Sunday, March 15, 2015

Listening to Early Fusion

After mostly ignoring the genre for years, I’ve recently, and I suppose belatedly, been getting into fusion. For decades now, fusion has been kind of a joke or a dirty word to a lot of jazz and rock fans, but some of the earliest records, the ones that really created the genre, still sound pretty radical. I’ve been trying to piece together the origin story, what was happening circa-1969/1970 with the central cast of characters in this music. Before hearing Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime, I’d always assumed that Miles Davis created fusion pretty much single-handedly. Unlike the group effort that birthed bebop (some combination of the efforts and inspiration of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk), Miles had dug some Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly Stone records, convened some sessions, and a new genre was born. Right? Well, maybe we can at least co-credit Tony Williams and John McLaughlin.

On the fusion timeline, the 1969 sessions for In A Silent Way preceded those for Emergency! - McLaughlin plays on both, but it was apparently Williams who coaxed the guitarist to move to the U.S. and introduced him to Miles, presumably on the strength of McLaughlin’s debut album. Extrapolation was cut in England with John Surman, still some years away from beginning his long association with ECM, and Tony Oxley, who would go on to avant-legend status after playing drums with the likes of Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, and Cecil Taylor. I didn’t recognize the bassist on Extrapolation, Brian Odgers, but he sounds great in this group - turns out he had quite a career as a session man, playing on Histoire de Melody Nelson, Elton John’s hit “Levon”, and Lou Reed’s first solo album. Extrapolation is a very fine album, much more jazz than rock, with a real collaborative feeling - McLaughlin’s name is on the cover but Surman (on saxes) is given just as much prominence. McLaughlin plays wonderfully, as always, but his guitar tone is still within the bounds of traditional jazz tastefulness at this stage.

The recording of Bitches Brew commenced later in ‘69, after Emergency!, with McLaughlin but not Williams. If Silent Way was hugely influential on a lot of later music and a clear predecessor to fusion - the big leap after the significant but more gradual steps in a new direction represented on Miles’ 1968 releases - it’s really sui generis and beyond genre. Where In A Silent Way is calm, Emergency! and Bitches Brew are both aggressive, even menacing in parts. Emergency! is a trio record, but it sounds just as big as the large ensemble of Bitches Brew, and many people have commented on the fact that Miles apparently needed two drummers to replace Tony Williams. Williams was clearly one of the greatest drummers in the world at this point, but as a 23 year old jazz veteran he was ready to take on some new roles - singer, lyricist, bandleader. Life Time and Spring had come a few years earlier, with Williams as leader, but now he was assembling a working band - Lifetime was to be his vehicle going forward.

Recorded in New York post-Bitches Brew, McLaughlin’s Devotion, a quartet record with Larry Young (his Lifetime bandmate), Buddy Miles (Electric Flag, Band of Gypsies), and Billy Rich (Buddy Miles, Taj Mahal), is probably the most purely and overtly rock of any of the albums under consideration here. The McLaughlin heard on Devotion is miles away (no pun intended) from Extrapolation, recorded only a year previous. He’s wielding the hammer of the gods now, kicking it into interstellar overdrive. With two titles referencing dragons, however, we should perhaps be thankful it’s all instrumental. My only reservation with Devotion is that while it’s an overwhelming experience to listen to, I don’t find any of the tunes particularly memorable - it blows my mind, but leaves little behind. Perhaps McLaughlin, near the end of a contract with a small label, Douglas (run by legendary jazz and rock producer Alan Douglas), and headed for bigger things, was saving his best tunes for some of his other projects.

With 1970’s Turn It Over, Lifetime may have pared their ideas down from the double-album expansiveness of Emergency!, but they still had plenty of them. The three original members contribute tunes, which range from very high intensity to trippy and spaced out, and there are covers of Chick Corea (the outstanding, two-part album opener, which gets to an almost boogie-blues place in the second part, briefly suggesting a proggier Canned Heat) and John Coltrane (“Big Nick” as Hammond organ workout). One inescapable feature of Turn It Over is Williams continued commitment to singing - ”This Night This Song” is something of an uncomfortable listen, with the spare, loose music and Williams’ vocal combining to produce a spooky mood not far from There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which was released the following year. Another vocal number, “Once I Loved”, features eerie organ and a croony Williams melody that somehow reminds me of Alex Chilton’s version of “Nature Boy”. New Lifetime member Jack Bruce makes a strong impression on bass but gets only one vocal feature. Apparently only released as a single at the time, “One Word” closes out the reissue version of the album on an emotional high note.

McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was a band interested in fusing more than jazz and rock, incorporating influences (and members) from around the world. Their 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, is a killer, with blazing tempos, engaging and varied compositions and well-realized arrangements. Whereas on Devotion, McLaughlin’s sound is fantastically heavy, here he’s more about speed and precision, with a tone that’s more biting or cutting. On some tracks with Miles Davis, McLaughlin runs wild within the loose, improvisational structures, creating guitar sounds rarely heard before or since. Here, he has laser focus, working with a tight ensemble and often blending with Jerry’s Goodman’s violin. The live version of “The Noonward Race” that appears on the reissue shows that the tightness and intricacy this band was capable of at fast tempos was not just a studio thing. There are four other key words to say about this album: Jan Hammer Ring Modulator!

Other Miles-alum-heavy early fusion band I’ve only begun checking out is Weather Report. I picked up their second album, I Sing The Body Electric, in its original LP format, and it surely makes most sense that way - the two sides are so completely distinct. The first, studio side is eclectic and relatively restrained, with several guest musicians, including guitarist Ralph Towner, and even a small chorus on one track. I usually go straight to Side 2, recorded live in Tokyo with just the core quartet. The energy level is much higher, certainly recalling electric Miles in places. The side closes with an aggressive version of Zawinul's "Directions", which was a concert staple for Miles in the early ‘70s, and there's a remarkable moment in the “Vertical Invader” medley that sounds like Miles has suddenly materialized onstage to take an intense wah-trumpet solo. This is apparently Miroslav Vitous bowing his bass through an effects rig, but I’ve never heard a bass sound like this. There's an originally Japan-only release that presents more of this concert, which I should probably pick up.

An important early fusion group with no direct connections to Miles Davis (unlike everyone mentioned above) was the Soft Machine, whose early exposure in America was as Jimi Hendrix’s opening act. While many of the artists discussed above arrived at fusion from the jazz side, adding rock elements to their music, The Soft Machine came at it from the other direction. Though they remained almost exclusively guitarless until their 8th album, Bundles (the guitarist was Allan Holdsworth, who also turned up in a rebooted Lifetime), their sound (and personnel) changed dramatically over the first several years of their existence. In 1969, the Softs were still an art rock or prog band (though not so easy to categorize), but the move to fusion was nearly complete by 1970’s Third, with Robert Wyatt’s immortal “Moon in June” something of a holdout. (“Moon in June” isn’t fusion, isn’t jazz, but it’s no rock song, either. It isn’t anything but Robert Wyatt music.) Fourth, from 1971, is perhaps more focused, though not necessarily better, than Third, but still finds the group drawing on a wide palette of sounds and inspirations. There’s a prog feel to some of the complex compositions, free jazz in some of the horn solos, and some rock elements - fuzz, distortion, and wah sounds in the bass and keyboards, and the still mostly rock-oriented drumming of Robert Wyatt (in his last outing with the group).

The best of this early fusion has the excitement of discovery and experimentation, even if some of the experiments prove to be dead ends. At this stage in the music's development, there was often a pleasing balance between virtuosity and precision on one side and on the other, a willingness to embrace moments where reach exceeds grasp and texture trumps technicality. As fusion became more codified, more established as a music market category and, ultimately, smoother, Miles, the forefather, only seemed to get weirder, louder, more experimental and less marketable. As with some of his previous innovations, he left it to his colleagues and followers to develop, explore, and refine particular aspects of his music while he moved on.