Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Jazz Fusion


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Referring to jazz fusion as a legitimate genre may not be the best way to start a music conversation, assuming you're with a group whose average age is under 45-but if you like to impress people with obscure music references, you're in luck.

The combination of those two words, "jazz" and "fusion," might seem incongruous at first, and we're inclined to agree with you. Fusion sounds like something highly futuristic, suggesting images of melting alloys, neon green clouds of nuclear smoke and men in bright yellow radioactivity suits with plexiglass bubble helmets. Or maybe that's just in our deranged minds. Regardless, jazz tends to make many think of something just the opposite, something old and boring. But the combination of these two? Utter madness. Many friends just laughed it off the first time we mentioned this forgotten genre-the precise moment we realized its value for an audience seeking diamonds in the rough. Yeah, we know you guys, how you scour the dollar rack at Amoeba searching for something listenable that none of the other tight corduroy pants-wearing twentysomethings out on Telegraph have heard. But with the funky fresh works of the Return to Forever or Jaco Pastorious set to shuffle on your iPod, you're sure to be the coolest kid anywhere from Blake's to Gilman.

You know how our parents joke that they "survived the '70s"? Jazz fusion is probably one of those things they're happy to have outlived. But in our minds, jazz fusion is one the best things the '70s has to offer. Originating from one well-documented moment-the release of Miles Davis' 1970 album Bitches Brew-it grew to be quite a musical fad. Something about that album, from its eclectic combination of melodic saxophone and staccato electric guitar riffs to its highly stylized aboriginal African cover art, must have seemed different than anything ever seen before. After all, Miles was never one to play it safe. Fusion marked the first union of classic jazz-with instrumentation and free-form harmonic arrangements-with '60s hard rock elements like the electric bass and the screaming guitar solo.

It's hard to describe, but it sounds like Hendrix playing a melting saxophone with his 'fro on fire. It's not exactly the most accessible form of music but one with a lot of interesting moments. And as the '70s progressed, more people began dabbling in the genre. A lot of the original fusionistas, like keyboard masters Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, had classical jazz backgrounds, while some were just bad rock guitarists trying to cash in on what was hot. Like a lot of things in the late '70s, fusion got swept up in that corny over-sexualized sweaty disco dancing culture. We think checking out the afros on their album covers are worth the 25 cents for vinyl at Rasputin, but that's another story.

For all this talk of jazz fusion's obscurity, we may have been exaggerating a little bit. You know something's mainstream-or at least was at one time-when it has one of those iTunes Essentials lists devoted to it. Whether your goal is to impress people (throwing out things like "Yeah, but I think the best guitar solo I've ever heard was the one on 'Celestial Terrestrial Commuters' by the Mahavishnu Orchestra" raises eyebrows every time) or just listen to some interesting music from a bygone era, we think you may find something of value in jazz fusion. Just don't play it at a dance party-you might hurt yourself.

Raise someone's eyebrows with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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