Cold Fusion: The Search for the Jazz/Rock Unicorn

Fusion Picture

Part I: A Brief Stylistic History

The fusion of different styles of music has been an explicit goal of many musicians in the 20C. In the early part of the 20C, many classical composers like Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy were interested in incorporating early jazz and ethnic folk music into their works. By the middle of the 20C, composer Gunther Schuller combined jazz and classical music, which he dubbed “Third Stream” (implying that the only two “streams” worthy of recognition are classical and jazz). Around the same time, Miles Davis brought French Impressionism into the jazz canon on his 1959 recording “Kind of Blue” which reigns supreme as one of—if not the—most popular jazz albums of all time. In the 1960s, the first Minimalists, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, successfully fused rhythmic gestures from popular music and jazz with the aesthetics of classical music and Buddhist philosophy, creating the only new style of classical music to emerge since that time. By the ‘70s, influenced in part at least by his admiration for Jimi Hendrix, Davis led jazz in a new direction by incorporating rock and roll into his album Bitches Brew, which was the first “pop-jazz fusion” album.

This is not, however, limited to cross-pollination between only jazz and classical music. Popular music has also been similarly enriched by successfully and overtly importing elements from other styles—Queen’s “Night at the Opera,” for example, makes the connection explicit, while others, like The Nice, Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd wrote music with longer forms, more attention to thematic/motivic unity, unusual time signatures, quickly shifting meters, and sophisticated harmony that used techniques from classical composers like Sergie Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Bela Bartok, and from jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and Dave Brubeck. Others, like Emerson, Lake, & Palmer and Jethro Tull actually arranged the music of classical composers like J.S. Bach, Alberto Ginastera, Aaron Copland, and Modest Mussorgsky, for their rock groups.

Clearly, musical innovation and development occur when new elements are brought into extant genres. However, in most cases, the resultant music fails to achieve a fusion that is true to both (or all) of its progenitors. Inevitably, most fusions rely largely on one of the styles and are adorned with superficial elements of the other style(s). Consider a few examples:

This piece by Gunther Schuller juxtaposes a jazz quartet and a classical orchestra. It’s a fine piece overall, but in terms of how the classical and jazz elements are handled, it is not convincing as a fusion of any kind. The orchestral sections feature textures and dissonances that are found in the early part of the 20C classical repertoire (0:00-0:45). After this ends, the jazz quartet takes over but the music is largely derivative and unoriginal, sounding perilously close to lounge music, except for the obligatory harsh dissonances that purposelessly pepper the landscape to signify its modernity and its alliance with fellow travelers from the realm of atonal music.  (Again, this is not a critique of the piece, I am focusing on the way in which the genres are blended, and how successful that is in maintaining the aesthetics of both.) In short, this doesn’t seem like the fusion of two genres into one new genre, it’s really more of a pastiche or musical quilt. 

Not surprisingly, given the electric guitar’s prominence in rock and roll, guitarists were at the vanguard of combining jazz and rock from early on. Guitarists Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, for example, were involved with these experimentations from quite early on in the mid-1960s.

Coryell’s first recording, with his band “The Free Spirits” (1967), is an exuberant offering (with some delightful avant-garde, Albert Ayler-esque saxophone playing by Jim Pepper). There is plenty of improvisation over funk and rock grooves, but it is quintessential ‘60s rock, relying on formulaic song forms with harmonized vocals and stock “counter-culture” lyrics. Coryell’s work after this is all characterized as “jazz fusion” which retains the rhythmic gestures from a variety of pop genres (rock, funk, soul) and features improvisation which is rooted in the melodic vocabulary of jazz and blues. This approach, with dance grooves and catchy melodies spiced with some headier improvisation, proved to be very lucrative for many bands in the 1970s and ‘80s. Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, Steps Ahead, and others achieved considerable commercial success while simultaneously maintaining credibility as jazz musicians, which is quite an accomplishment. 

 

Others, like John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, took their fusion in a different direction, seamlessly incorporating jazz, classical, and world music elements into the mix. The result is extremely impressive—outstanding musicianship, unique compositions, and a strong rock foundation that is often visceral and aggressive. This is sophisticated jazz improvisation with advanced harmony that occurs over rock As with Coryell’s music, the fusion with rock, however, seems one-sided.  Without the vocalist and some well-crafted melodies and lyrical content, this music fails to fuse the most prominent features of rock and roll—the voice and the lyrics. Without this, it’s difficult for me to see how it has truly fused with rock music, which overwhelmingly relies on vocals delivered by a lead singer who delivers the narrative that is integral to the group’s image and stance. Once again, this is jazz played within the rhythmic framework of pop and world music

As the style developed, others simplified it, rounding out the rougher, more unpredictable jazz edges in favor of a more pop-oriented approach. As the jazz elements faded, the music morphed into “smooth jazz” with artists like Chuck Mangione and Kenny G enjoying enormous commercial success as well as pop star status. While musicians may argue about the amount of “jazz” included in any of these variations, what can’t be assailed is the authentic jazz credentials of the members of these groups. Mangione, for example, played in Art Blakey’s band long before Wynton Marsalis, and Weather Report featured none other than ex-Miles Davis saxophonist and composer, Wayne Shorter, one of the most revered and respected jazz musicians of all time. Still, by the time smooth jazz appears, the music was almost completely devoid of its jazz roots. What remained was a style that was peculiarly self-aware of its own contrived sentimentality and saccharine emotional content, and yet, they seem to revel in it their own shallowness nonetheless, as if the posture was a virtue unto itself.  This music was surprisingly successful, as it still carried with it a faint and illusory whiff of jazz sophistication, which made it perfect for use in commercials and at its final resting stop—as fully-defanged theme songs for sitcoms like Taxi and Hill Street Blues.

Not all of the early fusion, however, was as easy for the average listener to come to terms with as the previous examples were. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released in 1970, is considered the first serious foray into jazz fusion, but I suspect that is because it was the first exploration of fusion by a major jazz artist. This recording bristles and roars from the first notes as it marries the most abrasive gestures of avant-garde jazz with the electronics and effects of rock and roll. It is free improvisation over rock and funk grooves, dissonant and caustic throughout (even the name of the album is provocative). It is unfiltered and unapologetic, with a nascent, snarling punk posture at its core. It’s hard jazz in every sense of the word, but it sold over a million copies, something astonishing for a jazz album of any kind, much less one that is as dissonant as this music is. As monumental as the album is, it is clearly avant-garde jazz improvised with electronic instruments and effects, and performed within a rock framework. It is so far removed from rock and pop music that I find it difficult to see a deep fusion of the two styles here. As with the others previously discussed, the elements fused are found at the surface level, which certainly creates a new sound, but it does not alter the essential aesthetic foundation of the music, which is, in my opinion, overwhelmingly rooted in jazz, not rock or pop.

As with the others, Davis’ rock-tinged jazz mellowed over time, but he never surrendered or compromised his probing, experimental, and iconoclastic personality, even when tackling such innocuous “white key*” tunes like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” The accompaniment in Davis’ version stays true to the original—there is no reharmonization and no extended jazz harmony whatsoever, and yet, Davis is able to transform this simple ’80s pop tune into a poignant ballad, full of the imperfections that flip the classical music aesthetic on its head, the same things that, at the same time, combine to make jazz so effective and expressive. Here then, we find one of the very few examples of fusion that maintains the integrity of both pop and jazz, and it does so without a singer, which is truly remarkable. It does, however, have a powerful ally, an ally that so much of jazz from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s relied heavily upon—namely, an expectation that the listener knows the tune and the lyrics and can thus appreciate the jazz variation in its proper context. So, in a sense, it does have lyrics, they’re just being “sung” by Miles Davis on the trumpet.

My point in exploring this topic is not to try to change the definition of “fusion” or the music that is classified under that label. As a descriptive term, it works well because it generalizes broadly, allowing it to subsume a great deal of music under its umbrella. My exploration of the topic is motivated by a question that has plagued me for many years—why is there so little music that genuinely fuses two styles together and does so in a way that maintains the integrity of all of the stylistic contributors? This is not just a jazz/rock/pop issue, it’s also true in classical music. Gershwin’s music is “jazzy” but it’s not jazz, Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico incorporates elements of Spanish folk music, but it’s not Spanish folk music, it’s classical music. 

 

It is extremely difficult to authentically fuse two or more different styles, largely because, I think, the aesthetic values that define each style must necessarily clash with each other to some degree. Composers must, therefore, consciously or not, decide on how much of each style to incorporate into their music fusion. As one might expect, the resultant mixture usually leans heavily on the genre in which the composer is most comfortable. This is why I think that a true fusion of jazz and rock/pop, defined more stringently as I have outlined here, is difficult to find, but not impossible. In Part II, I will discuss two recordings (one quite well known, the other not) that I think have succeeded in fusing jazz and rock/pop in an authentic and convincing manner.

*The chords in ”Time After Time” simply move back and forth in lockstep (for the most part) using adjacent white key chords. It can be learned by anyone in a matter of minutes.

For Part II, click here.


 

About FraKathustra

http://www.kurtellenberger.com

3 Responses to “Cold Fusion: The Search for the Jazz/Rock Unicorn”

  1. Great article, Kurt! And really good point about the lack of true fusion. I compare it to singers who are looking to “fuse” classical and popular singing styles and how often that fails because of the difficulty of reproducing two diverse techniques at all, much less in the context of a single piece. It always seems to lean toward one technique with a superficial nod toward the other, as you say.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Yea, it’s like everything else–if you want a big, safe, heavy truck AND you want 50MPG, well, you’re going to be disappointed, same thing in the arts I think.

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