Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Term sometimes used to describe 'third stream' classical-jazz work by John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and others '50-60s, but later applied to jazz-rock, usually including electronic instruments. Soft-rockers Soft Machine experimented with 'jazz'; the rock band Chicago introduced horns but turned out to be less than innovative. Switched-On Bach '69 by Walter Carlos first demonstrated the possibilities of Moog's synthesizers; Miles Davis LPs In A Silent Way and two-disc Bitches Brew '69 were seminal and controversial, fusing jazz, rock drums, electric guitars and pianos: participants John McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea Return to Forever, Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter Weather Report, the music often pretentious but a commercial success, like 'progressive rock' of yore. Critics were divided, but Weather Report's most diehard fans admit that some of their albums were much better than others. Many like Al Di Meola from Return to Forever have gone on to form still more groups. The music at its best is about textures: with few rules or roots, if it relies too heavily on science the result is noodling.

Advertising and reviews in down beat magazine were revealing: a lot of rock was reviewed in what used to be a jazz magazine; glossy ads for digital samplers, synths, electronic drums seem to outnumber those for traditional musical tools; young musicians were evidently deeply interested in fusion, perhaps a hopeful sign after 30 years of rock's domination; on the other hand highly rated jazz sideman Michael Brecker played an electronic saxophone on his debut solo LP '87, along with his usual instruments, but later returned to acoustic playing, as have Chick Corea, and the ex-Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams before his death. Compilation The Real Birth Of Fusion on Columbia '96 (Stanley Clarke, Williams, Weather Report etc) reminded us that each generation makes its own mistakes, this one sounding like music from TV adverts. No matter what instruments or technologies are used, a composer's imposition of some kind of artistic intention is necessary.

Jazz and rock'n'roll themselves were fusions, but they happened over in the corner when nobody was looking; modern pop fusions are forced hot-house plants and may not be able to breathe in the fresh air of the marketplace. Art-rock bands like King Crimson were coming at fusion from the direction of rock; some recent fusion is harder, more aggressive and more demanding music influenced by free jazz and consequently will have a smaller audience, e.g. Bill Laswell's Last Exit and Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble; but this audience is loyal and willing to listen. Human Chain (a British duo with pianist Django Bates, Steve Argüelles on percussion) used electronic noisemakers with tongues in cheek, giving musical value with delightful little pieces that revealed most pop as junk; yet Talking Heads, the Fall and others, each in their own way, made fusions of electronics and pop/rock which were more interesting than the numberless keyboard duos that used electronically generated sound merely to fill up the spaces. The digital technology of the late '80s changed the rules again (see Techno, House, Jungle etc); the impact of synthesizers, samplers, sequencers etc has happened coincidentally at a time when pop music had been in a trough so long that many don't know what they want to play and have to try to invent something new, and it is also now possible for kids playing with computers in their bedrooms to make pop records without knowing how to play any instruments. In the mid-'90s Jean-Michel Jarre and others who relied too heavily on science seemed to be rethinking it.

See also New Age and Space Music, fusions of rock, folk and science for a new Mood Music.