Many have suffered and even died for this music, this greatest of all expression of the creative spirit of humankind—jazz. (Herbie Hancock, 1987)
Recently Herbie Hancock was awarded the Kennedy Centre Honors and it made me think about his contribution to music. It’s enormous. When people my age think of Herbie Hancock, they might think of that eighties ground-breaking video for Rockit. All those robotic whatch-a-madoozles in that house grooving to that funky eighties synthesizer driven instrumental.
That song was huge, but there is so much more depth to Herbie than Rockit. Herbie Hancock defined the Jazz sound of the sixties with his solo work and his work with Miles Davis. His influence continued when the Jazz world took a huge swing toward using electronics in its music. Jazz Rock Soul Latin and Funk were combined using a panacea of electronics and synthesizers to create a new sub-genre of Jazz music called Fusion. Herbie was at the forefront of Fusion. I want to focus this post on Fusion. Pal we have never really talked about this genre of music, so let’s start at the beginning.
The roots of Jazz Fusion were born out of a two way relationship of Rock on Jazz, and Jazz on Rock in the mid and late sixties. The Jazz Fusion era essentially started with the release of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album in 1970.
The seminal work that was a mix of free jazz and electronic music layered over a Rock beat. The era, in my mind, ended with the release of Wynton Marsalis’ self-titled debut album in 1983. This was a return to a more standard Jazz sound with a modern sensibility. The eighties Jazz sound was structured, clean, crisp and clear (a seemingly clear reaction to the messy sounds of sixties and seventies Jazz). In between these two albums you will find the original Jazz Fusion sound. A blending of styles that created a whole new style of music.
Jazz Fusion is a strange era in musical history. I think you will either love it with a passion or hate it with a passion. I suspect people reacted to Jazz Fusion similarly to when Bob Dylan went electric. Leaving the acoustic world to venture into a strange uncharted electronic landscape. It must have been jarring for most Jazz enthusiasts.
At times Jazz Fusion can be innovative and at other times it can be just down right corny. I am all right with the corn as long as it is on the side of some kick ass protein of beefy musicianship. I got into Fusion because all of my music teachers were into Fusion. It seemed to be the musician’s music and I wanted to hear what they were so passionate about. It was wild, highly technical, and just straight up nutso in so many ways. Unlike the mash ups of today, Fusion Jazz is completely original (despite its multi-influence). I think anyone who is into Progressive Rock should have no trouble loving Fusion. They have very similar sensibilities. Elaborate progressions, strange sounds, amazing solos, cinematic song writing.
The influence of Fusion on the musical world cannot be over stated. It has definitely made its mark. Rooted in the Avant Guard of sixties Jazz, Fusion took a lot of out there risks. The music for the most part sounds just as ahead of its time now as it did then. People like Herbie found new ground to plunder and cool musical discoveries were made.
They are the Christopher Columbae. Everyone after them just settled and lived off the fertile soil they cleared. It reformatted Rock music; it influenced (if not created) Electronic music; it inspired 80s Pop; and it was sampled relentlessly by Hip Hop artists (Herbie alone has been sampled 275 times). I think if you dive deep enough you will find that a lot of the seemingly innovative elements of music today are a direct take off of Fusion Jazz from 40 years ago.
Pal, I could go on and on about the music that directly took from and/or was inspired by Fusion. Instead let’s go straight to the source. Here is a list of the top 3 Fusion artists with my picks of their best work. These aren’t deep cuts here. This is the cream that has risen to the top.
Chick Corea: Latin Jazz Fusion. Eloquent, Lyrical, aggressive at times. One of the greatest piano (and keyboard) players ever. He can make some of the prettiest music you will ever hear. He also made some of the loudest balls out Rock Fusion music you will hear. I picked Light As a Feather as the album to try.
Choice cut is Spain.
Herbie Hancock: Funk Jazz Fusion. Herbie is a master of rhythm. His keyboard playing is deep and soulful. I have already talked about him, so I won’t elaborate here. Headhunters is the go-to album, but I am going to suggest Thrust.
Choice cut is Butterfly.
Weather Report: In my mind this is true Jazz Fusion. Futuristic music. Headed by Joe Zawinal and Wayne Shorter (and later Jaco Pastorius), they started more in the realm of Free Jazz, then moved to a more structured form of craziness. If the Cantina Band from Mos Eisley was actually a kick ass band, they would be Weather Report. It was tough to pick my favorite album. Heavy Weather is their biggest album. I love their first release too. But, I am going to suggest Tale Spinnin’.
Choice cut is Man in the Green Shirt
Give them a listen Pal, and tell me what you think. Let them open up your mind, scoop out your grey matter and serve it back to you as a banana split. I hope you enjoy eating your own brain. Fusion will do that to you.