Home / Jazz Workshop: In Defense of Fusion, Part 2 – On the Rock Side

Jazz Workshop: In Defense of Fusion, Part 2 – On the Rock Side

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One of the most confusing aspects of the fusion universe is that, although the whole point of the music was to break down the barriers between rock and jazz, the very act of fusing the two genres seems to have created new boundaries between them. As a case in point, ever notice how, if the music was made by people inside the jazz sphere, it’s called fusion… but if it was made by people in the rock sphere, it’s jazz-rock?

Let’s be honest, folks. A good deal of the criticism of fusion’s primary jazz practitioners is absolutely valid. Miles Davis’ mid-‘70s output were a muddy mess; Weather Report lost its focus when Joe Zawinul replaced Wayne Shorter as its leader; John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever both changed their lineups after a few years, gave a bit on their creativity and discipline to make room for virtuosity, and soon lost both creativity and discipline; and Donald Byrd eventually shifted into R&B, forsaking jazz and rock entirely. Miles, McLaughlin, Corea, and (especially) Herbie Hancock all remained strong and visionary in their overarching careers, but there was enough dissipation in that period that it’s understandable that jazz fans thought fusion had squandered its potential.

On the other hand, the people on the rock side seemed to have bottomless ingenuity. We’re not talking about that Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears shit; that’s not at all jazz and barely rock. But why, for example, did Frank Zappa’s “King Kong” not become the standard that Weather Report’s “Birdland” did? For that matter, “Peaches in Regalia,” “Waka/Jawaka,” “The Grand Wazoo,” and “Sleep Dirt” are all on the same level as “King Kong,” and probably better than “Birdland.” Yet Zappa, one of the few musicians who had both rock bona fides and the knowledge of complex harmonics and structures that make jazz work, is virtually ignored in the world of fusion. (He’s NOT fusion, of course. He’s jazz-rock.)

Zappa, however, is just for starters. Robert Fripp and King Crimson’s most fertile and imaginative period was the jazz-based work of their second incarnation—Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and the Bible Black, and Red. Then there was the entire Canterbury rock scene. Henry Cow, the Soft Machine, Caravan, and Gong were all a part of that sound, and yet during the same period where jazz fusion was dying off, their jazz-rock was becoming more and more creative with every release. That includes the solo works of the band members—Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith could each be fusion subgenres all by themselves.

And, during the period where jazz fusion was in its true prime, many of the Canterbury players teamed up with Fripp, Ian Carr and Nucleus and a number of the most forward-thinking jazz musicians in Great Britain (including saxophonist Elton Dean and pianist Keith Tippett) to form the mammoth 50-piece big band Centipede. Their 1971 double-album suite, Septober Energy, was panned and considered a “failed prog experiment” upon release, but over time its reputation has improved. Today, it’s still underrated, but Septober Energy is a vital (if overlong) exploration of the intersections between jazz and art-rock.

So why the segregation? Why is the “jazz-rock” that in many cases bested its “fusion” counterparts so overlooked by those who would poo-poo Miles and Weather Report?

The answer lies in a unique form of snobbery that began, in all places, with Miles Davis himself. He had an elitist epiphany of sorts when learning about rock music, as he explains in his autobiography:

"I started realizing that most rock musicians didn’t know anything about music. They didn’t study it, couldn’t play different styles—and don’t even talk about reading music. But they were popular and sold a lot of records because they were giving the public a certain sound, what they wanted to hear. So I figured if they could do it—reach all those people and sell all those records without really knowing what they were doing—then I could do it, too, only better."

That attitude is the foundation for this bizarre, reverse-Jim-Crow treatment of “jazz-rock”: We can do what they’re doing no problem, but they can’t possibly do what we’re doing. In other words, it’s not that the jazz elite found nothing of substance in the rock musicians’ take on jazz, or that they completely overlooked the intricacies of the work. It’s that they’ve never deigned to pay attention to it in the first place. So convinced were they that rock musicians could never compete with jazz musicians that they wrote them off without having heard what they were doing.

It’s a little bit like that episode of Star Trek where there were two races of people, both of whose faces were half-black and half-white. But one race was white on the right side and black on the left—so they were persecuted and hunted like dogs. It’s instructive here to dispense with the term “fusion;” what we’re really talking about is rock-jazz vs. jazz-rock. If the players learned rock first, then jazz, why condescend to pay any attention?

That was the logic of an earlier generation of musicians, at least. Even as we speak, however, fusion is making a comeback.

That’s not earth-shattering news. The work of Dave Douglas, Terje Rypdal, John Zorn, and, recently, even Nicholas Payton has been big news in the jazz world. Nor is it surprising that today’s jazz players would know that rock has something to say. But so far this year, three fascinating new releases have come out that recognize the genius at work in the universe where rock musicians learned jazz tricks. David Torn, who last recorded an album under his own name 23 years ago, has been listening to electronica made by people like Eno and Cabaret Voltaire, but also the weirdly jazzy atmospherics of Robert Wyatt and Chris Cutler—it’s incorporated into his already fusion-y jazz sound on the new ECM album Prezens. Meantime, Joel Harrison, a San Franciscan guitarist who has previously delved into the oeuvres of George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix, channeled the techniques and sounds of Zappa and Fripp on his 2007 opus Harbor (HighNote).

The most visionary album of the year, however, is Live, Vol. 1 by Robin Eubanks’ EB3 trio. EB3 plays jazz with proggy turns learned from Fripp, Hendrix, George Clinton, Prince, and even Jerry Garcia. And with trombonist Eubanks at the helm, the group has redefined the notion of improvisation. They bring digital equipment onstage and loop themselves playing riffs and vamps, then layer the loops and solo atop the layered matrix.

These are only my personal favorites….This, folks, is the jazz of the future. And they learned at least a part of it from rock.

What these musicians know is what the rest of the jazz world should have seen 30 years ago. We all agree, even those who despise fusion, that those early records by Miles, Tony Williams Lifetime, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and all the others were stellar, groundbreaking, full of real potential for a new kind of music. But when those players started to drift, whether into the commercial world or just out of ideas whatsoever, jazz fans wrote the genre off instead of checking out what was happening on the rock side of the spectrum. It's a damn shame, because they'd have been quite pleasantly surprised at what they found there.

Fortunately, it's not too late. And even more fortunately, the current generation of jazz musicians know that.

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About Michael J. West

  • MAOZ

    #16 “…he wrote me…a manual to learn to play the ukulele.”

    Ah hah! Ah hah! The secret is out: The so-called “Ruvy in Jerusalem” is really — Ta Da! — Tiny Tim!

    (Stam shtuyot sheli, Ruvy.)

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Late to the party, as always… Is there any wine or cheese left?

    Mean Bunny, I’m glad you recognized David Grisman’s seminal contribution to the development of “newgrass.” He’s a musician’s musician, who has provided a platform for other musicians to grow and develop. I’ve seen this from the time he was a teenager, when he wrote me (a nine year old kid) a manual to learn to play the ukelele. He’s gone far since.

    Now if I could only get him to come to a Jacob’s Ladder festival here in Israel…

  • Mean Bunny

    ELECTRIC VS. ACOUSTIC. I think that the major “fusion” movement that replaced “jazz-rock” in the late 70s was the highly innovative work being done in “newgrass” and “world music.” David Grisman’s first Quintet album debuted in 1976, which is arguably the seminal “newgrass” album which spawned the explosion of innovations by other talents such as Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer (arguably two of the best musicians in the world). This was also the same time that McLaughlin introduced Shakti (see, he was ALWAYS ahead of the times and the critics), and Ralph Towner’s Oregon produced the ethereal and breathtaking OUT OF THE WOODS. These recordings were soon followed by Steve Tibbetts, Egberto Gismonti, Michael Hedges, Paco de Lucia, Jerry Douglas and other innovators who forged new fusion possibilities by expanding the influences and sounds, while prominently featuring acoustic instruments.

  • Walter, I know that there are some books out there that do give a fair shake to Zappa’s contributions to fusion…but in what you might call the mainstream jazz press, it’s those who approach fusion from out of the jazz world that get attention. Perfectly natural, of course, but unfair.

    As for the nomenclature debate, I started it. In this column. 🙂 But while I understand your point, I can’t agree with your differentiation: almost all of the work from Zappa’s fusion/jazz-rock/whatever period is instrumental.

    By the way, I’m looking forward to reading your book about the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

  • May I just say that I am not really aware of this nomenclature debate. But, if it does exist- I suggest the reason is quite simple. To me “fusion music” very rarely has a vocal element to it. I suppose if we were to delineate between the two descriptors- “jazz rock” contains more vocals. i.e. when I think of Frank Zappa; I think of his voice and not his guitar playing…That being said, Zappa’s contributions to “fusion” are quite well accepted in books on that topic as are other artists’- including Chicago! So, I am not quite so sure what all the fuss is about…

  • zingzing

    oh bah. i dunno about can being fusion. would you consider them a jazz band? certainly, they did have a lot in common with jazz (and fusion in particular), but i think it’s more of a case of them arriving at a similar idea from a different direction. they came to their improvised funk from a steady diet of vu, jb and classical minimalism, probably with some jazz thrown in. i certainly wouldn’t label them a fusion group (faust, at their most jazzy, fits that bill better).

    still, of all of the major krautrock bands, can is lowest on my list right now. faust is obviously the greatest. can… i rarely listen to nowadays. actually, the last time i listened to them was on a recreation of a bbc radio block selected by johnny rotten. he was asked to pick some of his favorite music… you know, some reggae, some stooges, some mc5, beefheart, etc. but then he whipped out “hallelujah” and said, “i bet you won’t play this the whole way through,” or something like that.

    damn straight.

    meh. i’m really into the idea of suicide right now. (the band, for fuck’s sake.)

  • and the fact that can stole all their ideas about recording from miles/teo was really something

    AHA! There you go! Can = fusion. And you can’t argue with Can.

  • zingzing

    ok, you make some good points in defense of fusion/jazz-rock. i suppose my general hatred of the genre comes from the fact (as you ably describe it,) that fusion’s promise was seemingly squandered. remember back in high school, when i first got into miles that it was the fusion period that really struck me. “in a silent way” was a bit of a revelation. (and the fact that can stole all their ideas about recording from miles/teo was really something, although i only learned that later.)

    it was just that by the time i got to miles’ 74-75 concerts, i was extremely bored. some of that stuff i still love, like “he loved him madly,” but i still can’t listen to much of that stuff. and weather report? pish. virtuosity trumps creativity a lot of the time in fusion and jazz-rock. that’s the stop where i get off. i despise virtuosity in rock, so why would i want that added on top of some pretensions of being “jazz?”

    my taste in jazz definitely runs towards the avant. i got the naked city box and found myself bored with the more trad jazz stuff AND the metal-jazz hybrid material. but then i got to one of the later albums, can’t remember which right now, and it had sounds like buzzing insects and clanging metal percussion and trad instruments so warped that you often couldn’t tell what they were. fucking marvelous album. more noise or experimental music than jazz, but definitely informed by jazz structures.

    i suppose we have fusion to thank for opening up both the sound of jazz and rock music. it’s the point where jazz musicians recognized the beauty of repetition and the rock musicians found the way to really stretch themselves out. for that, fusion should be revered. (so, i like fusion as an idea… but not so much in practice.)

    and thanks for mentioning cabaret voltaire. great fucking band there. their work from 1978-1982 ranks as one of the most fertile periods of creativity for any genre, at any time. they did so much then. i’m pretty sure you have “the living legends,” which has a song called “eddie’s out.” that would be the closest they ever got to fusion, i would say, although they did use a lot of jazzy improvisation and had a certain telepathy normally reserved for jazz ensembles. sometimes, i’m convinced that “eddie’s out” is their best work. 10 minutes of mad avant-industrial-punk-opera-jazz-surf music. strange fusion, indeed.

  • Chicago V has some great stuff on it too, along with the lighter (but still very good) fare like Saturday in the Park.

  • Great series, looking forward to more. I’m not at all familiar with Nicholas Payton, the name caught my eye so I’ll have to check him out.

    One small correction – David Torn’s last album under his name prior to Prezens was 1996’s What Means Solid, Traveler? (I’m also not counting the 1998 album with Vernon Reid and Elliott Sharp, GTR OBLQ, as that was a collaborative effort.)

  • Mark Saleski

    heh, this is great! i was just about to mention how much i love the Chicago at Carnegie Hall set.


  • I’ll give you guys this: Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago II both had some pretty great material on them.

    I’ve never heard Chicago III…IV, on the other hand–the four-record, live-at-Carnegie-Hall thing–I really detest. The sound is terrible, and come on: four records? It just gives fuel to the claims that rock of the period got bloated and self-indulgent.

    But it’s probably unfair for me to dismiss them out of hand, yes. Especially since this whole series came up as a response to fusion being dismissed out of hand.

  • A great conversation, Michael. I too have always felt that some of the fusion of the rock guys were just as impressive as those from the jazzers. Jeff Beck is yet another example who comes to my mind. If Soft Machine’s Third had been done by Miles it would have been heralded as a “fusion classic” instead of a “rock-jazz near-classic.” And Zappa/Ponty’s King Kong is breathtaking in both musicanship and compositional complexity, yet very few people seem to know about it.

    Although they probably don’t belong in this discussion, don’t be so quick to dismiss Chicago. They did some amazing stuff on their first five albums beyond the am radio hits and jazz fusion was only a part of it. Furthermore, Zappa helped to inform their more adventurous side.

  • Good piece, but I can’t let the dig on Chicago go unremarked upon. I know a lot of music fans think Chicago was too lame for rock and too tame for jazz. And sure, their output starting in the late ’70s did become something of a farce (especially after Terry Kath’s death). But I really feel that to casually dismiss their first five or six studio albums (vintage Chicago) is to miss some really fine music, regardless of labels.

    If you want to dismiss vintage Chicago as not having the musical chops or vision of, say, King Crimson or Mahavishnu Orchestra, that’s certainly valid. If you’re looking for new and exciting depths of virtuosity or creativity well then vintage Chicago isn’t for you. But to casually dismiss them as “shit” reeks of the same snobbery you are accusing Miles Davis of.

  • Mark Saleski

    that’s ok, i got what you were saying.

    unfortunately, i now have the urge to go home and listen to some early King Crimson.

  • Thanks, Mark!

    I feel compelled to point out an awkward analogy that I made, that of the “reverse Jim Crow.” I don’t think the treatment by jazz fans of rock music is race-oriented; while most rock musicians are white, so are most jazz fans.

    What I meant was that the music of little money and marginal appeal (i.e., jazz) treats the big-money, big-influence music with contempt and bias.

    Sorry for the unfortunate racial overtones.

  • Mark Saleski

    that reverse snobbery was definitely true. i remember reading a quote from Miles about how one of his bands, it might have been the group that did Jack Johnson, was the best rock band ever…which i always thought was a big loada

    nice mini-series on fusion, by the way.