Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Fusion Reaction

Young artists are drawing new energy from forgotten electric jazz

Dan Bejar with the band Destroyer
Mr Twin Sister
The Clarke/Duke Project (Stanley Clarke, left, and George Duke)
The Crusaders
The Robert Glasper Experiment

The music on Kendrick Lamar’s latest chart-topping album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is certainly hip-hop. It’s seething, inquisitive hip-hop that happens to draw on improvised instrumentals, multi-part song forms and ruminative seventh chords. So jazz, you could say, is its shadow genre.

The album is also politically forthright and proudly black nationalist, yet simultaneously self-questioning and complex. It’s bathed in glistening synthesizers and imbued with a subtle but stubborn sense of swing. To Pimp a Butterfly might’ve come out in 2015, but its shadow decade is the 1970s.

Lamar recorded it last year in his hometown of Los Angeles, where jazz is developing at a clip these days, in kissing contact with other genres. The sessions involved a handful of young, jazz-trained musicians, all with a drive to chart new frontiers: saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, bassist and vocalist Thundercat and keyboardist Robert Glasper.

On Lamar’s album and their own individual projects, these players show deep sonic affinities for instrumental music from the 1970s and early ’80s, when jazz-funk and jazz-rock fusion had taken hold. And they’re not alone. Look at the recent work of Esperanza Spalding, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, José James, Butcher Brown and Makaya McCraven.

But then look further, beyond jazz’s young crop. A handful of imaginative hip-hop and electronic music producers, like Dâm-Funk and Shafiq Husayn, are ignoring the domineering, gothic-architecture sound of contemporary radio and instead looking back to a time when funk and jazz ran hand-in-hand. Same with the quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, a dance crossover act that’s fashioned a huge and diverse audience around its flamboyant funk strut.

In indie rock, more and more artists are mining the fusion toolbox for musical and cultural complexity. Listen to the cerebral dance-pop of Mr Twin Sister. Or the wavy, Steely Dan-on-Robitussin sound of Ariel Pink. Or Destroyer’s 2011 masterpiece, Kaputt, a weightless, sax-streaked opus with lyrics about societal frustrations and unnamable anxieties, and a sonic landscape that’s equal parts Sade and David Sanborn.

Electric jazz aesthetics that were long written off as uncool, insincere or worse have found their way back into the contemporary bloodstream. Musicians are embracing sounds of ether and contemplative dislocation, and playing with electronic textures that push just past the listener’s expectation of what an instrument can do. “It was like our generation fell off the face of the earth, because it was said that we abandoned what jazz was,” explains Patrice Rushen, who had success in the ’70s and ’80s as both a pop vocalist and a jazz instrumentalist, often blending the two identities. “Now the people want back what we had. … It was like the curtain dropped and now the curtain has been lifted again.”

Drummer Bryan Ujueta, a founding member of Mr Twin Sister, says that the music of Rushen’s generation resonates with his bandmates because they find themselves in a similar situation: dealing with new technologies and feeling agnostic about allegiances to any particular genre. “I think fusion is cool because it does acknowledge things from the past, like how inversions and chords in jazz music can be really interesting, and then it pushes a lot further than Top 40,” Ujueta says. “It wants to take these things further, and it’s about production as well as performance.”

• • •

The fusion years have always been a frustration for jazz critics and rule-writers. The period lies just beyond the pale of jazz’s conventional history, which is understood to have ended at the close of the 1960s, when Tony Williams founded Lifetime, Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew and cross-genre pollination became commonplace. The cart was upset, possibilities unlocked, standards muddled.

“The critics gave the public an idea that there was something illegitimate technically about what we were doing,” says Stanley Clarke, the longtime bassist for Return to Forever. He released a handful of remarkable solo albums in the ’70s and ’80s, but their well-greased aesthetic and backbeat-driven rhythms miffed a lot of the jazz establishment. “They were insinuating that we were bad musicians or we didn’t know how to play our instruments. It was actually the opposite. I remember playing on fusion sessions with jazz musicians-the greats-who weren’t able to cover the parts that we were giving them.”

In the ’70s freeform FM radio stations spread across the country, and the world grew smaller thanks to new technologies. Comparing catholic record collections was now a collegiate rite of passage.

Rhythm and blues broadened significantly to include funk and soul and forms of fusion-you could call it the genre’s first great expansion. (We’re in the second right now, with the introduction of a woozy, less rhythmic, heavily digitized style of alternative R&B.) The same thing happened in rock ‘n’ roll, especially in the crudely inclusive subgenre known as “album-oriented rock,” which welcomed less hook-driven music from artists like Rush and Frank Zappa.

And for a time, jazz got free, too. Return to Forever and Weather Report and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band were worldwide successes that made no concessions as they electrified the concept of small-group improvised music. George Duke-a Zappa collaborator, stupendous keyboardist and master composer-arranger with an endearing falsetto-made energetic albums that blended pop structures, funk rhythms and firecracker jazz improvisation and harmony (especially The Aura Will Prevail and I Love the Blues, She Heard My Cry). Trumpet legend Donald Byrd’s seminal jazz-funk disc Black Byrd inspired his students at Howard University to start a sharp, funky band called the Blackbyrds, whose albums climbed to the top of both Billboard‘s jazz and R&B charts.

• • •

The Jazz Crusaders were a combo of Houston-born musicians who relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. They dropped the word “jazz” from their name in 1971 and became simply the Crusaders. They’d been hanging at Watts Happening, a coffeehouse and low-key venue, and hearing the music that was pulsing through the city streets. Fellow hard-boppers like Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver had started to lace the bright, assertive inflections of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield into their acoustic jazz, but the Crusaders doubled down, introducing electric bass and keyboard, plus frequent string arrangements. They released a handful of hit albums, peaking with 1979’s smash hit Street Life, anchored around Randy Crawford’s gossamer vocal line.

“[Founding members] Joe [Sample] and Wilton [Felder] were both involved in the session scene in L.A. They were playing on Jackson 5 records, Marvin Gaye records, so they were very aware of the changing times,” says guitarist Larry Carlton, who joined the Crusaders in the early ’70s. “It was like, ‘Hey, man, this other music feels really good and we don’t have to give up our harmony or our roots while playing it.'”

Just like most other forms of art, jazz was entering into postmodernity: Instead of perfecting an accepted form-say, the acoustic jazz combo-musicians were breaking forms apart and binding various ones together. Everything was an experiment. Anyway, John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet and Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet had seemed to wring the straight-ahead combo for all it was worth-why force it any further?

So with jazz musicians moving all over the map, you couldn’t rely upon the music itself, or the press, to draw lines of classification for you. Observers who saw jazz as a music with certain standards and social bearings had a hard time adjusting to its more fluid and responsively populist approach. Record companies chafed at the uncertainty of marketing artists in this new reality. (When Wynton Marsalis came along in the early 1980s, with his earnest charm and dedication to the straight-ahead jazz craft, he was held up across the industry as a guardian of what jazz had been-and ought to keep on being.)

So radio stations eventually turned to the audiences, rather than the musicians or the critics, to invent new ways of slicing the pie. In the mid-’80s, Broadcast Architecture, a consultancy firm, held focus groups to determine what kinds of instrumental music listeners would be most likely to prefer. You mean, all listeners? Well, not quite-but that was part of its problem. The firm became a Frankenstein’s lab for the most anodyne, broadly acceptable music genre possible. It helped divine a genre called smooth jazz, which a handful of radio stations began to use.

Even musicians who ultimately benefited from airplay on smooth-jazz stations lament the genre’s creation. “I don’t think Broadcast Architecture did the music any good,” says saxophonist David Sanborn, whose work has included candied jazz-funk, the occasional bracing straight-ahead and much in between. “They’re looking for whatever that demographic sweet spot is, whatever your perceived audience is, wherever you’re gonna generate the most advertising dollars. Pat Metheny told me a story one time. A radio station came to him and said, ‘Well, we’ll play that record but you have to edit out the guitar solo.’ You know-what are you talking about?”

Keyboardist Bob James helped lay the groundwork for smooth music as a utility man at Creed Taylor’s CTI Records in the ’70s, and went on to become a major beneficiary of smooth-jazz radio. And yet, he says: “It was a watered-down kind of a formula, and it certainly wasn’t created by musicians, but musicians were stuck with it. And it became clear that if you were going to get your album played on some of these stations it had to fit in some of these guidelines.”

Life became harder for musicians who believed in maintaining jazz’s role as a virtuoso wing of popular music (as you might say it had always been). In New York City, the world’s dominant jazz economy, club owners’ expectations reigned-and they hewed closely to the upper-middle-class, middle-aged consumer’s taste for straight-ahead jazz.

In Los Angeles, where commercial recording sessions and soundtrack work ran thick, some fusion survived. Then there was the plethora of places like Watts Happening or the Gathering, small clubs devoted to celebrating the music on its own terms. “There was a certain sector of musicians that was appealing to the high-society crowd, but there was always an undercurrent of a lot of musicians staying relevant to the other crowds,” says L.A.-based drummer Ndugu Chancler, who played with Hancock in the 1970s and joined the Crusaders a decade later. “If you played one of the high-society venues, you still went back and played some of the venues that catered to that grassroots crowd.”

The Crusaders “led the charge,” Chancler says, “even though they didn’t get a lot of the credit they should have, because of the changing times. … For them, it was art with a purpose and it had to represent the people.”

Still, it had become passé to argue that jazz ought to stay tied to the tides swirling around it. Most didn’t really consider the Crusaders jazz musicians anymore-as if they had relinquished their credentials at the door to the studio’s control room.

• • •

Today, jazz musicians from Robert Glasper to Kendrick Scott have doubled back around, picking up where groups like the Crusaders left off. You’ll hear it in the recent work of pianist and MacArthur fellow Jason Moran, who’d released almost all acoustic records for a decade and a half before he teamed up last year with neo-soul vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello to record All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. The album leans heavily on electric instrumentation and soulful, slinky rhythms.

And it wasn’t a blip: This past September Moran spearheaded “Finding a Line,” a festival at the Kennedy Center that celebrated skateboarding culture’s relationship to visual art and music. Moran and his Bandwagon trio accompanied pro skaters in improvised collaboration; their makeshift stage sat atop a bona fide skate park installed in front of the center’s stately marble citadel. Playing mostly Rhodes, Moran led the band through spacy, urgent funk that built an imaginative, inclusive sphere around the crowd, the skaters and the musicians.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Revive Music Group has become a driving force in jazz, advocating for contemporary fusion with an Afro-centric bent on its website and in live presentations. Detecting potential, Blue Note Records recently hired Revive founder Meghan Stabile as a consultant and released a compilation, Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1, in concert with her. The disc features jazz musicians playing plugged-in music with thick beats and neon-bright aesthetics. Even before the album release, the Revive scene’s influence on the current Blue Note roster was palpable.

Why is the current generation diving back into the breach?

Of course there was an inevitability factor-information these days spreads like fire across dry plains, and it’s hard to prevent artists from responding. Vinyl’s resurgence has played a part, too, since electrified soul and fusion records tend to be the most over-represented, underpriced items in the used record bin. Then there’s generational lag time: Millennials grew up playing in jazz ensembles that were often taught by baby-boomers, many of whom were as wont to assign charts by Yellowjackets and Weather Report as ones by Dizzy Gillespie and George Gershwin.

And for some, such as Thundercat-née Stephen Bruner-there was the opportunity to tap the source. Bruner grew up in L.A. in a family of musicians, and he learned directly from Stanley Clarke. “Stevie had good taste, he listened to some good records and took off what he took off-and then he developed his own thing,” Clarke remembers. Bruner’s sound calls back to the ’70s work of Clarke and George Duke, only he’s got a heavier thump, counterbalanced by a sense of perilous evanescence-like he might disappear into a cloud at any moment.

And there lies one of the more interesting commonalities between today’s musical alchemists and those from the ’70s: They use electronics not just for power, but to confront a sense of danger or insecurity. Experimental hip-hop producer Dâm-Funk’s new album, the sprawling Invite the Light, lays airy synthesizers atop solid but swaying backbeats. For him, funk is more than a kind of music-it’s “a feeling of struggle, and [of] staying cool through it all,” he has said.

In his author’s note to Mystery Train: Images of Rock ‘n’ Roll in America, Greil Marcus writes that the mid-1970s were a time “when the country came face-to-face with an obscene perversion of itself that could be neither accepted nor destroyed: moods of rage, excitement, loneliness, fatalism, desire.” You hear that in the tremulous darkness of Miles Davis’ records from the era, especially 1974’s nervy and spectral Get Up With It. It’s even in the bristling, magisterial funk of the Crusaders’ Free as the Wind, a strings-laden record from 1977 that suggested an alternate, more convincing path for what would become smooth jazz.

Today, our post-Iraq war, post-financial crisis predicament has a lot in common with the country’s mental state just after Watergate and Vietnam. Besides, social media have opened the floodgates to new forms of activism and engagement. Technology doesn’t symbolize passive entertainment anymore, but choice and allegiance. It’s a more demanding scenario, and it raises questions about our collective history.

Dan Bejar, frontman of the indie band Destroyer, credits Joni Mitchell’s work with L.A. fusion musicians on Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns as a principal inspiration for his recent turn toward glossy, fusion-indebted music. In an interview with The Quietus, he discussed how he was attracted to the way jazz musicians helped Mitchell deepen and complicate her emotional messages. “The bulk of her work in the ’70s, which I think is her most important work, is maybe a reaction against the succinct emotional heft of those Blue songs,” Bejar said, referring to her 1971 folk classic.

You can’t help but think that something very similar is true of Kendrick Lamar, whose lyrics are passionate but uncertain, and whose synth-driven live instrumentals balance exuberance and melancholy. He seems to like it that you can hear tough work being done by his improvising musicians. There’s nothing taut or tidy about it.

Jazz today is undeniably finding a place in the mainstream narrative again: Look at Jon Batiste and Stay Human’s gig as the Late Show With Stephen Colbert band, or the unabating celebrity of Robert Glasper, or the types of venues Kamasi Washington played on his recent national tour. This isn’t happening because musicians have attached themselves to mainstream acts-jazz players from Stanley Clarke to Branford Marsalis have always done that. It’s happening because jazz is engaging with a broader conversation, without compromising and without turning away.

Purchase this issue from Barnes & Noble or Apple Newsstand. Print and digital subscriptions are also available.

Originally Published