A Journey Through Fusion – Part One: The Birth of the Rock

I feel like jazz fusion is Progressive Rock’s down-to-earth and unpretentious twin brother. Despite jazz snobs such as myself making it look that way otherwise, the musicians generally aren’t all that pretentious. Jazz and jazz fusion, in general, are about freedom of expression and love of music more than progesque complexity for its own sake. I have nothing against prog, naturally. I wouldn’t be the co-owner of this blog if that were the case, the cognitive dissonance would be overpowering!

This series of articles, part of Prog-Sphere’s series of articles on different genres of progressive music, will attempt to encompass jazz fusion in its entirety. That’s right, every single jazz fusion band ever will be listed and described in the most minute detail! Alright, maybe not. Instead, I’m going to go through the roots, starting with Miles Davis, and flowing on from there with the big names of jazz fusion. After that? The little names, then on to more obscure bands. Finally, I will conclude with modern fusion. The bands selected will be based on my personal tastes as, so don’t be offended if I don’t include something you like. The point of these articles are to introduce fusion newbies to something I hope they’ll enjoy. If you’re already a big fan of jazz fusion you might not care for the first few articles, which will focus mainly on well-known bands. However, I’m sure everyone will find something interesting in one of the later articles, which will discuss very obscure artists from around the world.

As stated before, this first article is going to be about Mr. Miles Dewey Davis. Every jazz fan has a favorite musician. Many say John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, or even Allan Holdsworth if you’re a certain degenerate Serb that I know. Anyway, my favorite jazz musician is Miles Davis (with Chick Corea a close second, but he’ll be discussed in the next section). As such, I am INCREDIBLY BIASED when I say Miles Davis was critical in the formation of jazz fusion. It is impossible to pinpoint where exactly the idea of blending jazz and rock came from, but there’s pretty much a consensus in regards to his influence on subgenre’s formation. For one thing, nearly all of the people who started up fusion bands in the very early 70’s worked on the albums that will soon be discussed. For another, Miles was known for his innovation in jazz. He founded or helped found many different styles including cool jazz, be-bop, post-bop, modal jazz, and fusion. You name it, he was involved in it. Anyway, enough with all this crap, I think it’s about time I go through the relevant albums.

I’ve picked out the ten albums most frequently cited as belonging to Davis’ fusion era. They are, in order of release, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, On the Corner, Big Fun, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta, and Pangaea. Some of these albums are known only to die-hard fans, while some are known to all. I believe A Tribute to Jack Johnson is one of the highest rated fusion albums on ProgArchives, in fact. Read on to see if I agree with that rating or not! (Spoiler: I do, sort of) Without further ado let’s begin our expansive overview.

*Disclaimer* If you are new to jazz or jazz fusion, do not start with most of these albums. They are nothing like what comes after (with some exceptions), and they are certainly nothing like what has come before. If you really want to try some “plain jazz” and have no experience with it, I recommend Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs by Chick Corea, and Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock. Starting albums for jazz fusion will be discussed as they are encountered, but the next issue of this series in particular will be perfect for such a thing.

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#1 – In a Silent Way: 1969

This is certainly my favorite Miles Davis album, and definitely one of my favorite albums in general. Each track, totally almost twenty minutes each (for a full length of almost exactly 38 minutes), is a beautiful piece of music of its own right. If I were to sum up this album in two words they would be “quiet intensity”. It’s almost as if he created a typhoon of complex, minimalist contemplation. “In a Silent Way” was a perfect title here, but not because there’s any actual silence. It’s so subtly beautiful – rock music compared to this is like a fresh camembert eaten in Paris compared to its pasteurized American equivalent. It may be good, but it doesn’t capture the same sort of essence. This is probably one of the easiest Davis albums to get into. It’s not in your face or experimental like Bitches Brew, and it’s beautiful enough to keep your attention unlike Get Up With It. The highlights of this album for me are certainly the keyboard trio of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, the latter of whom actually composed a great deal of the album. This is a great album for anyone and everyone. To completely contradict my previous disclaimer, I recommend this album to all. Even if it isn’t very similar to what would come later, it still laid the groundwork.

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#2 – Bitches Brew: 1970

It’s amazing how such similar albums can be so different. It’s almost as if the only thing Davis changed between these two albums was the volume and the length. Yes, it’s certainly a lot louder than In a Silent Way. It’s also almost three times as long. Bitches Brew is also a lot more experimental at times, even dissonant to some listeners’ ears. This is the kind of album I can listen to for twenty five minutes to hear a single trumpet blast (which is also my ringtone, much to the chagrin of anyone around me when it goes off!) and then be content to focus on the groove of the bass for the remaining hour and ten minutes. I don’t know how Davis managed to structure the album that way. I would say this is my second favorite Miles Davis album with the preceding one tying for third with the fifth (I’m not sure what I just said, right there). The setup is very similar to In a Silent way, but with different musicians in many cases. In fact, Davis somehow used a different lineup for each track on the album, though with many of the same people on all of the tracks (such as John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, are you seeing a pattern here?) This album is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART! Even if you’re a diehard fusion fan it’s possible that you wouldn’t be able to stand an hour and a half of this experimental madness. It’s like ambrosia to me, but I took a while to acquire the taste. If you like In a Silent Way, go for Bitches Brew, but proceed with caution. Keep in mind that it might take a few tries until you can get into it. Before I move on to the next album I just have to point out that track #5, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, has the ABSOLUTE COOLEST title of any track on any album ever, no matter what genre. I don’t care what you say, you can’t beat “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”.

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#3 – A Tribute to Jack Johnson: 1971

As stated before, this is tied for my third favorite Davis album. It’s pretty unusual compared to the others. As you can read on Wikipedia, the first half was recorded almost entirely by accident. John McLaughlin is king here, with his guitar used as the driving force throughout. He employs a wonderfully funky bluesy style that’s completely different than anything you might be familiar with if you’re a fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra, though not dissimilar to his other work with Miles Davis. Davis treats himself almost as an accessory to the bass, drums, and guitar in this track, and the whole thing comes across as a wonderfully spontaneous jam. The second half is completely different. For one thing, it’s chopped together from different recording sessions (all from the same day, I think). It’s calmer overall, and even a little dull at times, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s boring overall. It has a sort of schizophrenic quality to it, revealing its patchwork nature. There’s even a section from In a Silent Way near the middle. The contrast is very interesting, to say the least, so I’m not going to complain. Overall I think the album is very balanced and quite excellent. I especially love the quote at the end: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black; they never let me forget it. Yeah, I’m black alright; I never let THEM forget it.” Inspiring words… even though the real Jack Johnson was a bit of an asshole.

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#4 – Live-Evil: 1972

Unlike the last few albums, this one was recorded live on stage. Davis considered it a studio album, however, and had originally planned for it to be the “spiritual successor” to Bitches Brew. It isn’t anything like it, however. It feels much more like a long jam, and is nothing like the experimental and slightly psychedelic Brew. The highlights on this album are the longer tracks, in my opinion. Funky Tonk and Sivad are both excellent, and the name of the former gives away the overall feel of both. The last track, “Inamorata and Narration by Conrad Roberts” is a bit dull in comparison, but overall the whole album is quite excellent. It’s interesting to note that a few of the tracks here are composed by the Brazillian experimental jazz fusion composer Hermeto Pascoal, who plays on the same tracks on this album. They don’t sound very much like his usual work, but I’ll go over Pascoal a bit later in the fourth or fifth article. To close, I’d just like to note that one can very plainly see Davis’ development in the field of jazz fusion when comparing the albums I’ve discussed so far. Part 1 of Jack Johnson is much more rocking and feels like a jam. Along with Live-Evil he’s beginning to develop a style along those lines that will become a signature of his when preformed live, as we’ll see in the later albums like Agharta and Dark Magus.

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#5 – On the Corner: 1972

And tied for my third favorite we have the much-panned On the Corner. I suppose it isn’t reviled anymore, but it certainly was when first released. This album is very funky and energetic. At the time the
funkiness was treated with derision, “it’s not jazz!” bah, what do they know. I would call this album accessible, though probably not as much as In a Silent Way. It’s also under an hour, the last of the fusion albums to hold this distinction (the others being Silent Way and Jack Johnson). Overall I find the album exciting and interesting, with never a dull moment.

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#6-7 – Big Fun / Get Up With It: 1974


Speaking of dull moments… I’m not a fan of these albums. They’re tolerable, but overall just dull. Part of the reason is that they both go on forever. Big Fun is about an hour and forty minutes, which is just a little longer than some of the others, but Get Up With It is over two hours. The former feels  a bit disjointed, and this is probably because the tracks all came from different sessions: some from Bitches Brew, some from Jack Johnson, and some from On the Corner. All great albums, yeah, but I can hear from listening why these tracks probably weren’t included. Get Up With It is at least cohesive, but it’s even duller due to its length and lack of interesting material. Unlike Silent Way with its fiery tranquility, Bitches Brew with its intense experimentation, or On the Corner’s daring funk, these two albums fall flat on my ears, there’s just too little of interest. I bet the problem was the lack of McLaughlin (except for one track…) If you like the rest of the albums listed, give them a try. Hopefully you’ll vehemently disagree with me and love them.

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#8 – Pangaea: 1975

This is the first album of a trilogy of live albums released in the mid 70’s. There are more great live recordings of the band Davis toured with at this time, but these are the famous ones, and the only ones I have. It was actually recorded a few hours after the next one, Agharta. They were both recorded in Osaka during what was apparently a tour of Japan in 1975. Agharta is the better of the pair, if you ask me. This one is, like Silent Way and Jack Johnson, is split into two tracks, or halves. Like Jack Johnson, in a way, the tracks are divided between energetic and, well, in this case… boring. Unlike Jack Johnson, the tracks are forty minutes long each instead of twenty five, so that makes a bit of a difference… I feel like I’m being too harsh, however – Pangaea isn’t nearly as boring as Get Up With It. It’s also about forty minutes shorter (good thing there wasn’t a third track!) I would still recommend the album to new fans if they can get past Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, those being the litmus test for a true Davis fusion fan.

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#9 – Agharta: 1976

I always have trouble spelling this album – where’s the damn H supposed to go!? Anyway, this album is the better of the Agharta/Pangaea duo. They aren’t similar at all though, despite being recorded by the same lineup on the same day in the same concert hall. It really says something about Miles’ musical integrity to play live like this – one wonders if he did it for the audience, for himself, or for both. I bet that must have been a hell of a tour, huh? The entirety of both albums was improvised, though you can hear bits and pieces of other stuff throughout. And, well, the title of a track on the second half is “Theme From Jack Johnson”, so that’s pretty telling. Overall we have a more rocking feel on this album than Pangaea, it would bring Jack Johnson to mind even if the track didn’t reference the older album. Live-Evil is probably a better comparison, but it doesn’t have the calmer, Hermeto-composed sections, obviously because of a lack of Mr. Pascoal. This is a quite excellent album that truly shows the lineup’s talent. Then again Pangaea might as well, maybe I just missed something.

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#10 – Dark Magus: 1977

Last but not least we have Dark Magus, and what a cool name for an album this is. Perhaps it was a reference to a previous live album titled Black Beauty? This was recorded about a month later than the others. Unlike Japan, however, it was done right in Carnegie Hall, NYC. Thankfully it’s exactly the same as Agharta and Pangaea, by which I mean completely different. Of the trilogy, this is my favorite. The energy is crazily wonderful here, the entire hour and forty minutes thrills from start to finish. Somehow it doesn’t feel entirely like a jam – it has a flowing cohesion like they rehearsed and planned to play like this, yet at the same time it’s obviously spontaneous. It’s as if playing with Miles Davis makes a musician psychic, able to predict the actions of those playing with you. Or maybe he’s just really good at picking band members; after all he’d been doing it for almost thirty years by now.

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So there we have it, Miles Davis’ entire discography, summarized for your enjoyment! Not really, I think this is about five percent of his recordings. Probably less, he was active for a while… Obviously I only focused on fusion here, because that’s what’s relevant, but if you want to check out some more stuff by Davis I recommend Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue (mentioned in the disclaimer), Sketches of Spain, Dig, Electric, Nefertiri – well, most of it’s pretty good if you’re into be-bop, honestly.

The next part of this saga through jazz fusion will be about the first generation of fusion. As I stated before, these albums aren’t really “jazz fusion”, but they did give birth to it. In the next issue I will be discussing: Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Return to Forever, John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Billy Cobham. I’ll have it written and posted whenever the hell I feel like it.

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