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A Dissonant Tradition

December 27, 2010

Jazz Fusion naturally exists to antagonise – it’s existence has been marred by jazz purists, wankers, and smooth jazz enthusiasts. Yet beyond this facade, in which critics and fans debate meaninglessly over the supposed validity of music, those that listen to the actual music find astonishing depth that belies much jazz and rock.

To define fusion as a mix between jazz and rock is crude. It’s like saying rock n roll is a mix between country and blues. I mean you’d be right, technically, but you’d be missing the whole point of the exercise. Does Johnny B. Goode really sound like a mix of the pain of a woman that done wrong and the heartbreak and pain of rural life? Similarly, to simply refer to Fusion as applying jazz chords to rock music [which John Lennon did in the early Beatles days long before fusion] or the application of electrical instruments and higher volume or “energy” to jazz [as if it lacked energy otherwise] does nothing to explain the seminal works that are In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s been said that fusion was birthed and epitomised in the latter, and not without reason. Both albums represent a fundamental re-interpretation of what music can be, and to be stood side by side, ambient compared to bombastic, demonstrates the absolute versatility the genre, not as simply an amalgamation of two separate entities, but the birth of a modus operandi.

Nevertheless, I don’t seek to deconstruct Bitches Brew. Its complete soundscape is still rather impenetrable to me, I cannot begin to pick it apart without another fifty listens. It’s important to move on from Miles’s fusion as well, because while it presents the zeitgeist, to simply quote these two fantastic albums ad nauseum disregards the purpose and integrity of Miles’s following albums and the entire movement. His disciples, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Larry Young and Joe Zawinul, utilised these principles, creating music beyond peer. Continuing Miles’s approach, more than simply blending jazz and rock, the Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised Indian scales and themes, Tony Williams Lifetime created psychedelic motifs and free compositions, Weather Report drifted between heavily orchestrated compositions and complete group soloing autonomy, Head Hunters strongly utilised syncopated funk thyhms, Mwandishi furthered Bitches Brew’s distorted bombastic nature of inter-locking rhythms and Return To Forever drew heavily upon Latin influences and later funk and medieval themes. Certainly, the influence of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Santana and The Mothers of Invention upon fusion is apparent – the genre would likely never have existed had the amp never been turned up to eleven. Yet the real spirit of fusion is not simply a mix of jazz and rock, but the birth of a spirit in which genre was not seen as a limitation.

It would be wrong to purely attribute these developments to the jazz-rock fusion, after all orchestral jazz was nothing new by 1970, rock was heavily expanding and becoming more experimental, and jazz was becoming an advanced form of art, with albums such as Sketches of Spain, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and A Love Supreme standing as complete works, which while all played by jazz musicians, weren’t and still aren’t anything typical in jazz. Indeed, a lot of fusion is just a logical progression or an extension of certain aspects of jazz. After all, the synthesizer was invented in the late 60s – what keen pianist or organist would not be keen to experiment with a new instrument?

It’s this style of music that I hope to create myself. Like Progressive Rock, music that combines a number of influences to create something beyond mere description, that combines varied elements to subvert tradition. All music is influenced by and copied from its predecessors, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be original, or more pertinently, meaningful.

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