It’s hard to believe now but back in the late ’60’s, and throughout the ’70’s, fusion was very popular. Not so much in a Top 40 sense but as with a subset of people who’d really come to appreciate a high level of musicianship through one or other of the genres.
Bands such as The Mahavishnu Orchestra (whose leader was guitarist John McLaughlin), Return to Forever, Weather Report, guitarist Al DiMeola (RTF guitarist), drummer Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu drummer who went solo), were all the rage.
Wikipedia defines fusion as, “a musical fusion genre that developed from mixing funk and rhythm and blues rhythms and the amplification and electronic effects of rock music, complex time signatures derived from non-Western music and extended, typically instrumental compositions with a jazz approach to lengthy group improvisations, often using wind and brass and displaying a high level of instrumental technique.” (My friend Steve – who turned me on to Weather Report – calls it rock and roll to the max.
Miles Davis – who was so influential in so many ways – is, as much as anyone, credited with popularizing fusion via albums such as Bitches Brew. In fact most of the members of the bands I liked originated with Miles. I don’t believe he was much of a rock fan but I’ve heard that he was very impressed with Jimi Hendrix. Since Jimi wasn’t really a jazzer, Miles would pretty much had to have heard him playing in a rock and blues context.
And I believe that that to some extent influenced him. (I put Miles’ image in this post due to his influence. I did a two -part series on him starting here.). But all that said, I personally spent more time listening to – and seeing – Mahavishnu and Weather Report. This is perhaps – to these ears at least – due to the fact that those bands tended to emphasize the “rock” as much – or more – as the jazz.
This is “Birds of Fire” from Mahavishnu’s same-named 1973 album:
My friends and I – one of whom is the college friend who got me into jazz in the first place – saw Mahavishnu several times in their heyday. Later I was to see Weather Report in a variety of settings most notably in some college or high school outside Philly.
A band I never got to see was Return to Forever. For the life of me I can’t remember why since this band included cream-of-the-crop players: Al Di Meola (guitar); Chick Corea (keyboards); Stanley Clarke (bass); Lenny White (drums). That is a towering line-up.
This is “Song to the Pharoah Kings” from 1974 album, Where Have I Known You Before:
Interestingly while I used to spend a fair amount of time listening to fusion as opposed to more traditional jazz, I find that I have come full circle on this. I recently had the pleasure of seeing Billy Cobham’s band in a small setting. And as much as I enjoyed it, I realized that I’d now rather listen to more traditional jazz.
So for me, Kind of Blue over In A Silent Way. But regardless of the fact that fusion has waned in popularity, there is still some great stuff out there. I leave you with an insane Cobham tune from 1973.