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Legend has it that when Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the move sent shockwaves through the folk music community. Half a century later the incident is a key part of Dylan’s mythology, but the music itself is hardly controversial. Miles Davis’ decision to plug in just four years later, with the recording of In a Silent Way, remains divisive in the jazz world to this day.
In part that’s due to the differences between the genres; rock and roll is predicated on rebellion against the past, while jazz’s foundations are built on a respect for tradition. But since its 1970s heyday, “fusion” has remained something of a dirty word in many jazz circles, tainted by the sins of its most garish excesses and soulless acolytes. At its best, the music proved an exhilarating and necessary evolution, absorbing the radical influences of rock, funk and psychedelia that were proving to be the most innovative sounds of the day.
Miles was hardly alone in recognizing the possibilities inherent in a hybrid of modern rock and jazz. Raised in the rock era, guitarist Larry Coryell made his debut by blurring the lines with the Free Spirits, a band (including drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Jim Pepper) that layered jazz soloing over Woodstock-ready pop tunes. Charles Lloyd’s hippie-jazz classic Forest Flower, captured at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, earned him a crossover success that led to a decade-long relationship with the Beach Boys.
But it was Davis’ embrace of rock and funk that would prove epochal. Name the greatest ensembles from the fusion era, and nearly every one can trace its origins to Davis’ employ. Three members of the iconic Second Great Quintet — the break-up of which heralded Davis’ discovery of a new sound — would go on to form landmark bands: Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters (not to mention the Mwandishi band), Wayne Shorter with Weather Report, and Tony Williams with Lifetime.
[caption id="attachment_29610" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Credit: Photo by Ian Dickson/Shutterstock[/caption]
The new, younger sidemen that Davis brought into his circle in order to record In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and others would also prove fundamental to fusion’s development. They included Chick Corea, who later formed Return To Forever; John McLaughlin, founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra (which included fellow Miles alumni Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman); Shorter’s Weather Report partner Joe Zawinul; and Headhunter Bennie Maupin, among others.
Davis had found rejuvenated inspiration in the electrifying music — and immense success — of rock and funk artists like Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. His new collaborators had come of age with those influences, lighting the spark that would carry bands like Return To Forever and Weather Report to unprecedented audiences, playing on arena and festival stages. The flow happened in both directions, with rock acts like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago and Frank Zappa borrowing elements and musicians from the realm of jazz.
Many of these bands took the notion of “fusion” to heart, looking further afield for other traditions to incorporate. Corea’s original incarnation of Return To Forever, which included Airto Moreira and Flora Purim along with mainstay Stanley Clarke on bass, was laced heavily with Brazilian accents. McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra explored a meld of jazz, rock and Indian classical music. Weather Report looked to a panoply of world music along with a slicker variety of R&B that earned the group enormous success while alienating elements of their jazz audience. Just one year after honoring Heavy Weather with a 5-star review, DownBeat infamously granted 1978’s follow-up, Mr. Gone, a single star, accusing the band of having “done to jazz in the ’70s what Paul Whiteman did to it in the ’20s.”
Hostility like that would flourish, sometimes justifiably, as the ’70s drew to a close and the ’80s ushered in the birth of smooth jazz. The two styles are intimately related, though it’s difficult to find the charged invention of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum or Jaco Pastorius’ audacious grooves anywhere in the frictionless banality of Kenny G. In the earliest stages of its evolution, though, the style was still recognizably jazz. Serious players like Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn and the Brecker Brothers were simply following a path laid down by Creed Taylor’s CTI Records, crafting a more radio-friendly brand of soul jazz. Bands like the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra and the Rippingtons managed to bridge the divide, as proved by their longevity.
Fusion proper faded from prominence in the ’80s as jazz, like much of American society, took a neo-conservative turn. The Young Lions movement, epitomized by the opinionated Wynton Marsalis, led the charge back to acoustic instrumentation and swing-based rhythms. The proliferation of synthesized tones also infested fusion with sounds that seemed almost immediately dated and overly polished, leading to a yearning for something more organic.
“By decade’s end, fusion had degenerated into formula — even for competent players,” wrote Gary Giddins in The Village Voice in 1979. “Where fusion might have incorporated rock sonics to bolster improvisation and slice through the muddle of Top-40 sentimentality, it turned to easy-listening sophistication, complete with doggerel, cloying guitar sonorities, pretentious interludes from 19th-century Europe, and synthesizer-replicated strings.”
Which seems like a pretty definitive obituary, except for the cyclical nature inherent in music. In the modern scene, it seems that fusion has become the predominant mode, if in spirit more than in style. There’s hardly a genre outside of modern jazz that hasn’t been incorporated into it. Hip-hop, of course, is nearly ubiquitous, with artists like Makaya McCraven, Kassa Overall, Ambrose Akinmusire and Kamasi Washington finding novel ways to blur the lines. But jazz composers have also drawn from virtually every style that’s caught their ear: a globe-spanning range of folk musics, Americana, punk, metal — all have emerged in provocative ways.
As fusion forefather Miles Davis once said, “Nothing is out of the question.” - Shaun Brady