Special CD Review: The Fusion is Brewing Once Again

By Brian Knight

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, jazz experienced some profound changes. Many of jazz’s finest musicians began experimenting with rock &roll, soul and funk and incorporating these elements into their jazz sound. This transformation was highly controversial as the music crossed borders that were once believed static and impenetrable. This period was a time for rock musicians to experiment with jazz and vice-versa. Rock and Rollers such as Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago and the Flock incorporated horns into their music to add a jazz flavor. In the jazz arena, musicians such as Miles Davis, Larry Coryell and Herbie Hancock saw the qualities of mainstream music and employed ways for its integration.

The result of this cross-pollination was two-fold. In one corner of the ring, the kids of the rock &roll generation eagerly embraced the jazz-fusion and a whole new breed of jazz fans were born. In the other corner, the hardcore jazz aficionados were not very keen on having their genre of music bastardized by the influences of rock & roll. The argument remains unsettled today, although many of the musicians are being more openly heralded for their efforts today. This may have a lot to do with a rebirth of jazz fusion in the 1990s with bands such as Galactic, The Slip, Charlie Hunter and Medeski, Martin and Wood have successfully bridged the genres of jazz and rock. These new generations of jazz bands and their fans look to the jazz-fusion bands of the 1960s and 1970s as their primary sources of influence.

To celebrate the jazz-fusion of yore, Columbia/Legacy has been busy digging through its vaults. The record label has just launched its Classic Fusion series, which consists of classic recordings by Don Ellis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock and Michel Urbaniak. In addition, the company has re-released the original recordings of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions. In addition to the Bitches Brew re-release, Herbie Hancock’s Sextant and Thrust were classic jazz albums that bridged all forms of music.

The original Bitches Brew album was a two-album vinyl set that was recorded from August of 1969 to February of 1970. A year earlier, Davis released In A Silent Way, which was the first piece of evidence displaying his new directions in jazz-fusion. In A Silent Way consisted of the classic octet of Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock and it was one of the first jazz albums to make a successful crossover with rock and roll. The album consisted of two lengthy tunes with a well structured rhythms sections and lengthy solos. With its lengthy explorations and upbeat tempo, In A Silent Way was simply a light tasting of the direction of Davis’ new sound.

After In A Silent Way, Davis took the same band, with a few changes, back into the studio. The most significant change in the lineup was the departure of Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock. Both musicians were key players in Davis’ Second Great Quintet (Davis, Williams, Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter) and helped forge Davis’ sound in the mid to late 1960s. Williams and Hancock participated on great Davis albums such as Nefertiti, Miles Smiles and E.S.P.

Tony Williams joined Miles Davis when he was seventeen and was considered the backbone of Davis’ late 1960s lineups. Williams continued with his interest with jazz-rock fusion as he formed Tony Williams Lifetime with organist Larry Young and guitarist John Mclaughlin. Williams was replaced by the equally talented, but less structured Jack DeJohnette. Williams liked to maintain intricate beats and rhythms while DeJohnette play with a looser style. This simple change in rhythm structure can be felt throughout the Bitches Brew sessions.

Like Williams, Herbie Hancock was an instrumental part of Davis’ blossoming sound. In addition, In A Silent Way was also Hancock’s last full time album with Miles Davis. While previous albums solely featured Hancock on acoustic piano, In A Silent Way signified a new step for Davis as he also employed the electric piano work of Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. It was obvious that Davis preferred the sounds of the electric piano, as the Bitches Brew would feature Corea and Zawinul entirely on electric pianos and synthesizers.

In addition to DeJohnette, Zawinul and Corea, Davis also recruited Harvey Brooks (electric bass), Bennie Maupin (clarinet), Lenny White (drums), Don Alias (congas), and Jumma Santos (shaker) for the Bitches Brew sessions. By grouping these musicians with the In A Silent way alumnus of Shorter, McLaughlin and Holland, Davis had assembled an amazing cast of musicians. The original promotional campaign for Bitches Brew stated: " Bitches Brew is an incredible journey of pain, joy, sorrow, hate, passion and love. Bitches Brew is a new direction in music by Miles Davis. Bitches Brew is a novel without words."

The official Bitches Brew release from 1970 was only the tip of the iceberg as far as the music that was recorded during those seven months. Six of the tunes from the sessions made it on to the original release including the Davis originals Spanish Key, John McLaughlin (Years later, John McLaughlin returned the honor by naming one of his songs after Davis), Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (an unofficial tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile) and the title track. The original album also featured Zawinul’s Pharaoh’s Dance and Shorter’s Sanctuary. It was these six remarkably revolutionary tunes that alerted a whole new generation of fans to the mastery of Miles Davis.

The songs from Bitches Brew were frequent visitors to the airwaves of college and underground radio stations and the band was playing venues like the Filmore East and West rather than smoky, basement jazz bars. Davis witnessed the incredible experimental musical forays of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and he wanted to incorporate those musical elements into his own music. As result, Davis brought in the electronic pianos of Zawinul and Corea, plugged his own trumpet into a wah-wah and used massive amounts of percussion. With Teo Macero at the mixing board, the recording tapes were left running as the band never rehearsed and relied completely on improvisation and the mutual discovery of grooves.

Although his music was reaching new audiences, Davis’ music was hardly "mainstream" – the majority of the tunes on Bitches Brew were approximately 10 minutes long. In addition, the tunes of Bitches Brew were extremely erratic as they transformed from frenzied, grooving jams to chaotic free jazz. With the massive use of hypnotic rhythms, electronics and extended soling, the music of Miles Davis was more appealing to the counter-culturists of the late 1960s than the elitist jazz aficionados or even fans of mainstream pop music. By attracting the rock and roll culture, many critics felt that Davis was "selling out" and he was simply trying to sell albums. To others, he was simply expanding his musical horizons. This is an argument that continues to this day.

Most of the tunes were recorded in August of 1969. During the next six months, Davis brought in even a larger cast of characters to add to the already impressive core Bitches Brew group. For a series of recordings, Davis invited fellow alumnus from the Second Great Quintet, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, for a jam session. Organist Larry Young teamed up with fellow Lifetime member John McLaughlin (still no Tony Williams), Billy Cobham joined in with DeJohnette on drums and Airto Mortar (guica, berimbau), Bihari Sharma (tambura, tabla) and Khahil Balakrishna (sitar) brought a little bit of India to New York City. During these remaining sessions, all of these musicians participated, but never all of them together as one. Throughout these sessions, there was never any music written down and the atmosphere was very loose and unstructured within the studio. Some of the recordings from these jams made it to an album while some were lost to the vaults. Tunes such as Great Expectations, Orange Lady, and Lonely Fire made it to 1974’s Big Fun, which was a great compilation of Davis’ fusion from 1969 - 1972. Zawinul's Double Image found its way onto 1970’s Live/Evil which was a combination of both live and studio tracks while the cover version of David Crosby’s Guinnevere eventually made it to 1979’s Circle In The Round.

As for the remaining tracks from these sessions, they were un-issued and placed into the vaults – until now. Overall, there are five Miles Davis compositions, three by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Feio that have made it to an album for the first time. The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions is now a four CD set with all of the recordings as well as huge informative booklet. If you take in the context of these sessions: the time of their recordings, the participating musicians and the other albums that resulted from the sessions; there is little doubt about the quality sounds that exist on the special CD set. The most amazing aspect about this CD is the musicians. Never before have so many amazing musicians been assembled at one time. After the Bitches Brew sessions, Zawinul and Corea would form Weather Report and John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham went on to create the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Bennie Maupin, Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette all became bandleaders while Airto Moreira continued to be champion of Indian music.

One of the greatest by-products of the Miles Davis phenomenon was pianist Herbie Hancock. As aforementioned, Hancock was an essential component to Davis’ acoustic outfits and was a minor participant during the Bitches Brew sessions. Just because Davis preferred the electric sounds of Zawinul and Corea, it did not necessarily mean that Hancock was solely dedicated to just the acoustic piano. As the 1960s came to a close, the effects of psychedelic rock were disappearing and influence of soul, R&B and funk made there way upon the jazz sound. Hancock used many electronic instruments such as the Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner D6 Clavinet, and various ARP Odyssey Synthesizers as his tools for achieving this fine blend.

Just as Miles Davis mirrored his sounds to the rock and roll sound of the 1960s, Hancock took a similar approach in mirroring his sounds to the developing funks sounds of the 1970s. Just as Miles Davis was been criticized for bastardizing jazz with rock and roll, Hancock’s funk jazz was getting the same complaints. And once again, the argument came down between the traditionalist "snobs" and the more receptive jazz fans.

The album that exemplified Hancock’s jazz-funk sound was 1973’s Headhunters, which became the best selling jazz album of all time in the same year. With the incredibly upbeat and rythmic Chameleon which was a funkified re-make of Hancock’s early 1960s acoustic piece, Hancock changed the face of jazz. Another tune on the album, Sly, was an obvious tribute to the masters of funk – Sly and The Family Stone. Headhunters may have been the album that took the world by storm, but it was 1973’s Sextant and 1974’s Thrust that explored Hancock’s less commercial but equally talented foray into electronics, funk and the groove thing. Sextant and Thrust were the bookends to Headhunters and are equally important in the annals of jazz history as Headhunters.

Sextant was Hancock’s third and last album with his band Mwandishi. Mwandishi was Hancock’s Swahili name meaning composer, which reflected Hancock’s deep interest in black power as well as music. Every member of the band adopted a Swahili name as well. Mwandishi came together in 1971 after Hancock’s stint with Miles Davis. The album, which was Hancock’s first with Columbia Records, featured trumpeter Eddie Henderson (Mganga), bassist Buster Williams (Mchezaji), drummer Billy Hart (Jabali) and trombonist Julian Priester (Pepo). Hancock was joined by fellow alumni of the Bitches Brew sessions flautist and saxophonist Bennie Maupin (Mwile). In addition, Hancock, Maupin and Hart all had played on Davis’ On The Corner. The album also has guest musicians Dr. Patrick Gleeson on ARP Synthesizer and Buck Clarke on congas and bongos. The album is Hancock’s first real departure from fusion and marks the first hints of jazz-funk. Unlike Headhunters, Sextant does not jump completely into full out funk. The album still maintains a strong Miles Davis influence as both Gleeson’s synthesizers and Henderson’s trumpeting are reminiscent of the spaced out jazz-rock of Bitches Brew while Hart’s drumming and Williams’ bass playing are the first real glimpses of the funk that lay ahead.

Due to the poor commercial success of Mwandishi, Hancock disbanded the band and formed Headhunters whose self-titled recording was the rave of 1974. Headhunters consisted of drummer Harvey Mason, percussionist Bill Summers, and bassist Paul Jackson. One again, Bennie Maupin made the transition with Hancock. After the single Headhunters remained on the Pop chart for one whole year and Chameleon was a top 40 single (reaching its peak at number 13); it was more than obvious that this quintet had made a crossover to the world of mainstream music. After a summer of supporting the album and the replacement of Mason by Mike Clark, the band (known as Headhunters) headed into the studio to record Thrust. Although full of the same funky grooves that dominated Headhunters, Thrust neglected to capture the same commercial success. Thrust was a little more ambient than Headhunters and its long tunes were less suitable for radio play. Nonetheless, Thrust captured the same funky spirit of Sextant and Headhunters.

Although Hancock was accused for selling out during these albums, his innovation and desire for sonic exploration was undoubtedly a sign of a true musician who consistently wanted to push the limits of his music. Hancock, just like Miles Davis, was less concerned about what the critics had to say and more interested in using his music as a vehicle for introspection and exploration. They felt that jazz was not confined to itself and that any type of music’s incorporation was acceptable. This is exemplified by the use of Latin, Soul, funk and Indian and their willingness to use new and different instruments. Miles Davis "justified" his new direction in his 1989 autobiography: "I had seen the way to the future with my music, and I was going for it like I had always done. Not for Columbia and their record sales, and not for trying to get some young white record buyers. I was going for it for myself, for what I wanted and needed in my own music. I wanted to change course, had to change course for me to continue to believe in and love what I was playing." Even more evident now is the long-term influence of these two musicians. During the 1990s, two albums have been released that reflect that influence of the two. Panthalassa, which is a modern re-creation of Davis’ Bitches Brew era music and the reformation of Headhunters both suggest that Davis and Hancock were timeless in their musical creation.