In 1969, Miles Davis was looking for a way to sell more albums. So the jazz trumpeter delved into rock and R&B on Bitches Brew. When his record sales promptly increased, fusion was born.
Eight years later, the genre is having an identity crisis. Once, pegging fusion was easy: it was the rigorously creative effort of Miles Davis, his former sidemen (Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter) and a San Francisco-based band, the Fourth Way, led by pianist Mike Nock. These days, though, fusion has diffused; within its extremes of thoughtless, schlocky grafting (e.g., Stanley Turrentine over strings and a funky drummer) and "serious," often ponderous composition and orchestration (the ECM school), there's mostly unfocused music.
Fusion musicians don't seem to be bothered. For most of them, "fusion" is simply a marketing tool, a convenient critical invention, nothing real enough to have actual implications. Which makes sense, considering the form began less as an art than as a way to make money, and continues in this reactionary vein: the music Davis created was still way above the common denominator so, many exjazzmen, seizing their big chance to stop scuffling, have eagerly gone more reactionary. (Also, because they are almost exclusively tied to major commercial labels, fusioneers constantly risk being told their work's not marketable enough, a kind of pressure that doesn't aid artistic surety.)
Worse, many fusion players embrace diffusion, claiming that labels — like "fusion" — only inhibit artistic conception. Well, it's true much of the best fusion was made when the genre was too young to be called anything. But it's also true that much subsequent fusion music pales in comparison, as even those who make it admit. Maybe, in this case, freedom spells flaccidity. And maybe a refocusing of the genre, a turn back to the beginning, is in order.
To my ears, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, by Chick Corea and Return to Forever, has "heightening" and "tension and release," the key elements of fusion quality, in spades. Every cut proceeds as a series of small, jazz-based structural twists — time stops, coyly repeated riffs, the rhythm section dropping out momentarily, the melody changing completely and abruptly. And each twist intensifies the album's constant rock-infused energy, setting it up tensely, letting it go, more so than if a rock band just laid out the same feeling without embellishment. The result is heightened rock — speaking purely musically, since fusion's lack of lyrics deprives it of a dramaturgy. But, using similar instrumentation, fusion records give us varying numbers of aural climaxes per song, while ZZ Top and James Brown get us off only once. (And in other ways, of course, fusion is also heightened jazz.)
Sad to say, RTF's subsequent LPs became so contrived in this direction they lost spontaneity, as did most other fusion artists. After The Inner Mounting Flame, the Mahavishnu Orchestra became arty and mystical; after the first cut of Spectrum, Billy Cobham became aimless. On Headhunters, Herbie Hancock heightened funk; on the albums that followed, he mined it dry. Finally, in the void, Jeff Beck emerged with Wired, which captured the spirit of Hymn but — ironically — from the rock perspective. Of course, Beck's chops aren't that incisive in relationship to jazz-based form, so the charts were simple compared to Corea's — whose wouldn't be? The point was that Jan Hammer's cranked-up Moog and Beck's raving guitar, given even a taste of fusion's structure, turned especially kickass.
Yet Live joins all the other fusion busts. It lacks energy, perhaps because the four direct Narada Michael Walden tunes that worked so well on Wired are replaced by Hammer charts; maybe, too, because Beck doesn't respond as well when the going becomes more complex. But someone, whether it was Beck or Hammer (who produced), just chose the wrong tapes. Instead of the night of shrieking, wailing and ripping I heard in New York, we get singing, sound effects, voice-bag tricks and a general aura of gimmickry.
Which leads us to the Brecker Brothers. Horn bands can especially heighten funk; in their few concert appearances, the Breckers have excited people with punchy little bursts and razor-sharp turns. Additionally, their writing is already marked by an abundance of stop-on-a-dime tricks, breeding grounds for tension and release. Yet their last two LPs contain much uneventful, if commercial, music. I wonder why they don't try harder to make some memorable mass-audience fusion, based on the horn-band experience. Maybe their distinctive musicality, feeling and humor as purer jazz players gets in the way; it carries Don't Stop.
More disturbingly, fusion has developed a "serious" school, involving many somniferous ECM artists as well as some of the ex-Davis players, including former RTF drummer Lenny White. White's two albums are classy, thoughtful packages, extremely confident and competent. But White, fond of writing suites in emulation of classical composers, continues to ignore his real strength, which is fusion-funk. For example, the first two cuts on Venusian Summer, his first album, play uniquely with pulse, accenting it contrapuntally with gritty organ fills so it moves slicker than any backbeat. On Big City, the final track — a jam featuring Brian Auger and guitarists Ray Gomez and Neil Schon — has a smoking beginning but ends after seven minutes with a too ethereal Bennie Maupin soprano solo. It doesn't build — through horn fills, more guitar battling, drum-keyboard tradeoffs — as it should. Elsewhere on this highly eclectic record, there's an overwhelming precision of "creativity" that's enervating. I wish White would play funk and leave worrying about Varese to musicians who record in Oslo.
Somewhat sadly, the best record of the four reviewed here is by the least talented artist. But Lonnie Liston Smith, another ex-Miles sideman, avoids pretension and understands tension (not to mention release). The result is a totally unified, original approach to fusion. Once an angular, modal piano stylist, Smith now writes soft R&B tunes that rely on the whimsical beauty of minor-key chordal situations. (On Renaissance, they're especially enhanced by veteran arranger Horace Ott.) Beneath Smith's melodies chug vaguely danceable beats; the juxtaposition creates its own kind of heightening. On "Starlight and You," Smith's brother Donald contributes a stylish yet poignant near-falsetto vocal; while we soar on the bliss of his cool effort, Lonnie intensifies our feeling with some in-the-groove piano comping. Its structure showcases the tension-funk and lets it go, ever so slowly.
Fusion needs to become more aware of its strengths. While some may claim that artists can't become sufficiently detached from their music to regard what makes it tick, mature artists at least have a sense of their medium's boundaries and challenges. In that sense, unfortunately, most fusion musicians are still immature.