Welcome to Jazz Club, where we might actually be on track this week! Actually, it’s true; we have a real topic and real albums to bring to your earballs, all about one of the most revolutionary (and highly criticized at the time) forms of jazz of all time, Jazz Fusion! A little note before we start, though: all three albums featured today have sizable contributions from guitarists. Although fusion includes more instrumentation beyond the guitar (for example, Mahavishnu Orchestra once included violinist Jon Luc Ponty), guitar was essentially the big focal point of the genre, as fusion is a blend (no duh) of a few genres with jazz, the biggest being rock music. (Of course, there are other jazz guitarists that aren’t fusion, such as Django Reinhardt, but this is a new sound we’re talking about.) So without further ado, let’s defuse a contentious – but rewarding – subgenre of jazz.
Jimmy Mullett: Scott, how exactly would you describe fusion?
Scott Murphy: Honestly, I’m not sure. I had always associated the genre with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis before we settled on the three albums we’ll be talking about below. But after re-listening to these records (and in the case of Jeff Beck, exploring for the first time), I began to understand their place within the genre while also wondering what exactly the genre is. In your mind, is there a distinction between jazz rock and jazz fusion? Because I’d frankly classify these three albums more along the lines of “jazz rock” and any number of Davis’ electric albums as more in line with the title “jazz fusion.” I know they’re synonymous terms, but I feel there’s at least some distinction to be made.
Jimmy: Well, I think jazz fusion is a very loose genre, like most genre tags that denote a melange of sounds. Jazz rock and jazz fusion are essentially synonymous to most people, like you said, and I tend to agree with that idea, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spectrum within that genre tag. Miles’s fusion albums (e.g. Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way) were such a break away from structure that it goes a bit into avant-garde jazz territory, if we want to be annoyingly technical about it. Herbie Hancock is very much fusion, but he takes a lot of influence from funk: so much, in fact, that an album like Headhunters is both fusion and jazz-funk. A good example is Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior (another good contender for this list), which doesn’t really sound anything like you’d think “jazz rock” or Miles’s “jazz fusion” sound, but is nonetheless considered fusion.
Scott: I can see that, for sure. One of the albums on this list threw me off because of its affiliation with genre, so revisiting it stoked up some of my old uncertainties.
Jimmy: Which album is that?
Scott: Well, let’s launch in and find out.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame
Scott: A little while back, I discovered an independent record store called The Music Connection near the chain music shop (Newbury Comics) Jimmy and I go to frequently. I scoured through their jazz section and found a pretty beat up copy of The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame. It was cheap, and I’d been told it was a must-have jazz classic, so I bought it along with a few other finds. But as it spun on my turntable, what poured into my room wasn’t at all what I had anticipated. While I expected a spiritual piece of avant-garde jazz, what I got felt like (very well-done) 70s jam rock with extremely evident jazz influence. thus began my puzzled love affair with jazz fusion; I couldn’t figure out what ratio made the genre applicable. Though as Jimmy parsed out for me above, it very much depends and resides on a spectrum, like numerous other multi-genre styles.
Jimmy: It’s very true. It’s funny that we both came into fusion in very much the same way. Instead of expecting Bitches Brew, though, I was hoping for something funkier, like Headhunters, or just plain regular hard bop with some guitar in it. I was thrown for a loop, but a good loop. The Mahavishnu Orchestra is probably the most recognizable jazz fusion band in the genre’s history, and most of, if not all the members in it helped pioneer fusion. Guitarist John McLaughlin actually played with Miles Davis in his first three “fusion” albums – In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, among others – before forming Mahavishnu. But, like you said before, Inner Mounting Flame sounds nothing like Bitches Brew. What it exactly sounds like is tough to pin down. Scott, you want to take a go at it?
Scott: Of the three albums we picked for this installment, I revisited both Hot Rats and The Inner Mounting Flame numerous times, the former for enjoyment and reminiscence and the latter for further mental tinkering. Like I said, this album feels like a Seventies album first and foremost. Maybe it’s because I’d been getting into Can around the same time, but this felt very much the the intense development of sound that krautrock bands were doing without the repetition. Basically, if someone asked me to picture a jam band that loved jazz, some form of this album would matriculate in my mind.
Jimmy: There are a lot of jam band qualities to Inner Mounting Flame, but what personally sticks out with me the most is the strangely positive vibe a lot of it gave off. Jazz has it’s own soulful sound that poets like Kerouac and Baraka have always been trying to capture, but fusion sort of gives the classic bop sound the finger and almost feels sterile in its execution. Maybe sterile isn’t the right word, though; there’s definitely soul in this music, but it’s been twisted around. Just one listen to the opening track “Meeting of the Spirits” and that should become abundantly clear.
Scott: I definitely feel where your coming from. What I also get from the album is a strong fulfillment of the “Orchestra” part of their name, despite their only being five players on the record. Several tracks here feel expansive, in a sense. I mean to say that it feels extremely complete and explosive at points, even when each instrument is performing. Sometimes I feel as though jazz can be a revolving game of solos, which is actually one of my favorite things about the genre. But it’s also interesting to see Mahavishnu take discernible ideas from jazz and transform them in a way that makes sense pouring out from a raucous group of rock musicians.
Jimmy: Agreed; I think that whole “orchestra” bit significantly stems from the fact that there was some unusual instrumentation. Obviously, guitar was nothing new to the rock game, but the way it’s played here defies what rock and jazz musicians had been doing up until that time (with the possible exception of Frank Zappa, but more on that later). Add to that violin—which to me still looks weird on paper even now but is really cool when heard—and Jan Hammer’s keyboard work, and you’ve got essentially what a fusion orchestra would sound like. You have a favorite track on Inner Mounting Flame, by the way?
Scott: Well you already mentioned “Meeting of the Spirits,” which is such a phenomenal album opener. It’s one of those introductions that perfectly encapsulates what an album has to offer and lays the groundwork for whats to come. I also think “A Lotus on Irish Streams” is gorgeous, and showcases how much of an asset Jerry Goodman‘s violin playing is for the album. Like you said, it’s still odd to think about it, but I’m also still impressed by how well it works and in how many different ways the band incorporates violin into the different tones of each track.
Jimmy: Right? I feel like I could listen to this album over and over again and still have that same “huh?” reaction to hearing that violin buildup in “Meeting of the Spirits.” I personally enjoyed “The Dance of Maya” most, because of its interpretation of the blues through a fusion lens. It reminds me a little bit of Jimi Hendrix almost, in that John McLaughlin basically takes that traditional blues formula and twists it around until he’s satisfied with it.
Frank Zappa – Hot Rats
Jimmy: Okay, let’s move on and talk about some Hot Rats. I know you’ve had a lot more experience with this album than I have, so what do you think of it, at least as a jazz album?
Scott: Actually, my relationship with Zappa can be traced WAY back into my childhood. One of my parents’ best friends would watch my sister and I during the summer, and we’d send hours playing with their German Shepherd named “Zappa.” As I was buying my first copy of Hot Rats, I remembered their taste in music (comprised primarily of The Grateful Dead) and expected a classic 70s albums. And while it’s certainly a classic, I once again didn’t get what I was expecting; not by a long shot. I actually sold the album back to Bull Moose at the time because I didn’t “get it,” and I still kick myself for that decision. In terms of “jazz,” I’d put Hot Rats more in line with traditional aspects of the genre than our other two picks. But there’s an undeniable core of rock music – and also a bit of funk on a few tracks – that makes for a truly extraordinary listen. But I’m babbling; what are your thoughts on the album, Jimmy?
Jimmy: I personally think—and this is going to sound weird, considering my previous comments regarding fusion as a spectrum—that this is an almost perfect ration of jazz and rock.
Scott: I was thinking the EXACT same thing as I spun the album again earlier today.
Jimmy: On one hand, Zappa never strays too far from rock—every track uses pretty standard compositional structure—but the entire album is played with jazz in mind. All of Zappa’s solos, and the swinging feel that Don Harris’s violin brings into a track like “Willie the Pimp”just scream jazz to me.
Scott: Also, the sound of the instruments have a playful, almost Renaissance-esque quality to them. It just feels so strange yet enticing that I can;t help but listen to the album again and again.
Jimmy: I can definitely see that as well. On top of all that awesome fusion, though, there’s still that unmistakeable fusion spirit, like that hook in “Peaches In Regalia;” again, I can’t really describe it. It’s sort of as if the freedom and spirituality of the 60s comes out in Zappa’s playing, despite him being such a paradox of the time, at least in terms of ethics and drive.
Scott: I agree with that as well; it feels like such a timeless album, both in its execution and lasting impact.
Jimmy: Absolutely; Hot Rats is still one of the definitive Zappa albums, and considered among his most accessible. I referenced “Willie the Pimp” before; I can’t help but love that song, mostly because of Captain Beefheart’s vocal contributions and how passionate Zappa’s solos sound in that track in particular. What about you, Scottford?
Scott: Oddly enough, that track was always the barrier between me and the rest of the album back in the day. Granted, I had pretty underdeveloped taste back then, and the reasons I hated then are why I love it now. You’ve already outlined all of the things that make the track so great, but what I’ll add is what an effective one-two-punch “Peaches en Regalia” and “Willie the Pimp” are. They pull from slightly different areas a provide a broad, mouth-watering vision of what else Hot Rats could offer.
Jimmy: That is so true. I mean, there are some jazz albums that require a whole play through because of their odd consistency—Mingus Ah Hum comes to mind, personally—but Hot Rats can be pretty much be summed up in those two tracks. However, the rest of the album is fantastic as well, so don’t skimp out on those deep cuts!
Jeff Beck – Blow by Blow
Jimmy: Last up is the incredible Blow By Blow by none other than Jeff Beck. Haven’t heard of Jeff Beck? Well, that’s understandable; he doesn’t exactly have that “instant legend” status like Hendrix or Keith Richards have (though he deserves it). For those who don’t know, Jeff Beck started as a rock guitarist, and probably made his biggest early career start playing for the Yardbirds, who have Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in their ranks at one time or another. Beck sort of plays around with a bunch of genres, but for the most part has stuck to this fusion style that he employs on what is often considered his best work, Blow By Blow. Scott, tell me: as a first-time listener of this album, what did you think? How did it fare compared to the other albums we discussed today?
Scott: Honestly, I didn’t enjoy Blow by Blow as much as Hot Rats or The Inner Mounting Flame, and much of it has to do with balance. I can’t pinpoint why, but I’ve never been enamored with guitar virtuosos; I find excessive guitar soloing to be annoying and usually tune out the more solos there are. This isn’t to say that i dislike guitar, or that Beck is a poor guitarist. Anyone with any knowledge of music can tell that Beck is a fantastic player with a great style. But I think what separates John McLaughlin from Beck is the the integrated feel that McLaughlin’s playing contains. The Inner Mounting Flame had me feel like I was listening to a group of musicians play in a relatively even manner, whereas nearly every moment of Blow by Blow reinforced that this was Beck’s album from start to finish, top to bottom. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, it’s just not my preference, I suppose.
Jimmy: I understand that; I think one thing Blow By Blow lacks is, as you said, variation and integration of different instruments. It’s really just him and a backing band on the album. I personally like virtuosos and shred guitarists, but only to a point, at which time their playing becomes more showboating than anything. I think that Beck actually handles that problem fairly, though; he has some good songwriting skills, and he chooses his notes wisely, like in “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” where he manages to basically make his guitar cry. Also, you can’t go wrong with a track listing that contains an awesome title such as “Constipated Duck.”
Scott: I do agree that there was some great songwriting on the track. Plus he incorporated a tasteful amount of voice box into the album, which I admired. I always enjoyed the idea when I’d spin my parents’ old copy of Frampton Comes Alive, but it grew to be a bit much after a while. I’d also that add that Beck’s playing itself truly is fantastic. On a track-by-track basis, I enjoyed everything Beck had to offer. It was just the collection of them all that started to bog down my interest.
Jimmy: That’s fair enough; I can understand that, especially with bands like Meshuggah that are obviously talented, but I personally can’t take for an entire damn album. When it comes to Beck’s playing, I consider him to be more on the jazz side of things, despite his status as a rock player; his phrasings (i.e. the way he takes on the notes in the song) seem more delicate than McLaughlin or Zappa, which I always think of as being very jazz-influenced. But maybe that’s just because I like that fragile jazz sound, like Bill Evans. Your thoughts?
Scott: Oh, without question. I could envision almost every guitar line on the album as Beck’s interpretation of standard woodwind/brass phrasing. He has such a vibrant dialogue to his playing that adds quite a bit of color to the record as a whole.
Jimmy: I think this proves the point again that fusion is a very vague genre at best; here we have three different guitarists who have irreparably influenced (and arguably pioneered) this style of jazz, and yet they all have very different approaches to how it’s done. I think we could extend this to jazz as a whole, but with other genres like bebop and hard bop the distinction becomes less obvious until you fit in musicians like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, who took a whole different route with their music.
Scott: That’s a great point. As they say, the best way to learn something is to force yourself to teach it, which is what I felt happened here for me in terms of “getting” jazz fusion. And in general, I think jazz takes more studying than other genres to truly understand its nuances and subgenres.
Jimmy: I don’t know if I exactly agree that jazz is more nuanced than other genres -I think you sort of find what you want to hear in a genre of music, and are able to understand the little quirks when he spend enough time listening to it – but I understand your reasoning.
Scott: That’s a good point, and now that I think about it, electronic music may take even more time to fully unpack. Either way, the fact that I constantly discover new things when listening to jazz is what I love most about the genre.
Jimmy: Agreed there!
Jimmy: Well, I think that wraps things up for this week. Come back next time and maybe we can keep this party going!
Scott: And as always, check out our further recommendations list and Spotify playlist below.
- Return to Forever – Romantic Warrior
- Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
- Billy Cobham – Spectrum
- Jeff Beck – Wired
- Frank Zappa – Waka/Jawaka
- Santana – Caravanserai
- Soft Machine – Third