By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 08:37PM
There’s an almost unspoken agreement that jazz-rock fusion comes under the prog canon. This relationship, forged in the late 60s and early 70s by the alumni of Miles Davis, lasted until the end of the golden era of prog and was based on a shared heritage of instrumental virtuosity. In the beginning it tended to be jazzers wanting to expand their vocabulary in a rock context – rock music at the time was not only reaching an ever wider audience but was also open to experimentation – but soon had rock musicians adopting a jazz-rock style; Symphinity by the continuation of Australian band Sebastian Hardie, Windchase (1977) and Relayer by Yes (1974) are prime examples and there’s even a continuation of this theme in On the Silent Wings of Freedom from Yes’ Tormato (1978). Camel shifted towards jazz-rock for Moonmadness (1976) and continued with that style after recruiting Richard Sinclair on bass for Rain Dances (1977). Emergency! by Tony Williams’ Lifetime (1969) is widely regarded as the first of the fusion albums.
I bought the brilliant Birds of Fire in 1975 and I regard this as the gold-standard though Between Nothingness and Eternity does come close; it’s the guitar/keyboard/violin interplay, stunning, fast and furious that marks this period of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as stand-out. The second incarnation was good, but tended towards the symphonic and though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it wasn’t what Mark I was about. In fact, Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever, one of the foremost fusion bands, is really a piece of symphonic prog and is really quite dazzling. It may be the array of keyboards used by Chick Corea that gives it a symphonic prog feel – the straightforward jazz-rock sound tends to rely on electric piano with the synthesizer as a lead instrument. I started listening to Santana in the early 70s and I’d also consider them to be a jazz-rock outfit, though the jazz here is very Latin – and the keyboard sound is predominantly organ.
In the UK it was Soft Machine who led the charge, embracing the British jazz scene of the time. Their move from pop-psychedelia to jazz was catalysed by the replacement of bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers with Hugh Hopper (who had been the group’s tour manager) that allowed Mike Ratledge to exert a greater compositional influence. The subsequent recording, Volume Two, can be best described as an early experiment in jazz fusion. Soft Machine experimented by adding a quartet of horn players from Keith Tippett’s band. Saxophonist Elton Dean became a new full-time member and, exhibiting ever greater instrumental finesse, the Softs headed towards free-improvisation. Robert Wyatt departed in 1971 and an effort to introduce more structure to their music by Hopper and Ratledge, together with the recruitment of ex-Nucleus drummer John Marshall, precipitated the departure of Elton Dean in 1972 and the appearance of his replacement, Karl Jenkins. Hopper left in 1973 after recording Six, leaving the band to beat a path towards more conventional jazz-rock. The introduction of a guitarist for the first time since 1968, the highly-rated Allan Holdsworth fresh from Jon Hiseman’s jazz/blues rock band Tempest, solidified a style that epitomised melodic British jazz-rock. Though he only graced one ‘official’ Soft Machine album (Bundles) before decamping to work with the man who started the whole fusion trend, Tony Williams, Holdsworth’s distinctive style totally changed the sound of the Softs, though the compositional influence of Jenkins was becoming clearer and Ratledge seemed to become less involved. “Softs”, is a continuation very much in the same vein. John Etheridge took over guitar duties, recommended to the band by Holdsworth and having previously played in Darryl Way’s Wolf which was a natural progression from Curved Air. I’d managed to see Etheridge on a couple of occasions, once at the Seven Dials Jazz Club in Earlham Street, Covent Garden (17/11/1984) where I was guided in by the sounds of The Tale of Taliesin from Softs emanating from the open door, and a few years later in a pub in the Old Kent Road where brother Richard and I chatted to him as he was setting up his equipment. On the first occasion, his trio was supported by the Gary Boyle Trio and Brian Auger made a guest appearance.
Isotope was in fact the second band from this genre that I got into, seduced by the cover photography, Steve Lake’s sleeve notes and the geekiness of the band’s name (I was a Biology, Chemistry, Physics student at school and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve stood on top of the nuclear reactor at Sellafield). I’d also seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test and, fortunately, the music lived up to expectations. Having Jeff Clyne on board might have helped but Gary Boyle’s guitar playing and the crisp drumming of Nigel Morris was quite a revelation. Though the compositional credits were for the most part awarded to keyboard player Brian Miller, it always seemed like Boyle’s band to me – possibly in retrospect because he and Nigel Morris were the only two constants throughout the band’s lifetime. The sound on the eponymous first album is fairly rough and ready but well balanced. I originally owned this on cassette until the Esoteric records CD was released in 2011 but I own vinyl copies of both Illusion and Deep End (bought in 1977 and 1978 respectively.) As the band matured the sound became slicker but the material seemed drained of emotional content; in retrospect, this form of jazz-rock had become a little sterile by 1976, the year following the release of Deep End. Though Soft Machine’s Bundles and Softs have some exceptional moments, some material hints at an almost soul-less or mechanical ‘going through the motions’ and this seems to me to have been the prelude to Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus recordings. These may have sold millions but were well suited to the all-style-and-no-substance advertising campaigns of faceless multinationals. There’s a Canterbury connection to Isotope that comes via Hugh Hopper, who played bass on Illusion and on the track Fonebone from their last album. Producer Robin Lumley links Isotope to Brand X, for whom he played keyboards.
Brand X were a different kettle of fish. Originally formed in 1975, by the following year they had become firmly stylistically set in the jazz-rock camp; inventive and sonically varied. The band had a kind of revolving line-up which somehow worked to keep the material fresh and relevant. Sometimes addressed as ‘Phil Collins’ other band’ or ‘the British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, their initial success may have been helped by opening up jazz-rock to a generation of Genesis fans but it would be really unfair to the rest of Brand X to solely pin their success on Collins. I got to see one of the incarnations of Brand X (sans Collins) in a double-headlining gig with Bruford at the Venue in 1980 and it was an exceptionally good evening.
A number of artists still operate in this field - Pat Metheny, for instance. My brother Richard headed his own jazz-rock band Absolute Proof and though their performances were given rave reviews it was difficult to attract a substantial audience in our native Cumbria.
The key to survival is adaptation. Were Bruford jazz-rock or were they prog? It really doesn’t matter – together with National Health, I believe they epitomise the link between prog and jazz-rock. Perhaps Weather Report, another one of the three great fusion bands, best represent the link between jazz-rock and funk and I think bands like Paraphernalia and the short-lived Major Surgery are the foremost examples of bands that link jazz-rock and jazz. In my opinion, all these bands form a spectrum of crossover music. Some bands may have been jazzier, some bands more prog but wherever a band fitted into this spectrum, the results of absorbing other influences was a fundamental part of the prog ethos.