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The Genres: Bill Milkowski on Fusion

Miles Davis

If you never had ears for Jimi Hendrix, if you had no use whatsoever for Cream, Led Zeppelin, James Gang, Frank Zappa, the Who, the Allman Brothers, Sly Stone or the Beatles, then you probably never got fusion.

In its earliest incarnation, fusion music was raw and full of abandon; a loud, iron fist upside the head of jazz complacency. A renegade movement fueled by the spirit of search and risk and the prevailing climate of hippiedom, it provided a bridge for both listener and player between the throbbing, cathartic power of Jimi Hendrix and Cream on the one hand and the probing, heightened improvisations of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on the other. It ambitiously melded pyrotechnic virtuosity on the level of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with the sheer decibels of the Who and the psychedelia of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles. Reviled by an older generation of jazz musicians (who smugly referred to it as “con-fusion,” just as Louis Armstrong had dismissed bebop as “Chinese music”), fusion was revered by a younger generation (myself included) that easily related to its pulsating, incandescent energy.

As guitarist Larry Coryell once said about his gradual conversion during the ’60s from straightahead jazzbo to fusion pioneer: “We were in the middle of a world cultural revolution. Everybody was dropping acid and the prevailing attitude was, ‘Let’s do something different.’ We loved Wes but we also loved Bob Dylan. We loved Coltrane but we also dug the Beatles. We loved Miles but we also loved the Rolling Stones.”

Tony Williams seconded that emotion by leaving the Miles Davis quintet in early 1969 to form Lifetime. “I got into Jimi Hendrix and Cream back then,” he confided in a 1992 interview, “and that was some of the stuff that influenced me when I decided to leave Miles. I wanted to create a different atmosphere from the one I had been in. So I said, ‘What better way to do it than to go electric? Organ, guitar and drums, but do it in a real aggressive manner with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll kind of feeling, energy, power. BAM!'”

While the first inklings of fusion music began creeping out as early as 1965, via jazz-trained hippies in Greenwich Village who began picking up on the liberating energy of rock music (see the Free Spirits and Jeremy & the Satyrs), the musical statement that is widely acknowledged to be the galvanizing force in the fusion movement was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Released in 1970, this adventurous double album brought rock listeners into jazz in unprecedented numbers (500,000 copies sold in its first year) while also setting a new standard for jazz exploration. As Carlos Santana recalls about hearing that pivotal recording for the first time in his liner notes to The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia/Legacy): “I remember thinking that this was the sound of New York City—the cabs, the canyons of buildings, the people and all the city’s energy, power and excitement. And I knew then that Miles was the new archangel, heralding the dawn of a new era and a revolution of sound and colors.”

Writer Quincy Troupe, co-author of Miles Davis’ autobiography, summed up the effect of this innovative album in his insightful liner notes to The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions: “After all is said and done, Bitches Brew had a profound impact on American (and world) music. The musical movement ‘fusion’ had its birth on this album, as did seminal musical groups like Weather Report and Return to Forever, some of whose band members played on Bitches Brew. The album’s influence extended to pop, rock ‘n’ roll and rock. The release of Bitches Brew was truly one of the watershed moments in American musical history, despite what some of its detractors might say.”

Miles had flirted with rock rhythms and electric instruments on 1968’s Miles in the Sky. He stuck a big toe in the fusion pool on Filles de Kilimanjaro (“Miss Mabry” from that record echoes the intro to Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”), waded out a bit deeper on In a Silent Way and then took the plunge on Bitches Brew, his most controversial recording up to that time and a harbinger of things to come with Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, Big Fun and On the Corner.

John McLaughlin’s sledgehammer, proto-punk guitar work on those albums helped to further obliterate the jazz-rock divide by joining rock’s ear-splitting energy with jazz’s spontaneity. A phenomenal technician who played with scorching intensity, the British guitarist had been recruited by Davis to play on the landmark In a Silent Way. He would later figure prominently in the direction of the early fusion movement as a key figure with Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime and his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, an electric juggernaut that also featured Miles alumnus Billy Cobham on drums. With its blend of bombast and mind-boggling virtuosity, Mahavishnu had an immediate appeal to rock fans.

“In the very beginning when they played colleges or were opening for someone else,” recalls road manager Elliott Sears, “you saw an audience experiencing something that they never heard before in their lives. These people probably never owned a jazz record, never even owned an instrumental record. When the Orchestra got on stage and played this challenging music at that volume, it was a total revelation. They were just in awe of the band.”

Since their fan base drew from the rock camp rather than the jazz community, Mahavishnu was much more compatible doing concert dates with ZZ Top, Emerson, Lake & Palmer or the Allman Brothers than sharing a bill with Cannonball Adderley or Oscar Peterson. As keyboardist Jan Hammer noted, “We were definitely improvising, but the sounds that we produced were on such a large rock ‘n’ roll scale. It was unlike any other jazz group, including Miles, who was also doing electric stuff at the time. But his stuff was much more subtle and jazzy. And when we started touring a lot, it just became hotter and hotter. By the time of Birds of Fire [released Jan. 1973], it became like an early speed metal thing, in my opinion.”

Also in 1973, Herbie Hancock hit big with Head Hunters. His trance-like “Chameleon” from that breakthrough album introduced a funkier strain of fusion, which was advanced the following year by the Brecker Brothers, one of the more commercially successful jazz-rock-funk bands of the ’70s. After disbanding in the early ’80s, they reunited in 1992 for Return of the Brecker Brothers and its 1994 follow-up, Out of the Loop (both on GRP).

Bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Headhunters and the Brecker Brothers, along with Larry Coryell’s the Eleventh House, set the pace in fusion music through the first half of the ’70s. Their playing was marked by a high degree of complex interplay and discipline, underscored by a sense of jazzy abandon in the solos. All but one of those groups would eventually disband by 1976. Only Weather Report would continue to prosper into the ’80s, though Corea would re-emerge in the mid-’80s with his Elektric Band.

A separate and similarly influential fusion movement—an amalgam of the U.K.’s progressive rock movement and America’s own fusion scene—was developing simultaneously overseas in the early ’70s. Among the top U.K. bands in this genre were Soft Machine (featuring guitar hero Allan Holdsworth), Brand X (co-founded by bassist Percy Jones and guitarist John Goodsall with, alternately, Phil Collins, Kenwood Dennard and Mike Clark on drums), Bruford (led by former Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford and featuring Holdsworth and bassist Jeff Berlin) and Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Other entrants into the Euro-fusion movement included Klaus Doldinger’s Passport (Germany), Magma (France), violinist Michal Urbaniak (Poland) and a whole slew of accomplished fusion guitarists, including Karl Ratzer (Austria), Volker Kriegel (Germany), Jan Akkermann (Holland), Janne Shaffer (Sweden) and Jukka Tolonen and Terje Rypdal (Finland). In Japan, the early fusion movement also significantly affected guitarists Kazumi Watanabe and Ryo Kawasaki (who was recruited in 1974 by Gil Evans to help recreate the music of Jimi Hendrix).

Miles Davis continued to embrace electronics with a vengeance just before going into a self-imposed retirement in 1975. His wholly subversive electro-jungle jams like Agharta and Pangaea, documenting separate concerts in Japan on Feb. 1, 1975, feature his wicked wah-wah trumpet in a dense whirlwind of percussive, throbbing sound that predates the current jungle or drum ‘n’ bass movement by two decades. This ferocious, highly provocative electric band often included two and sometimes three guitarists all flailing away simultaneously.

The fusion movement began to settle and cool by the mid-’70s and became largely codified by the latter part of the decade with the onset of more pop-flavored groups like Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber Fusion and hugely successful crossover artists like saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. (who ushered in smooth jazz-funk with his 1975 hit “Mr. Magic”), guitarist George Benson (who scored a vocal pop hit in 1976 with “This Masquerade” from his million-selling breakthrough album Breezin’ ) and trumpeter Chuck Mangione (whose “Feels So Good” was a mega radio hit in 1977).

Meanwhile, Weather Report prevailed on its own provocative terms. A cult favorite in the early ’70s, the band became phenomenally popular with the addition of electric bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius in 1976. A revolutionary player with a natural flair for showmanship, Pastorius came to embody the idea of fusion itself by effortlessly referencing everything from Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and “Third Stone from the Sun” to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Crowds flocked to witness his onstage antics with Weather Report while marveling at his sheer technical facility. After leaving Weather Report in 1982, Pastorius continued to produce innovative fusion music throughout his solo career. His volatile composition “Crisis” from Word of Mouth (Warner Bros., 1982), for instance, is a brilliant blending of rock bombast and the tumult of free jazz with a touch of Stravinsky’s more dissonant abstractions added to the mix.

By the mid-’80s, a new generation of musicians began taking its cues more from the radio-friendly aesthetic of Steely Dan than the raucous expressions of Hendrix and Coltrane. This trend toward pleasantness and tidiness was typified by such successful acts as the Yellowjackets, the Rippingtons, Lee Ritenour and Kenny G.

Meanwhile, a few fusion renegades persisted in the face of smooth jazz, notably drummer and Ornette Coleman disciple Ronald Shannon Jackson, whose Decoding Society accounted for some of the most fiercely defiant and provocative sounds of the decade; guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer with his trio and his powerhouse Music Revelation Ensemble; and Herbie Hancock, who scored a massive hit in 1983 with “Rockit” (Future Shock, Columbia), a kind of techno updating of “Chameleon.”

This harder-edged approach to fusion continued to be subverted in ’90s smooth jazz. There were, however, some notable exceptions to this tepid trend: The late avant-garde guitar pioneer Sonny Sharrock (who participated, uncredited, in Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson session) teamed up with jazz legends Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones and bassist Charnett Moffett on the Bill Laswell-produced Ask the Ages (Axiom, 1991), a defiant fusion gem in an age of fuzak; Tony Williams (in one of his last recordings) participated in a ferociously uncompromising fusion project under the collective name Arcana, which teamed him with bassist/producer Laswell, Sanders and electric guitar shredder Buckethead, for Arc of the Testimony (Axiom, 1997); electric bass guitarist Jonas Hellborg (formerly of the mid-’80s edition of the Mahavishnu Orchestra) captured the spirit of search and rebellion in a string of three fiercely uncompromising recordings with guitar hero Shawn Lane and thunderous drummer Jeff Sipe; drummer Dennis Chambers (P-Funk, John Scofield, Brecker Bros.) joined forces in 1997 with rock bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth band, Mr. Big) and Hammond B-3 organist John Novello to form Niacin, a power organ trio that harks back to the high-energy jams of Tony Williams Lifetime.

As the ’90s came to a close, various fusion tribute projects began emerging on the scene. Whether it was guitarist Henry Kaiser, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist Michael Manring with Yo Miles! (Shanachie), trumpeter Mark Isham’s In a Silent Way Project, bassist Kermit Driscoll’s Mahavishnu Project (featuring drummer Gregg Bendian and Lounge Lizards guitarist Mikki Navazio) or drummer Bobby Previte’s the Horse (with trumpeter Brian Lynch and guitarist Pete McCann reprising the roles of Miles and McLaughlin, respectively), all of these musicians were addressing their own musical roots in tackling seldom-covered material from Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, Agharta, Pangaea, Emergency!, Inner Mounting Flame and Mysterious Traveler.

That same renegade spirit and over-the-top intensity is being carried on today by newer groups like guitarist Dave Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos and Jazz Punk, saxophonist Tim Berne’s Big Satan (featuring Parisian guitar maniac Marc Ducret), guitarist Nels Cline’s Inkling Quartet, keyboardist Adam Holzman’s Brave New World, the Harriet Tubman power trio of bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis, Vital Tech Tones, with drummer Steve Smith, guitarist Scott Henderson and bassist Victor Wooten, and BPM, cornetist Graham Haynes’ visceral drum ‘n’ bass project. Other recent examples of this open-ended electrified aesthetic include French trumpeter Erik Truffaz’s The Mask (Blue Note), guitarist Dave Stryker’s Shades of Miles (SteepleChase) and trumpeter Tim Hagans’ Animation Live! (Blue Note).

Meanwhile, Columbia/Legacy keeps reaching into its vaults and churning out remastered fusion classics like Bitches Brew, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. Nearly 30 years after the fact, these records have connected with a new generation of listeners who were too young to dig the renegade sounds the first time around. Welcome.

Read Paul Tingen’s in-depth article on the making of the Bitches Brew album. Originally Published