Jazz 101: Fusion
by Seth Colter Walls | May 13, 2014
Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.
It started with Miles blowing his trumpet into a microphone attached to a distortion pedal, but it didn’t end there. In fact, it still hasn’t ended. “Fusion” -- or the mix of pure, acoustic, traditional jazz with the sound amplification and backbeat pulses of rock, funk and other pop forms -- is still alive today. But after some toe-dipped-in-water experiments, it really started with the ferocious, spacey Bitches Brew, released in 1970. Veterans of Miles’ electric bands, like guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, would go on to form fusion acts in the '70s (Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, respectively). Chick Corea, another Miles veteran and a formidable talent in acoustic-piano settings, also got in the act with Return to Forever.
We live in boom times for listening to the early fusion greats. Because Miles usually assembled his best fusion albums in the studio, many alternate takes and extended jams were sliced and diced to fit on the original LPs. Now, though, courtesy of reissue fever, we have the ability to hear all the freak-flag goodness on Columbia’s “complete sessions” releases. (But don’t forget his tight and smoking live concerts, like the one preserved on Dark Magus.)
Eventually, fusion would help form a softer, dentist-office form of amplified soft jazz. But none of the tracks in our playlist fit that bill (unless you run an awesome dentist office). Check out how other talents, like soul jazz pioneer Donald Byrd and even avant-garde legend Ornette Coleman, adapted to the no-messing-around rock-and-funk fusion innovators in the appended playlist.