Shfl Guide: 1970s Jazz Fusion

Though it seemed shocking at the time, jazz-rock fusion was inevitable. Despite retroactive attempts by reactionary critics to wall it off, plenty of jazz musicians had always been open to pop sounds, and when Sixties rock proved creatively fertile, opening up new compositional vistas and developing radical new production techniques, they were listening appreciatively. As early as 1966-67, jazz players like guitarist Larry Coryell and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley were incorporating rock rhythms and arrangements into their music, but fusion, or “jazz-rock,” really took off at the end of the decade, when Miles Davis brought electric keyboards and guitars into his music on albums like Miles in the Sky, Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In partnership with Teo Macero, he also broke the grip of the “perfect take” once and for all, using the studio as an instrument as adroitly as any musician ever has.

Several key Davis sidemen — keyboardists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Tony Williams — all struck out on their own, becoming prime movers in what was rapidly becoming a new New Thing. McLaughlin, organist Larry Young and former Cream bassist Jack Bruce joined Williams’ Lifetime; Corea, after a dalliance with the avant-garde in Circle, formed a group called Return To Forever; Shorter and Zawinul teamed up under the name Weather Report; and Hancock embarked on an extended romance with the creative possibilities of synthesizers and electric keyboards that has yet to end.

As fusion entered its glory years in the early to mid ’70s, the music became more elaborate and complex, with the improvisatory element sometimes taking a back seat until it became difficult to really draw a clear line between what the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever were doing, and what King Crimson or Yes were doing at the same time. Some impressive cross-pollinations took place, as when McLaughlin teamed up with Carlos Santana for 1973’s Love Devotion Surrender, with Larry Young on organ and Mahavishnu’s Billy Cobham on drums, or when Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer joined the Fania All Stars on 1974’s half-studio, half-live Latin-Soul-Rock.

Depending which side of the street the players started out working, fusion could take on the showboating machismo of hard rock, or the deep grooves of funk. Players like keyboardist George Duke (who was in both Cannonball Adderley’s and Frank Zappa’s bands) and bassist Stanley Clarke proved to be both virtuoso players and serious funkateers, as did drummers Lenny White (Bitches Brew, Return To Forever) and Billy Cobham. By the second half of the 1970s, though, commercial success had sanded down a lot of the music’s edges and fusion was beginning to sound more like what it would eventually transform into…smooth jazz.

Mysterious Traveller cover

Weather Report was no more a band than Steely Dan was. The group’s creative nexus was keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and rhythm sections came and went. On 1974’s Mysterious Traveller, the funk was deep thanks to fretless bassist Alphonso Johnson and drummers Ishmael Wilburn and Skip Hadden (with percussionists Dom Um Romão and Ray Barretto popping in here and there), but Zawinul’s newfound love of the ARP 2600 synth let things get thrillingly weird at times, particularly on the opening “Nubian Sundance,” which is world music from another world entirely.

School Days cover

Clarke’s fourth solo album was his commercial breakthrough. The screamingly intense funk-rock title track, led by his popping, bouncing bass line (obviously) but equally driven by high-energy synths, became the song everyone was waiting to hear at his concerts. The album goes a lot of places in only six tracks, though, featuring guest appearances by fellow fusion heavyweights George Duke, Billy Cobham, and John McLaughlin, and orchestral strings and brass on the closing “Hot Fun” and “Life Is Just a Game.”

Where Have I Known You Before cover

The fourth album by keyboardist Chick Corea’s Return To Forever was the first with its ultimate lineup: guitarist Al Di Meola (only 19 at the time), bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White. Corea had expanded his instrumental palette to include synths in addition to Fender Rhodes, clavinet, and electric organ, and between his florid solos, Clarke’s furiously popping bass, Di Meola’s harsh, post-Santana shredding, and White’s hit-everything-twice drumming, this is some of the most rock-out-with-your-cock-out fusion you’ll ever hear. The opening track, Clarke’s “Vulcan Worlds,” is closely related to “Vulcan Princess,” which opened the bassist’s own self-titled album the same year.

Man-Child cover

Hancock’s final album with the Headhunters featured a cast of thousands: guitarists DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin are here, the latter making opening track “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups” his own, as are saxophonists Bennie Maupin and Wayne Shorter, and Stevie Wonder on harmonica on the grimy “Steppin’ In It.” Easily one of Hancock’s funkiest albums, Man-Child struts confidently alongside contemporaneous work by the Ohio Players, George Duke, or Parliament.

Lawrence Of Newark cover

Organist Young was in a wildly creative zone in the late ’60s and early ’70s; he played on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, the first three albums by drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin spiritual guitar summit Love Devotion Surrender. This unjustly obscure 1973 album crosses contemporaneous work by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (who guests, albeit pseudonymously) with Davis’s On The Corner; Young, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Juini Booth, Cedric Lawson on electric piano, and a roomful of percussionists create a swirling, psychedelic, at times dubby cloud of space-jazz that’s more atmospheric than tune-based, but utterly mesmerizing.

Elegant Gypsy cover

Al Di Meola’s Seventies guitar style was an interesting mix: he could play gentle jazz and artful flamenco, but more frequently opted to shred like a cross between John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell. A few quiet moments aside, this is one of his most rocking releases, featuring Jan Hammer on keyboards and either Lenny White or Steve Gadd behind the kit, so if you’re after manic tempos, screaming leads, and machine-gun Latin-rock rhythms (“Race With Devil On Spanish Highway” lives up to its title and then some), unbutton your collar to display your gold chains and dive in.

Enigmatic Ocean cover

French jazz-rock violinist Ponty — who worked with Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin, and Elton John before going solo — had a substantial hit with his fourth Atlantic Records album, which reached #1 on the Billboard jazz chart in 1977. The three-part title suite prominently features guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who shreds up a storm, but the whole thing is centered around the leader’s rich, full melody lines and propelled by Journey drummer Steve Smith’s taut, snapping rhythms and Ralphe Armstrong’s thick, churning bass.

Between Nothingness & Eternity cover

After their first two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire, blew the minds of jazz nerds and prog dorks alike, guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra toured relentlessly, playing with everyone from Yes to ZZ Top, in jazz clubs and at gigantic rock festivals. This August 1973 gig in New York’s Central Park features three then-new tunes: “Trilogy,” “Sister Andrea,” and “Dream,” all of which are smoking hot solo-fests (McLaughlin, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman all get extensive spotlight turns) anchored by Rick Laird’s rumbling bass and propelled by Billy Cobham’s explosive drumming.

Electric Byrd cover

Just a few months after Miles Davis released Bitches Brew, Donald Byrd made an equally strong statement with Electric Byrd, a meditative four-track exploration that laid a six-piece horn section (his own trumpet, four saxes, and trombone) over guitar, electric piano, and bass and drums from Ron Carter and Mickey Roker. This is fusion that still leans more toward the jazz than the rock side; everything swings in one way or another, and even when Byrd’s horn is treated with echo and reverb, his innate virtuosity, rich tone and impeccable control are impossible to ignore.

Feel cover

To understand George Duke, start with this: he was in Cannonball Adderley’s and Frank Zappa’s bands more or less simultaneously, going back and forth from one to the other. His brand of funky fusion had hooks, wit, and sonic creativity. On Feel, his fifth solo album, squelchy synths come to the fore, squiggling around Bernie Worrell-style over crisp drums from Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and a few special guests. Percussionist Airto Moreira and vocalist Flora Purim, then a couple, pop up on several tracks, and Zappa plays guitar on two (“Love” and “Old Slippers”).

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