following year, 23-year-old Charlie Christian auditioned for Benny Goodman as an electric guitarist, becoming a star and making the instrument famous.

When Chuck Berry made it the dominant element of rock & roll, his sound — raucous, abrasive, and gleefully unrefined — was easy to dismiss in favor of the elegant, delicate playing of jazz's archetypal guitarists: Christian, Barney Kessel, and Wes Montgomery. As usually happens, though, rock guitar’s technique became gradually more and more sophisticated… then came one musician who turned not just rock, but the whole music world upside down in the late 1960s: Jimi Hendrix, the electric guitar player who used his axe to produce timbres, techniques, and sounds that nobody knew existed on any instrument.

No form of music, or any other art, can survive long if it becomes so insular that it ignores developments and innovations going on around it. Between the Beatles and the psychedelic experimenters, the vocabulary of rock had become rich and deep… but aside from a few covers and Beatles tributes, jazz kept its distance from rock. But when Hendrix came along he made that impossible: this music that prides itself on cultivating virtuosity and originality had some serious catching up to do with its own progeny, the electric guitar.

Miles Davis knew this. He didn't specifically talk about electric guitar and its rock developments as the engine behind fusion… but in about the last year before In A Silent Way, the groundbreaking fusion record, Miles was introduced to Hendrix's music. He also was introduced to Hendrix himself, and though they never recorded together, Miles in his autobiography recalls how the two revolutionary musicians would get together and jam for hours with nobody else around. It doesn't take a genius to connect the dots between these private sessions starting in late '68 and Miles' first fusion records in early '69.

Which would seem to suggest that it's Hendrix who was the key influence behind fusion. But, first of all, as mentioned, nobody ever heard Miles and Hendrix playing together except Miles and Hendrix, so it's only possible to deduce and infer, not outright calculate Hendrix's influence. Second, jazz was never really Hendrix's speed. He was adding jazzy elements to his playing from the time he met Miles to his death in September 1970, but only elements: he wasn't inclined towards, or interested in, exploring the basic bedrocks of jazz, like harmonic relationships or polyphonic voicings or even swing. Experimental and radical though he was, at heart Hendrix was planted in hard-charging urban and folk blues – closely related to jazz, but ultimately headed in a different direction. What Miles, and jazz in general, really needed was a guitarist who had fully absorbed Hendrix's sonic innovations, but who had the context to transpose them into the jazz discipline.

Enter John McLaughlin.

Twenty-seven years old in 1969, McLaughlin was an Englishman who’d spent his formative years playing blues and swing, those two primary jazz ingredients. Indeed, McLaughlin had worked with British blues godfather Alexis Korner, and along with the jazz training he’d gotten from playing along with records by Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow, Christian, and Kessel, he’d followed the Korner tradition through blues-rock guitarists like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page; from there into innovators like George Harrison and Frank Zappa. When Hendrix showed up in England and both embodied and outdid ALL of those players’ developments, what choice did McLaughlin have but to assimilate him, too?

If Miles Davis was the movement’s commander-in-chief, McLaughlin was his most trusted general — the Eisenhower to Miles’ FDR. He played guitar on all of Miles’ most important fusion albums, from In A Silent Way all the way through On the Corner. When he wasn't with Miles, he was one-third of Tony Williams Lifetime, the seminal trio that some critics even place ahead of Miles in the development of fusion. McLaughlin's early solo records (especially Extrapolation and Devotion, from 1969 and ’70) are groundbreaking classics of the movement. And his early 1970s band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was — in its original incarnation — one of the only fusion bands to really get it.

McLaughlin might, indeed, have been the only musician typed as “jazz” who was actually equally at home in both jazz and rock. If there's any doubt of that, it should be immediately resolved on one listen to the second Mahavishnu Orchestra album, Birds of Fire (1973). It's tempting to say that the record proves that McLaughlin had one foot in jazz and another in rock, but listening to it again, it's even more tempting to suggest that McLaughlin actually had about ten feet. Immediately apparent are groundings in '60's garage rock, British blues-rock, Beatle melodies, psychedelia, and early '70's prog. On the other side, McLaughlin also shows a mastery of big-band style voicings, bebop harmonics, freeform improv, and basic call-and-response solo conversations. Birds of Fire demonstrates that a true fusion of jazz and rock really was possible – it also demonstrates that there is such a thing as a really great fusion album.

It’s for that reason that I suggest (not propose, but suggest; this one needs far more examination before it can really be a solid theory) that John McLaughlin is the real key figure of jazz fusion. He and Miles stand toe-to-toe in that sub-genre's pantheon: Miles, the man with the vision, and McLaughlin, the only one who knows how to execute it.

So there we begin, with a recasting of fusion, a shifting of its personnel. Think about how that affects most contexts, and I'll be back with a real defense.

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About Michael J. West

  • Pico

    You didn’t disappoint, Michael, this is very insightful study on Johnny Mac. The statement “He and Miles stand toe-to-toe in that sub-genre’s pantheon: Miles, the man with the vision, and McLaughlin, the only one who knows how to execute it.” hits the nail on the head.

    His first three solo records “Extrapolation,” “My Goals Beyond,” and “Devotion” are all extraordinary and yet so diametrically opposed to each other, and unjustly overshadowed by his Mahavishnu work, IMO. But there’s no argument from me that McLaughlin is a key figure in the development of fusion, and without him, fusion could have likely gone down a completely different path.

  • Mark Saleski

    great writeup michael….though i have to say that my favorite McLaughlin comes from the trio he had with Triloc Gurtu and…oh shoot, who was it now dangit?! uh, Jonas Helborg? a sort of mini-Shakti.

  • zingzing

    i am reserving judgment… reserving… man, it’s pushing at me like a 2 mile line for the toilet the morning after octoberfest… all lubed up with coffee and nicotine… i can smell the judgment already, and it smells awful. awful judgment.

  • Phil Peters

    I don’t necessarily disagree but your point about Bitches brew having a funk backbeat is correct. That was fusion… (I was listening back then, coming from Allman Brothers to Return to Forever & Mahavishnu Orch and backwards)not Jazz-Rock. Bass players, Harvey Brooks,Dave Holland and most especially Michael Henderson helped make Miles Electric Bands Fusion

  • Michael J. West

    Phil, what? I think you’re either missing a negatory syllable or you added an extra one. You don’t disagree, but you think I’m right?

    Let me get to what I think you’re trying to say: you will never, ever hear me say a negative word about Dave Holland’s work. In addition to his brilliant bass on Miles’ records from Bitches Brew on, and his breathtaking early solo records like Conference of the Birds (hasn’t somebody, somewhere, done a piece on that at BC? Or am I misremembering?) he is to the best of my knowledge leading the single best jazz band in the world today. But he didn’t play NEARLY the part that McLaughlin did in creating fusion, on Miles’ records or anywhere else.

  • Michael J. West

    Pico and Mark, I’m amused (in a good way) that each of us agrees on McLaughlin’s place in fusion’s ranks, but that each person has a different favorite of his work. That, to my mind, is one of the marks of a great musician: he has so many different aspects, all of them great.

  • Pico

    “breathtaking early solo records like Conference of the Birds (hasn’t somebody, somewhere, done a piece on that at BC? Or am I misremembering?) ”

    Why yes, Michael, someone has ;&)
    clicky clicky

  • Mean Bunny

    I also agree that John McLaughlin is the most important figure in the “fusion” movement. His sense of abandon and risk-taking combined with his mind-boggling virtuosity and originality captured the “edge” of rock ‘n roll combined with the harmonic sophistication of jazz in a way that NONE of his contemporaries (in either rock or jazz) could ever match. Putting all the descriptives aside, he simply was and is one of the most original, creative musicians of our times. What more could a music fan ask for?

  • Doug Plavin

    John McLaughlin’s musicianship aside (which I have no qualms with), the majority of fusion suffers from the celebration of ego. Ironically, it was Hindu based guru, Sri Chinmoy that really fowled up things by condoning and sanctioning the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music as coming from a higher source. Bullcrap. Sorry if I appear cynical, but I think CBS’s intention with the MO was to use fusion as a way to sell “jazz” records and artists to prog rock fans. And things just went from bad to worse once the homogenization set in with the ilk of Jeff Lorber and Kenny G. and all the Smoove Fuzak. Fusion also suffers from the exploding head syndrome. At a certain point,you simply run out of clever, and since you can’t blow up your head as a flashy finale,what’s left? NOTHING. Because fusion primarily exists to impress, and it’s underpinnings are not set in art, but in commerce. With some rare exceptions (like almost anything Wayne Shorter has written) fusion is vapid, artless, and soulless. It’s just a giant ball of wrong that should have been squashed decades ago.