Terence Blanchard: The Frisson of Fusion

The trumpeter meditates on the jazz-rock that inspires him

Terence Blanchard at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013
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Terence Blanchard
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A picture periodically reappears in my Facebook newsfeed of a memo that producer Teo Macero wrote to the executives at Columbia Records on Nov. 14, 1969. It reads:

“Miles just called and said he wants this album to be titled: ‘BITCHES BREW’

Please advise. Teo”


Someone, who has no idea how record companies work, posted in response, “I think it’s safe to assume that the advice reluctantly given … was essentially, ‘Let Miles Davis call his next album whatever he wants.'”

Uh, no. Not by a mile.

In fact, after Teo handed in the album, I’m pretty sure the same guys who got the memo, and probably most of the marketing department that had pushed Kind of Blue up the charts as a pop album, were shitting bricks.

There was nothing like this, ever. Miles had worked out some ideas through the recording of In a Silent Way, but the music on Bitches Brew, the title, the in-your-face, psychedelic, sexualized cover art by Mati Klarwein … Add your own colorful language, because it was just that! The shit. Unique. A one-of-a-kind performance and album.

When Bitches Brew was recorded, the walls were tumbling down and revolution was in the air. Just three weeks after Teo’s memo was written, the infamous Altamont festival, headlined by the Rolling Stones, signaled the end of hippie idealism. It was two years after the Summer of Love and a year following the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clinched fists in solidarity with other African-Americans; that same year, Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam singles title in tennis, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

And over in pop and jazz? “Dizzy,” “Sugar, Sugar” and Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” were floating on the radio waves. The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You” reached No. 1 on the pop charts. Jazz was ruminating in the basement of “out there” with Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But nothing was as intense as the boundaries that were being pushed to their limits by the unyielding creativity of Miles and company. Macero edited the shit together to find new possibilities in composition, flipping the end to the front or the middle to the end, or clipping out a whole section and having that become a track by itself (“John McLaughlin”). It was as Miles wanted, so to speak; as Miles would say to Teo, “I thought you’d do that.”

What came after Bitches Brew was the music that excited and captivated me when I was in my pre-teens: fusion in all its rock-jazz glory, filling amphitheaters with a young fan base jazz hadn’t seen in decades. But you can’t get to the era of fusion without going through Bitches Brew, because many of the leaders of the fusion bands participated in those sessions: Chick Corea; John McLaughlin; Joe Zawinul; Wayne Shorter; Lenny White, who headed over to Return to Forever with Chick; Airto Moreira, who played with both RTF and Weather Report; and Bennie Maupin, who joined up with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

Those who played on the Bitches Brew sessions-and all who heard the album-were influenced by the approach that Miles and his band took to harmony. It made room for everyone to stretch from a single tonal foundation, with no harmonic limits. Freeing up the form or solo structure was something Miles brought over from his jazz quintet period, and it served this music well by allowing it to be shaped by the movement of the ensemble rather than by a preplanned structure. All of this was colored by a minimalist approach to melody.

Take a listen to the solos again. The musicians are not showing off; this is not a display of how fast or how high they could play. It’s about what was on their minds-another facet of the word Brew, perhaps. More important, this recording put soul back into the form; motivation and essence were key elements in finding a way through the music.

There is no doubt this album started a movement. All of the guys mentioned above, along with Freddie Hubbard, have taken things from that music and used it in their own way. Hubbard’s intro to “Red Clay” can be seen as being influenced by Coltrane and Miles; the rubato intro has the openness of “Bitches Brew” and was recorded four months later in January of 1970, with Miles alumni Lenny White, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. And while more rhythmic, Chick Corea and Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before has elements of Bitches Brew in its sonic palette. Even though that album was released in 1974, you can see how it was part of the initial movement to plug in and turn up.

Mainstream jazz fans walked out of fusion concerts the same way people walked out when Dylan went electric at Newport and Stravinsky premiered The Rite of Spring. (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Wagner, Satie and other classical mainstays were once as radical as what Miles created with Bitches Brew.) This always happens when the foundation is chipped at and the house sways while being rebuilt.

When I was in the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey used to tell the audience: “You blew Bird. You blew Monk. Don’t blow these young musicians.” Get it now or regret it later, basically.

•••

“When music created controversy without lyrics.”- ad copy for a fusion CD compilation released in 1992

By the ’90s, there was cause to look back and celebrate fusion, which had long since been coopted. As usual, when something is good and making money-Return to Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra played arenas and sold “product”-commercialism starts sniffing around. Fusion, almost as soon as its first year, was churned into albums in order to pay the record companies’ bills, not create sparks. (A formula still in practice today, by the way.) The intent of the fusion I loved was to create something new, not to be just another piece of vinyl sold at the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.

In New Orleans in my teen years, I enjoyed all types of music from all different genres. Whether it be Mandrill, Parliament-Funkadelic, the Headhunters, Return to Forever, Miles Davis’ jazz quintet, John Coltrane’s quartet or Jimi Hendrix, they all forced me to expand my thoughts about what music could become or mutate into. “Sly,” on the Head Hunters album, was a definite, and pointed, hat tip to Sly Stone. The funk that you basically breathe in the air down here was being whipped up into this other thing; it made its way into your consciousness by combining infectious grooves with complex jazz harmonies and highly specialized improvisation.

My first intention behind starting a group like the E-Collective was to not only have some fun with some great guys, but to create instrumental music that would inspire a whole new generation to check out this jazz thing. What gave me a shot of excitement, the thrill of going over the edge, was fusion; the frisson of fusion, if you will. There is a time and a place for pulling tunes out of the archives and laying in the footnoted solos, but music should also make you experience something you haven’t quite felt before; show you something of yourself you’ve never quite understood before; help you off your ass to go way past the comfortable and push you into the thrilling.

E-Collective members are lovers of all types of music. You name it and it’s probably been through our headphones. Taking the open form of Bitches Brew as a starting point and inspiration, and allowing-needing-the solos to expand from the soul, has given us the foundation to build just about anything. This understanding and spirit is allowing us to bring all of our collective experiences together to form music that is both exciting to listen to and fun and challenging to play.

We recently did an East Coast swing with Ravi Coltrane. When the E-Collective would walk out onstage, you could tell that some of the fans had no idea what was in store for them. They were waiting for Magnetic or even A Tale of God’s Will. And this scenario was the same throughout the entire tour. During the first two songs, I could see some fans had a look of bewilderment on their faces, all while tapping their toes. By the fourth tune, those who chose to stay were fully engaged. The younger members of the audience knew where we were coming from; they got it from beat one. Then, unfortunately for those who left, Ravi came out and offered his musical genius with a groove-based philosophy that is shared by the E-Collective. Music can never stand still. Because while you think you’re standing still, the earth is rotating.

Since his arrival on the scene in the early 1980s, Terence Blanchard has been one of jazz’s top trumpeters. He is also renowned for his film-scoring work in collaboration with Spike Lee. His most recent album is Breathless (Blue Note), featuring his band the E-Collective.