A Journey Through Fusion Part Two: The First Generation

While in my last article on jazz fusion I discussed the “father” of jazz fusion, Mr. Miles Dewey Davis, in this one I will be going over the next step in the logical progression – those fusion bands that immediately preceded him. In a way to simulate the growth of the style across the early 70’s, this article series has an increasing number of artists. The previous simply discussed Davis, and this one discusses seven (including a few albums and bands related to the main bands being discussed). The articles that will come later will have many more bands, so fret not. The bands being included here were made up of members, or at least guided strongly by members who were part of the sessions that crafted In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and many of the other albums discussed in the previous article.


Weather Report

Weather Report was led primarily by Joe Zawinul, a Viennese native. Mr Zawinul, assisting Miles, composed much of the music on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew before parting ways with him to form his own band. This implies two things, one of which is true and one of which is false. The first thing, which is true, is pretty obvious: the guy is a master composer, and quite capable of coming up with great stuff. The second thing is: well, doesn’t Weather Report’s music sound like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew then? Of course not! This is jazz we’re talking about! Anything that sounds like anything else is instantly labeled as derivative crap. Weather Report’s music went through three distinct eras of good music, and then possibly a few more or something. For the purposes of this article, the band skipped five years after 1977 and then NEVER PRODUCED ANYTHING ELSE! You may feel free to look those albums up on your own and disagree with me, but I don’t like them and I don’t see them as relevant to this article.

Before I mention the eras, I’ll just point out that there were a TON of members of Weather Report other than Joe Zawinul, many of whom may have been equally, or in fact more important than him at certain points. Because of how frequently the lineup tended to change, I’m not really going to get into this, but I will point out that some incredibly talented musicians passed through the band and composed here: Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Alphonso Johnson, Miroslav Vitous, and many more people.

Weather Report’s first era consisted of their selftitled 1971 album Weather Report and the awesomely titled I Sing the Body Electric. This era was marked by a high degree of avant-garde experimentation. I’m not talking yodeling or aggressive dissonance, but rather elements of free jazz and the like. For this reason these two albums are not my favorite, but I’m sure there are some of you who would enjoy them. Enter with caution, for as I said, they are HIGHLY experimental.

Weather Report’s second era is much more enjoyable than the first. This encompasses Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller, and Tail Spinnin’. These albums go in a much more funk-fusion direction, which is a welcome reprieve from the annoying avant-garde stuff from before, in my opinion. This music, while excellent, isn’t quite on the same level as what would come just after. It’s sort of a transitional stage, though a rather sudden one as there are no hints of the previous era in the music contained here. The transition lies in the increasing inclusion of funk and African elements, such as on the track “Nubian Sundance” from Mysterious Traveller.

The final era worth mentioning basically consists of Black Market and Heavy Weather. The former is much preferable to the latter, and is definitely one of the finest fusion albums of the early era, if not of all time. The playing and compositionship are remarkable, and the style presented is simply much more innovative than the music shown on the past three albums. It’s a sort of “afro-funk-fusion”, with a heavy emphasis on the syrupy fender rhodes of Mr. Joe Zawinul.

Weather Report is probably the most accessible of the bands presented in this article (and possibly in the entire series), and for that reason I find them a bit boring at times. I feel like because of their relative lack of innovation (at least compared to Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra) they were left behind as an inspiration to future composers in favor of the energy of the other two. However – till excellent, still recommended.


Herbie Hancock

I’m going to come right out and say that I find Herbie the least interesting of all of the groups mentioned in this article. He has a few really great albums, though some of them are not relevant to the history of jazz fusion. He seems to be incredibly highly regarded at places like ProgArchives, though I’m not entirely sure why. I certainly don’t hate his music, but it just seems dull in a way.

Hancock is, like all of the others, very talented and naturally played on a few of the Davis albums presented in the previous article. Unlike all of the others, he decided to work most closely with Davis’ experimental style, though went in a slightly more ambient, keyboard-driven direction. He produced three albums in the early 70′s in the style that I’m talking about: Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant. They’re all incredibly pleasant, to be sure, but I don’t get the same sort of manic energy that I do from Davis. They aren’t dull though, and I do enjoy them on occasion. I suppose I’m not the person
to ask if you want suggestions on Herbie’s earlier fusion material.

Otherwise, his next era consisted of some pretty good funk-fusion in the form of Headhunters, Thrust, and Machild. Headhunters is one of the highest-regarded fusion albums of all time for some reason. It’s pretty good, but no Black Market… When I said before that Hancock is talented, I meant it – but I’ll also say that I think he’s incredibly overrated. Headhunters probably only got the fame it did because he was already famous. I didn’t mean to turn this section of the article into an indictment against Hancock, so I will say that these albums are definitely worth checking out if you want some high quality funk fusion that doesn’t rub the funk in your face.

Hancock is probably less important to the further development of fusion than even Weather Report. Few bands would seek to emulate his sweeping soundscape fusion style, though many would undoubtedly seek inspiration from Headhunters. He is still worth discussing and even checking out, however, but I would only recommend you do so if you’re a fan of the other bands being discussed here. That said, check out Maiden Voyage if you’re into “pure jazz”.


Mahavishnu Orchestra

If Weather Report was a crunchy, syrupy sweet baklava fresh from an Athenian kitchen, Mahavishnu Orchestra is a rare, bloody porterhouse steak straight from a dingy kitchen off of a Texas highway in cattle country. This is the kind of steak you rip into with a giant serrated knife and sate your carnal needs over an hour of ferocious chewing. Mahavishnu Orchestra was refined, with a funky bass and controlled Fender Rhodes as its main features. Mahavishnu Orchestra is a chaotic, fiery devil replete with guitar, keyboard, and violin interplay juxtaposed together on top of what is perhaps the most intense drumming the world has ever seen. Now don’t get ahead of me, because there’s nothing avant-garde about Mahavishnu Orchestra. The sound was still completely new to jazz, but it wasn’t all that different from things that had been heard before in other places.

Mahavishnu Orchestra was led by the guitarist John McLaughlin – perhaps the person who played on more Miles Davis fusion albums than anyone other than Davis himself. He even had a track named after him on Bitches Brew (the favor was returned in kind on a McLaughlin solo album). Like Zawinul, the music here is completely different from anything Davis made. What Davis’ disciples ended up learning is not a new style of jazz, but that jazz music can be played with the intensity of rock, and with rock instruments. That was the lesson McLaughlin took to heart more than any other Davis disciples. Intensity.

If there’s one 70’s jazz fusion band prog fans are going to be familiar with, it’s bound to be Mahavishnu Orchestra. This is because MO are more similar to prog (overall, though there are some exceptions), than any other jazz artists during their main era. Because this era was much more stable than Weather Report’s, I am going to mention the key players. On guitar we have John McLaughlin, on violin we have Jerry Goodman, on keys we have Jan Hammer, on bass we have Rick Laird, and on drums we have Billy Cobham. Many of these people will pop up in future articles, especially Hammer and Cobham. They are the quintet that made up Mahavishnu Orchestra as most people know it, and they created some damn good music as they did.

The albums this lineup made are three or fourfold, depending on who you ask. There’s 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, and there’s 1973’s Birds of Fire. Many people compare these two albums, but I find it too difficult. They are both excellent, and absolutely indispensible for any fusion collection. Between Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire we have Between Nothingness and Eternity. This was technically a live album released that has material not on any studio album… except for The Lost Trident Sessions, which was never completed, but released later in 1993. The material on Between Nothingness and Eternity is all on The Lost Trident Sessions, but altered and shortened. Both are excellent, but I would recommend the live version instead.

As stated before, this era was characterized by the interplay between John, Jerry, and Jan on strings and keys played over Rick and Billy’s rhythm section. The results are indescribable, but rest assured everything is quite intense. All of the musicians appear to be going in every direction at once, yet at the same time everything remains tight and melodious.

This era didn’t last very long. Apparently the band got a little creeped out with the “spiritual direction” McLaughlin wanted to take. I’m not here to speculate on that, and I also don’t care. Either way, he quickly reformed Mahavishnu Orchestra with an all-new lineup that included a few people I don’t know anything about, as well as violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. This lineup would release two albums – both at least pretty good, though one much better than the other.

They were called Apocalypse and Visions of an Emerald Beyond. The former almost seems to go in a symphonic prog direction. It’s very weird, yet at the same time rather highly rated around the internet. I’m not a huge fan, but I’m ok with recommending it. Just keep in mind it isn’t anything like any other MO albums. Visions of an Emerald Beyond, on the other hand, is rather similar to the first era, just with the difference of having the same, strangely symphonic lineup as Apocalypse. The result is a hybrid blend of the two eras that ends up pretty damn great, if I may say so. It doesn’t have the aggressive interplay, but it sure does have a bite. It also has some chanting, and that’s pretty cool too.

I would highly recommend Mahavishnu Orchestra to anyone. They are intense, melodious, crazy, yet calculatingly sane. They are of special importance to prog rock fans because they’ve influenced so many people and bands. I’m not going to name names, but they know who they are. Certainly get The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. If you like those check out Visions of an Emerald Beyond and Between Nothingness and Eternity. There are some albums that were released after Visions, but they were made on an entirely unrelated lineup and I’ve read that they’re complete crap and I’ve never bothered to see if that’s true or not.


Honorable Mention

McLaughlin, like so many of his contemporaries, was incredibly active in the 70’s. He ended up releasing a great deal of non-MO fusion albums that are certainly worth checking out. They aren’t much like MO, and in fact they generally aren’t much like anyone else’s fusion either. I would highly recommend his early albums Extrapolation and Devotion, but especially the latter. Additionally, McLaughlin has released a few new fusion albums in very recent years. The style is almost a bit like MO, but entirely different at the same time. There’s a lot of Indian influence in these albums (which MO touched upon but Shakti embodied). The albums are Industrial Zen, Floating Point, and To the One. Highly recommended all, but start with Mahavishu Orchestra.

But wait, there’s more! McLaughlin had yet another band in the 70’s that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. This was Shakti, and unlike Mahavishnu Orchestra, which sought in some ways to play elements of Indian classical music inside of jazz, this group sought to play jazz inside of Indian classical music. I’m not sure if this is technically fusion. I’m not really sure what it is, actually, but it’s pretty damn good. Check out Shakti with John McLaughlin, A Handful of Beauty, and Natural Elements if you want to know more.


Return to Forever

Weather Report is a crunchy sweet baklava, Mahavishnu Orchestra is a bloody steal, and Return to Forever is a swimming pool of maple syrup floating in the outer reaches of the solar system. Astral, cosmic, beautiful. Can you all tell that Return to Forever is one of my favorite bands of all time?

Return to Forever had two distinct eras, the latter of which had no overall theme to it. The first era released two albums, the selftitled Return to Forever and then Light as a Feather, which contains Chick Corea’s jazz standard Spain. This era almost isn’t jazz fusion. It’s more like Cuban-Brazilian proto-fusion, or something like that. Call it what you want, this era’s two albums contain some startlingly beautiful music, characterized by Corea’s Fender Rhodes and Joe Farrel’s flute. Unfortunately there are some vocals by a woman named Flora Purim. She has a nice voice, but I can’t stand vocals in jazz (or even in other kinds of music, for the most part). Thankfully she doesn’t sing very much, and you get to hear more Fender Rhodes and flutes than anything else. Overall, the music is very calming and astral, but at moments it picks up and soars to the heavens, as Chick Corea’s music tends to do.

After Light as a Feather, Corea decided to go full-blown fusion, and created a quartet. He got rid of the wind instruments, percussion, and vocals, and added a drummer (Lenny White) and electric guitarist (Bill Connors). The only member other than himself to stay was young bassist Stanley Clarke. This lineup released the amazing Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy in 1973. Like Light as a Feather, Hymn included what would become another of Corea’s famous jazz standards – this time the super awesome Senor Mouse. Corea borrowed some of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s intensity for this new take on fusion, and scrapped the old calmness entirely. The soaring astralness (is that even a word?) remained, but it took on whole new dimensions. It was achieved not via the interplay between flute and keyboards, but rather with the whole band acting as a complete unit. There doesn’t need to be talk of interplay anymore – everything simply fit.

Bill Connors’ tenure with Return to Forever was not destined to be. He quit pretty quick and was replaced by a fresh young talent named Al Di Meola. The man is pretty famous now, but he got his start here. He quickly showed that he was more than capable of living up to Bill Connors’ skill, and he would remain until Return to Forever disbanded. Thus, the lineup was solidified.

They soon recorded one of my favorite albums of all time – Where Have I Known You Before. This is Return to Forever’s most varied albums, and it is entirely different from Hymn. It starts with a very funky piece composed by Stanley Clarke, contains many light piano solo interludes, and concludes with a fifteen minute, incredibly cosmic epic titled Song to the Pharaoh Kings. This track really makes you feel like you’re swimming in a pool of maple syrup on the rings of Saturn. I don’t even know what else to say. Please do yourself a favor and listen to the entire thing on Youtube.

No Mystery came next. Highly eclectic, it was composed in plurality. Every member of the band contributed, and this was its failure. Except for some occasional accidents, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White are not good composers. Al Di Meola is an EXCELLENT composer, but he didn’t seem to give it his all on this record. He was probably saving what he could for the string of solo albums he just began to release around this time. Corea’s compositions were excellent as usual, but they were few and far between compared to other albums. It’s still a good record, but not nearly as good as the others.

The last Return to Forever album was Romantic Warrior. This album went in a similar symphonic direction as Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse, but with much better results. No vocals this time, for one thing. For another thing, it had the same lineup as No Mystery and Where Have I known You Before. It’s almost like Corea decided to take Song to the Pharoah Kings and take it in a more symphonic direction, almost eliminating the cosmic syrup. This style worked quite well, and it ensured Return to Forever stayed fresh. However I don’t enjoy it as much as the others. The highlight of this album is again the ending track, the ten minute Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant. This features (you guessed it) a duel between Di Meola and Chick Corea, alternating mini-solos.

Return to Forever are certainly the most influential of all the main four jazz fusion groups, at least in terms of jazz fusion itself. Chick Corea’s compositions influenced an entire generation of jazz fusion musicians across the globe. In terms of prog, it is more likely that Mahavishnu Orchestra was more important, but Romantic Warrior certainly left its mark on prog as well.

To reiterate, I highly recommend Where Have I Known You Before and Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy first and foremost, in that order. Feel free to check out the first era as well, but the “real fusion” era is much more important, in my opinion. Also worth checking out, but not mentioned, is the recent reunion tour live album, Return to Forever Returns.


Honorable Mention

Like McLaughlin, Chick Corea released countless solo albums, many of which can be put under the fusion label. He also had another band, called the Chick Corea Elektric Band. The albums from that band are heavily synthesized 80’s stuff, but there’s still some pretty good music in there if you can tolerate all the synths. Besides that, probably Chick Corea’s best solo album (in my opinion) is My Spanish Heart. This album is an hour of pure latin fusion, and it’s quite excellent. Like with McLaughlin, don’t expect it to be like his band. He separated solo from band to a strong degree. Still excellent though, and worth checking out.

So there we have it, the big four. The people who set the stage for what would come next. After this we’ll be examining the so-called “second generation”, though they only began to record a few years after these guys did. The sections in the next article will be much smaller, so don’t worry about having to read too much.

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