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The new jazz age In the '70s, fusion was seen as the Next Big Thing in jazz, but its popularity was short-lived. Now it's back, and more hip-hop than ever.

For years, it was the subgenre that dare not speak its name.

Once considered the cutting edge of modern jazz, fusion brought a new sense of commercial vitality to the music. As epitomized by such early '70s stalwarts as Miles Davis, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, fusion's electric instrumentation and R&B-oriented; rhythms attracted the sort of audiences normally found at rock concerts.

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For a moment, it looked as if the style might make jazz popular again. Then the backlash set in. Egged on by the screaming pyrotechnics of fleet-fingered virtuosi like guitarist John McLaughlin and synth wizard Jan Hammer, fusion became a wasteland of instrumental excess, beset with bands who saw it as an excuse to cram as many notes as possible into any given tune.

By the early '80s, fusion had become as much an annoyance to rock fans as it was an embarrassment to jazzers. All in all, it seemed about as ripe for a comeback as the leisure suit.

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But fusion is back, and hipper than ever.

Miles Davis' early '70s electric albums -- some of which weren't even originally released in this country -- have suddenly become required listening for adventurous rock stars. Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jon Greenwood have told interviewers that Davis' "Bitches Brew" was a major inspiration for last year's critically acclaimed "OK Computer," while Phish's Trey Anastasio has become a full-blown Miles-aholic.

" 'Dark Magus' and 'Live/Evil' -- that's all I listen to now," he says, referring to two recently reissued Davis albums. "Over and over and over again. It's so good."

Fusion's impact is even more prevalent in dance music. Acid jazz, in which young musicians blend acid house beats with fusion-style improvisation, may be the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others.

King Britt's Sylk 130 release, "When the Funk Hits the Fan," grounds its groove in the rhythm work of jazzmen like former Ornette Coleman bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and Grover Washington drummer Darryl Burgees, while the "Nuyorican Soul" album created by mix masters Kenny "Dope" Gonzales and Little Louis Vega featured cameos by such fusion legends as Roy Ayers and George Benson.

Then there's drum 'n' bass, a hyperkinetic dance style David Bowie has described as "the nearest thing that we've had to a respectable version of fusion." Not only do drum 'n' bass acts like Squarepusher and Photek augment their frenetic break beats with sounds drawn from fusion-era artists like Weather Report and Return to Forever, but their interest is echoed on the jazz side. Branford Marsalis' band, Buckshot LeFonque, included track on its 1997 "Music Evolution" album called "Jungle Groove" that found the group playing drum 'n' bass as if it were bebop.

How did fusion's image go from irritating to inventive? Some of it can simply be chalked up to the passage of time.

"Things usually go in 20-year cycles," says producer/DJ King Britt. "So, fusion was big in '77-'78; now it's '97-'98.

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"Plus, you have your parallels. You had the disco era then; now, you have [electronica] and house music. In the disco era, you had jazz musicians coming in to do these sessions on the disco tracks. And the same with now. You have people like myself, who are into dance music, bringing in all these jazz cats to play."

But it's more than just a case of what goes around comes around. There's also an increased sense of experimentation in music now, as producers and composers use digital samplers to broaden their sonic palette -- breaking down boundaries in much the same way fusion musicians did.

"If you can remember, back in the late '60s, early '70s, we had gotten to a point where it was a lot easier to have access to music from different parts of the world," says bassist Alphonso Johnson, who played with Weather Report from 1973 to 1976. From Afrobeat to Balinese Gamelan, these influences provided a new vocabulary for improvising musicians.

"At that time, we didn't feel like we had to continue the traditions," adds Johnson. "Musicians like Miles Davis were pushing the envelope, and encouraging everybody else to do the same. So that was like the unwritten rule: Try things; experiment; don't be satisfied with repeating what had been done before."

Away from tradition

What we know as fusion began taking shape in the late '60s, largely through the efforts of Davis. Spurred on by drummer Tony Williams, who was as enamored of the Beatles as he was of Art Blakey, Davis slowly moved away from traditional jazz forms and instrumentation. Instead of the usual complex chord changes, his tunes began to rely on two-chord vamps, while his rhythm section switched from acoustic bass and piano to electric instruments.

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By 1969, with "In a Silent Way," he'd added guitarist John McLaughlin -- whom he had met through Williams' side project, the rock-oriented group Lifetime -- and had swapped swing for funk. By the time "Bitches Brew" hit the streets in 1970, jazz was in tumult. Although some musicians denounced him as a traitor, others were eager to follow his lead.

Many of the earliest fusion acts were virtual spinoffs from Davis' electric bands. There was Weather Report, which paired longtime Davis saxophonist Wayne Shorter with "In a Silent Way" composer Joe Zawinul; Return to Forever, led by keyboardist Chick Corea and briefly featuring Davis percussionist Airto Moriea; and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which got off the ground after McLaughlin met drummer Billy Cobham while recording the album "Jack Johnson" with Davis.

Davis' alumni didn't have a monopoly on the style, however. Many of the most successful fusion albums were the work of Creed Taylor, a jazz producer who helped shepherd guitarist Wes Montgomery onto the pop charts with 1967's "A Day in the Life."

Taylor's CTI imprint reinvented the notion of pop jazz for the fusion '70s. Bob James, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine all sold exceptionally well for the label, while Eumir Deodato's funked-up remake of "Also Spracht Zarathustra" (the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey") was a Top Five pop hit.

Those CTI albums kept the fusion flame burning during the dark days of the '80s, though not quite in a way jazz fans might have expected. Long a favorite among disco DJs, CTI albums -- along with funk jazz recordings by vibraphonist Roy Ayers and guitarist Phil Upchurch -- were sampled onto numerous early rap hits. For instance, that's James' "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" being scratched in Run-D.M.C.'s 1986 rap "Peter Piper."

Drawing on old fusion albums was a natural outgrowth of hip-hop's roots in DJ culture.

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"As a DJ, I play all kinds of music," says producer and remixer Little Louis Vega. Fusion albums were a part of that mix, along with Latin jazz, funk and soul. But what Vega and others liked about the old fusion albums was that they were full of interesting moments.

"We love little infectious grooves," he says. "What we do is find a little riff, and build a story around that riff."

Unlike the first generation of hip-hop DJs, who had to make do with just scratching on a turntable, Vega and his contemporaries used digital samplers to isolate a small snippet of sound, edit it into an easily repeatable loop, and use that as the basis for a song. Often, the samples were barely a second or two long.

Still, curious young listeners were eager to track down the original sources, and that helped pave the way for fusion's return.

"Those who are really into music listen for the sample, and they try to research it," says King Britt. "They'll say, 'OK, this was a Miles Davis sample,' and they'll go out and get the original. Now a lot of the kids, they'll have these incredible jazz collections. So it's like a domino effect."

Indeed, jazz is becoming commonplace in some dance clubs. A few years ago, the group US3 pumped up the beat on Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" to kick-start their hit, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)."

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Now, reports Hancock, some DJs don't bother augmenting the jazz tracks they play. "I remember being in Denmark, and going into a club -- a dance club -- and they were playing Lee Morgan, and some of my earlier work on Blue Note. Playing 'em straight. And people were dancing to it! Which I thought was pretty interesting."

It shouldn't be a surprise that those tracks have held up, though, because a lot of those fusion albums were way ahead of their time. King Britt, for instance, is working on a version of a track called "Rated X" (from the now out-of-print 1974 album "Get Up With It") for a Miles Davis remix album, and is astonished at how modern the original track sounds. "You listen to drum 'n' bass now, and then you listen to Miles, and you're like, 'He was doing this years ago,' " says Britt.

But then, that sort of unfettered creativity was always central to the fusion aesthetic.

As Hancock puts it: "My interest lies in taking elements from wherever, and creating something new. I'm not so interested in doing something that somebody already did. I'm more interested in new directions."

A current selection

Here are a few examples of contemporary albums with a strong fusion flavor:

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* US3, "Hand on the Torch" (Blue Note 80883). With rhythm tracks built around samples from Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and others, this was one of the earlier attempts at a hip-hop/jazz crossover.

* "Nuyorican Soul" (Giant Step/Blue Thumb 1130). With guest spots by everyone from Roy Ayers to George Benson to Eddie Palmieri, it serves as a reminder of the debt disco owed to jazz fusion.

* King Britt Presents Sylk 130, "When the Funk Hits the Fan" (Ovum/Ruffhouse/Columbia 67906). Although framed as a nostalgic reflection on the club scene of the late '70s and early '80s, its blend of house grooves and jazz solos is totally contemporary.

* Photek, "Modus Operandi" (Astralwerks 6207). Between its sparse textures, tart bursts of electric piano, and booming acoustic bass, this drum 'n' bass album owes more than a little to early fusion acts.

* Squarepusher, "Hard Normal Daddy" (Warp UK 50129). Lyrical, complicated keyboard riffs, dense, churning beats, nimble, melodic fretless bass -- add in a saxophone, and you'd have the drum 'n' bass equivalent of Weather Report.

Classic albums

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Here are a handful of landmark fusion albums:

* Miles Davis, "Bitches Brew" (Columbia 40577, 1970). Sprawling, atmospheric, funky and lyrical, this was fusion's first big success.

* Miles Davis, "Live/Evil" (Columbia 65135, 1971). Sampled by the Beastie Boys, beloved by Phish's Trey Anastasio, this blend of live and studio sessions was as funky as it was far-out.

* Eumir Deodato, "Prelude" (CTI 65129, 1973). Although the string and horn charts show Deodato's strength as an arranger, it's the jazz-schooled rhythm work that made "Also Spracht Zarathustra" a hit.

* Chick Corea and Return to Forever, "Light As a Feather" (Polydor 422 827 148, 1973). Drawing as much from Latin rhythms as rock and R&B;, this was the fusion equivalent of Stan Getz's samba albums.

* Herbie Hancock, "Headhunters" (Columbia 65123, 1974). "Chameleon," with its relentless, hypnotic bassline, proved that you could have your groove, and work it, too.

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* Weather Report, "Mysterious Traveller" (Columbia 32494, 1974). A rich mosaic of sound, the album draws as much from Africa and the Caribbean as from jazz. Especially noteworthy for Alphonso Johnson's sly, soulful bassline on "Cucumber Slumber."

* Bob James, "Three" (Warner Bros. 45966, 1976). Slick and understated, with seamless grooves and solidly melodic arrangements, this has been an enduring favorite with hip-hop DJs.

Pub Date: 2/15/98


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