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.Powered by Sidelines