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Nashville Scene Fusion Revisited

Time to reassess jazz-rock

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Fusion arguably remains the most maligned and misunderstood idiom in jazz music. It began in the late '60s, when such players as vibist Gary Burton; guitarist Larry Coryell; flutist Jeremy Steig; violinist Michael White; saxophonists Charles Lloyd, Charlie Mariano, and John Handy; and keyboardist Mike Nock started composing works that merged rock's energy with jazz's improvisational thrust.

Author Stuart Nicholson, in his pioneering work Jazz-Rock: A History (Schirmer), accurately argues that rock groups like Cream and jazz musicians like Burton and Coryell gave the movement its initial momentum. Still, it took a recognized legend to give fusion some credibility. That figure was Miles Davis; his embrace of the style was the catalyst that spurred a brief surge of jazz-rock activity.

Unfortunately, the exciting early days of the movement quickly gave way to production excesses: Solos were shortened, ignorant A&R types started forcing acts to cut horrid covers rather than original compositions, and vapid performances quickly became the norm. As fusion devolved into the tepid morass now known as "smooth jazz," those who'd either ignored or completely dismissed it from the beginning felt justified. But now Sony, the company that once was the dominant label in the jazz-rock boom, offers evidence via its Legacy imprint that there were more nuggets than fool's gold in fusion's first rush.

The current Legacy reissue series includes several Davis gems, most notably The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, a four-disc set chronicling the makings of this landmark jazz-rock album. Five other two-disc sets feature various electric Davis ensembles in live concert dates, while other pivotal rereleases include collections by guitarist John McLaughlin, bandleader/trumpeter Don Ellis, and violinist Michael Urbaniak. These discs, plus Nicholson's book, finally give jazz-rock advocates ammunition to battle charges that the music's sole legacy is the empty noodlings of Kenny G. and Najee.

The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is a revelation, showing Davis' complete break with '60s jazz traditions. The instrumentation includes multiple electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass, and twin drummers, plus soprano sax and bass clarinet. The sound features colliding Afro-Latin and 4/4 rhythmic fragments, shimmering keyboard melodies, and frenetic solos. The production is equally radical, utilizing tape loops, reverb, echo effect, and other devices.

Davis' playing here is strong, assertive, and incisive: His solos are longer, and he ventures more into the trumpet's upper and lower registers. On such songs as "Bitches Brew," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," and "Sanctuary," he demolishes the then-widely held myth that he'd lost his chops.

Jazz fans, of course, are already familiar with the selections from the original issue of Bitches Brew, so the other works included on this set make for a special bonus. A handful were previously released on Big Fun, Circle in the Round , and Live-Evil, but nine cuts are newly issued. These include open-ended jams like "Yaphet" and "Double Image," and a riveting cover of David Crosby's "Guninnevere."

On Bitches Brew and Legacy's five other Davis titles (Live-Evil, Black Beauty, At Fillmore, Dark Magus, and Live at the Philharmonic), the trumpeter mixes, matches, and rotates an all-star assemblage of ace jazz musicians, plus an occasional funk player, for studio sessions and concert engagements.

The live releases, which cover 1970-74, offer an amazing array of sounds: There's straight R&B and funk-laced material, '50s-style blowing sessions, rock snippets, Indian-influenced melodies, Latin-tinged selections, and even an occasional hard bop tune. The later sets show Davis strongly under the influence of Sly Stone and James Brown, with Michael Henderson providing elastic bass accompaniment. This music is so forceful, unpredictable, and hypnotic, it's hard to fathom why critics like Stanley Crouch insist that it's inferior to Davis' classics from other eras. These sets suggest that if jazz-rock had stayed on this course, it might not have spiraled downward.

Davis' impact was so huge, those musicians who later departed his company inevitably followed his trailblazing example. Guitarist John McLaughlin, for example, was never a full-time Davis band member, but he periodically played with the trumpeter's groups from 1969 through the late '70s. After leaving Tony Williams Lifetime in 1970, McLaughlin became a follower of Sri Chimnroy, adapted the surname Mahavishnu, and formed his own band. He recruited violinist Jerry Goodman from The Flock to join keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and fellow Davis part-timer Billy Cobham on drums. This lineup became the original Mahavishnu Orchestra--perhaps the greatest quintet in jazz-rock history.

Their 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, remains a masterpiece more than 25 years later. McLaughlin's blistering solos, Goodman's dashing violin, Hammer's percussive keyboard phrases, and Cobham and Laird's superb underpinning obliterated all considerations of genre and style. The entire album is spectacular, particularly "Noonward Race," on which McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer duel for solo honors, and Cobham almost blows Laird out of the studio.

The other new Legacy discs, Don Ellis' Electric Bath and Michael Urbaniak's Fusion, are no less intriguing, though they are more problematic. Ellis was a solid lead trumpeter in Gunther Schuller's and George Russell's orchestras, and he was an early pioneer of "Third Stream" music, a dense sound mixing classical and jazz influences. On Electric Bath, he leads a 20-piece orchestra through a whirlwind of changing time signatures, pounding arrangements, high-energy trumpet/trombone solos, and derivative rock beats. At times, the songs sparkle; on other occasions, they resemble the worst selections from Stan Kenton's final years.

Urbaniak and his vocalist wife Urzula were Polish immigrants whose tastes included Eastern European folk music, rock, funk, and hard bop. When Urbaniak formed a band in 1970, he wanted a forum to showcase his wife's unusual voice and his own eclectic interests. Featuring fellow European musicians Adam Makowicz, Wojciech Karolak, and Czeslaw Bartkowski, Fusion was the unit's second LP.

The disc was recorded in Germany in 1973, and though marred by generic tinkering from keyboardists Karolak and Makowicz, it contains noteworthy selections such as "Impromptu" and "Deep Mountain," on which Michael Urbaniak's supple, soulful violin is beautifully punctuated by his wife's soaring, shuddering vocals. The record offers little in the way of rhythmic intensity, but even so the Urbaniaks are often striking and occasionally incredible.

At the very least, Legacy's fusion reissues should revive interest in jazz-rock; at best, it might even spur some current musicians to give fusion a '90s spin. Without a doubt, these discs offer a kind of excitement that's seldom available in present-day music.

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