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While the blending of jazz and rock aesthetics had started years before, the 1970s was the golden age of fusion. Here are 10 albums that rocked jazz to its foundations.
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)
Fusion didn’t start with Bitches Brew, but for many listeners, it gets no better. Armed with a few musical sketches, Davis assembled his working band plus guests to play sprawling jams that were edited and spliced together by producer Teo Macero. Results were funky, atmospheric and artful, with doubled keyboards (Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul), bass (Dave Holland, Harvey Brooks), drums (Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White), percussion (Don Alias, Jumma Sultan) and reeds (Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin), plus guitarist John McLaughlin and the Dark Magus himself lasering though the mix with his incisive, minimalist trumpet. Released in April 1970, the double album earned Miles a Grammy and a gold record. Its ripples continue to be felt 50 years later.
Larry Coryell, Spaces (Vanguard, 1970)
Guitarist Coryell had established himself as a prodigious up-and-comer with Chico Hamilton’s and Gary Burton’s groups — neither of which would have prepared listeners for the frenetic yet lyrical fandangos offered here. Engaging in fleet and fiery exchanges with guitarist John McLaughlin, Coryell displayed bluesy chops and classical technique undergirded by Miroslav Vitous’ poignant bowed bass and cello and Billy Cobham’s scintillating drums.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)
John McLaughlin set the template for fusion guitar playing with this first album by The Mahavishnu Orchestra, his furious leads engaging in feedback-laced freak-outs elevated by an underlying melodic sophistication. His intensity was matched by Jerry Goodman’s skittering electric violin, Jan Hammer’s atmospheric piano and synths, Rick Laird’s rumbling bass and Billy Cobham’s untethered drumming.
Billy Cobham, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)
Drummer Cobham’s debut album highlighted his nail-gun drumming and dynamic R&B-influenced compositions, as well as the frighteningly talented young guitarist Tommy Bolin. Cobham’s joyful exuberance was matched by Bolin’s driving, boogaloo-rock leads and Jan Hammer’s keyboards and synths. Cobham also dipped into the electronic trick bag, utilizing Moog synth drums and sample and hold devices. Bolin’s stellar career came to a tragic end with his overdose death in 1976 at age 25.
Herbie Hancock, Headhunters (Columbia, 1973)
With an arsenal of electric keyboards at his command — Fender Rhodes, clavinet, ARP synths — Hancock crafted one of the funkiest instrumental records to ever test a pair of woofers. His Headhunters quintet maintains slippery, slinky grooves throughout, with Paul Jackson’s liquid bass lines, Harvey Mason’s sinewy drumming and Bill Summers’ snaky percussion flowing like magma under Hancock’s spanking keys and Bennie Maupin’s sinuous saxophone.
Return to Forever, Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974)
Chick Corea’s seminal fusion group evolved from album to album, but remained rooted in lyrical melodies and dazzling musicianship. On the band’s fourth release, 19-year-old guitar hotshot Al Di Meola joined Corea and the remarkable rhythm section of bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White on a set of tunes with their heads in the stars and their feet in the funk. Echoed by Di Meola’s blazing leads, Corea’s sci-fi sonics evoke galaxies aborning, while Clarke and White are the fuel that propels the rocket onward.
Jaco Pastorius, Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976)
Jaws dropped from the needle drop on fretless bass phenom Pastorius’ debut release. His Track 1 read of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” accompanied solely by Don Alias’ congas, backed up his boast as the “world’s best bassist.” Not only showcasing his instrumental virtuosity, this self-titled release also displayed Pastorius’ compositional genius on tunes such as “Continuum” and “Portrait of Tracy,” and revealed roots in soul and R&B (“Come On, Come Over” with Sam and Dave) and island music (“Opus Pocus” with steel drummer Othello Molineaux).
Pat Metheny Group, Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978)
Guitarist Metheny had made his debut on ECM in 1976, introducing listeners to his airy, bucolic signature sound with his trio (with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses). He extended his palette on subsequent recordings, such as this third outing for ECM, continuing a fertile association with keyboardist and co-composer Lyle Mays and the easy-flowing rhythm section of bassist Mark Egan and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Soaring and full of space, songs eschewed shredding excesses in favor of a lyrical melodicism that evoked the wide-open Missouri skies of Metheny’s youth.
Weather Report, 8:30 (Columbia, 1979)
Captured live in San Francisco in 1979, fusion powerhouse Weather Report more than lived up to its supergroup status on this double album. Joe Zawinul’s frisky keyboards, Wayne Shorter’s burning tenor sax, Jaco Pastorius’ remarkably elastic bass and Peter Erskine’s propulsive drums contribute equally on a thrilling set of some of the band’s best-loved tunes, including Pastorius’ street hustling “Teen Town” and Zawinul’s boogying “Birdland.”
Stanley Jordan, Magic Touch (Blue Note, 1985)
Guitarist Jordan brought the art of string tapping to new heights, displaying a dizzying dexterity that blurred distinctions between classical, jazz and rock. On his second Blue Note release, Jordan unleashes his exquisite tone and technique on jazz (“Freddie Freeloader,” “’Round Midnight”) and rock (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Angel”) selections, as well as a couple of lovely original tunes (“All the Children,” “Return Expedition”). While his virtuosity astounds, it’s always in service of the song.