August 2008 By Evan Haga
For Those About to Jazz-Rock…
In a 1991 Village Voice column by Gary Giddins on drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, the author makes the point that fusion, despite its outsized popular following, doesn’t have much to show for critical reception. “[V]irtually all commentary is focused on things like equipment or technique,” Giddins writes, and he’s expectedly right-on (case in point: we even reinstated our tech-geek “Gearbox” capsules for this issue’s Return to Forever cover story). Critics such as Bill Milkowski, who helmed a very serious biography on bass demigod Jaco Pastorius, have done much to canonize jazz-rock, but writerly profiles on loft-dwelling skronkers outnumber elevated journalistic insights on Allan Holdsworth and Dave Weckl tenfold.
Music writers like to project, they like romantic struggle, and they prefer music that can be impressionistically interpreted rather than academically quantified, almost as a rule. Giddins turned out a masterful column on Albert Ayler for this magazine in 2004, but what about some love for Steve Khan? Of course, not all fusion is created equal, so the closest most A-list jazz writers get to endorsing the f-word is Miles’ ’60s output, the Tony Williams Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra or, as in Giddins’ column, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time free-funk and its ilk (which is, oddly, only rarely remembered as fusion despite its in-the-red electricity).
No disrespect to the acoustic avant-garde or, at the other end of the pitch, Albert Murray’s children, but I’ve always believed jazz and rock made fine bedfellows. The idea of the two genres colliding in psychedelic matrimony was never the problem—if you think about it hard enough, it’s as organic a fusion as jazz itself, given the cultural climate of the 1960s. Fusion became a victim of the times; it’s been aesthetically undermined by the very technology that made it possible. The laws of nostalgia may have deemed the Fender Rhodes cool, but the majority of synthesizer tones introduced in the late 1970s and ’80s are not, and neither is the painfully artificial production that made much of that era’s music obsolete. Fusion is even pegged as the forebear of smooth-jazz, though after listening to Bitches Brew and Spyro Gyra in succession, that’s like blaming Robert Johnson for Pat Boone.
I hope this annual guitar-themed issue takes jazz-rock seriously. The new RTF compilation, The Anthology (Concord), exhibits not only a heavy hand (the manic unison lines, the cosmic song titles), but also a furrowed brow: These were and are headstrong men with technique to burn, manufacturing heat and drama with the collective skill of an expert film scorer. The Dave Matthews Band, arguably the most popular improvising group of all time, offers a surprising depth of jazz-related knowledge and some shocking sentiments regarding the jam-band scene. Also herein, I profile Vernon Reid, whose work with Shannon Jackson resulted in music that both free-jazzers and hard-rockers are still catching up to. During our interview, Reid, a man of limitless intellectual curiosities, said he wished Mahavishnu could also bury the hatchets and pull it together for a tour. “The Inner Mounting Flame was the real punk-jazz to me,” he said. We’re prepared to cover that reunion with graceful prose, sharp photos and maybe even a Gearbox. John, Jan, Jerry, Billy and Rick—phone home.
Originally published in August 2008