Fusion Renaissance 2014

Publicly mothballed since the mid-1970s, modern Jazz-Rock or "Fusion" groups are again taking global independent charts and Internet radio by storm.

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Italian trumpeter Gianfranco Campagnoli of Camera Soul
By Kathryn Ballard Shut
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Holland's Tristan and lead vocalist Evelyn Kallansee
By Kathryn Ballard Shut
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Snarky Puppy Rocks The Denver Fillmore - Jan 2014
By Kathryn Ballard Shut

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In 1969, Blood, Sweat, and Tears won the Grammy Award for "Album of the Year", in a day and age where jazz and rock combined to create a special form of popular music called "Fusion." For a few years in the early Seventies, hornline-heavy bands such as Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ides of March, Chase, and Tower of Power each followed suit to great commercial success. Then Disco showed up in the mid 1970s and mothballed the entire Fusion scene for the next 30 years.

Fusion fans may now rejoice and dust off their funky best. Within the past few years, world-class independent Jazz and Fusion artists, primarily in Europe, but also now emerging in the United States and around the world, have been presenting their takes on this classic sound. Starting as early as the mid-1990s with a ‘British Invasion’ of sorts in groups such as Jamiroquai and Incognito, and well into the 2000s with powerhouse bands The Brand New Heavies and Drizabone, Fusion continued to remain on many fans’ radars but dwelled in the collective radio basement, only to be heard on underground radio and specialized blogs.

Happily, the tide is turning to offer such bands increased exposure on the airwaves, and this trend is primarily evidenced by the appearance of new global Funk and Fusion bands on independent playlists and charts on Internet radio. It is apparent that a greater public demand for Fusion is back and stronger than ever, with intelligent songwriting, captivating lyrics, and of course, infectious horn lines that serve as a siren song to longtime fans of the genre. In addition, two new prestigious music awards (The Akademia and The Independent Music Awards) also include the "Funk/Fusion/Jam" category on their ballots to recognize these juicy hornline and vocal groups that don't neatly fit into existing Jazz, Rap, Hip-Hop, or Rhythm and Blues categories. May The Grammys soon do the same!

Case in point to this growing trend -- two years ago, when I began this blog, I was thrilled to discover (and now I collaborate as a songwriter for) the enchanting music of the Fusion group from southern Italy, CAMERA SOUL (see review on my profile, written when I was just a fan). In 2012, when co-leader and founder Piero Lombardo had reached out to me randomly via Twitter, it seemed few others in the world appeared to be recording Fusion music the way that this stellar group was doing.

Since that time, Camera Soul has released two albums – the latest of which, “Not For Ordinary People”, climbed as high as #2 on the UK Soul Chart last October, remained in the Top 30 in independent radio airplay for over 15 weeks, and was submitted for Grammy consideration in 11 stunning categories. Not a bad feat for a band that few had heard in 2011, and certainly it is never bad news to score at second place on the chart underneath Earth, Wind, and Fire’s new album, “Now, Then, and Forever”. The overwhelming success also helped to prove that there was a hungry audience out there starving to hear and support Fusion bands yet again.

Now in 2014, the Fusion trend is literally exploding. This could be fueled partly by the Grammy-winning success of America’s SNARKY PUPPY (for “Something”, featuring Lalah Hathaway) in January, rightly deserved after a decade of writing, touring, recording, first making their name known throughout the music industry, and now appreciated by fans all over the world. Bands such as Colorado’s THE MOTET (for whom Snarky Puppy appeared at their Denver CD release concert just 12 hours before their Grammy win) and EUFORQUESTRA push the genre to new boundaries from the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Deep Funk favorites such as the Bay Area’s HOOPTY, Los Angeles’ ORGONE and THE REBIRTH, New Orleans’ EARPHUNK, and Detroit’s THIRD COAST KINGS all also lead the indie horn-rich charge.

In Europe, Fusion is slamming the global scene in huge waves. Producer Bluey Maunick continues to impress via the always-soulful INCOGNITO and the group’s special guest vocalists (Joy Rose, Tony Momrelle), as do THE BAKER BROTHERS with their powerful wall of sound. Pianist-composer JASON REBELLO, known for his work with artists such as Sting and Jeff Beck, recently released the excellent “Anything But Look”, which is a great mix of modern Soul, Fusion, and Acid Jazz. Britain continues to live on the vanguard for wonderful funk, fusion, and modern soul, and is often the first place I look to see what might hit us over here in the States.

However, Britain has some fierce competition on its heels. In addition to the aforementioned CAMERA SOUL, Italy is no slouch with vocalist MARIO BIONDI (who also has recorded with Incognito). Guitarist-producer Pascal Renaudat from Paris, France also offers a great mix of original Fusion and Soul in the style of Swing Out Sister and Everything But The Girl via his band, WINE (see my review here of EP “My Possibility”; new full-length album, “Havin’ Fun”, drops globally March 31). FREEDONIA also routinely rocks sold-out shows in Spain.

Finally, this month, new artist TRISTAN is flying out of Holland with its explosive release, “Full Power”, and the album name and title track are a great description of the full-bodied Fusion treasure that lies within. In addition to a complete rhythm and horn section, the group also boasts three studio backing vocalists as well as a full string section on their release. It is no wonder in that this return to spending more in the studio to hire true musicians, paired with premier engineering and mastering quality in each effort, all of these independent groups have enchanted many Internet Soul and Jazz radio programmers to ensure that their sounds make it into heavy rotation and shown that they have come to play on the world stage.

I am looking forward to the latest neo-Fusion trend to finally make it once again into the mainstream. Until then, I will support these new pioneers that are doing their level best to contribute meaningfully to the evolution of jazz-styled music over time.

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Kathryn Ballard Shut