Jazz-fusion for youthful souls
Year to year, my tastes warp, revert themselves or aim for previously unheard territories. In the past few months, the last kick I’ve been on is aiming toward the past and away from the familiarity I’m so comfortable with in rock. For whatever reason, I’ve been on a kick of jazz-fusion from the 70s to 80s since at least July. I don’t want to attribute a change in pace to a bit of boredom with my old favorites, but I’ve missed that newbie’s excitement of having absolutely no idea what to expect.
Maybe I’ve just needed a break from straight-ahead rock. If you listen to enough bands, the tricks and tools of the trade just become more and more obvious. I know this is exactly what makes TV Tropes fun, but when the music begins to fail hitting at an emotional level, it’s time to find new pastures.
I’m not particularly sure why fusion has piqued my interest, but I’ve got a good feeling it’s not exactly coming from out of nowhere. Growing up, Al Di Meola, Chick Corea, and, on a lighter side, The Rippingtons were my family’s soundtrack. By the time I was 13, I figure I could hum Russ Freeman’s guitar solo to “Weekend in Monaco” without thinking about it. But of course, once you hit a certain stubborn point, the music your parents play automatically becomes the epitome of what to avoid. Until recently, I had abandoned what I grew up with for stylings a bit more concrete, simple and short.
There’s only so long I could hold out against a side of music that practically raised me. During the summer, I stumbled across Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather.” I’d wanted more of Jaco Pastorius’ aggressive bass playing in my collection, and tracks like “Birdland” and “Teen Town” lead me right to “Heavy Weather.” As a primer to get back into fusion, it worked seamlessly. It was if they had taken rock backbeats and rhythms and said, “No, no. This is how you do it.” Weather Report was deeper in the pocket, constantly moving and made it all seem easy.
From there, I dusted off a copy of John Zorn’s “Naked City” I’d been ignoring for longer than I should have. Because, of course, the next natural step after hearing how jazz experts do rock is to figure out they do grindcore. I’d stopped listening to it for at least two years under the impression that its overall wall of noise was a lost cause to sit through. Under more patient examination, where Weather Report sounded utterly sincere in their approach, there was an undercurrent of mockery and irony beneath Naked City I hadn’t heard in other bands before. While they did explode into flailing dissonance every other minute, when they focused into covers of other artists, particularly on their version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” they sounded like a band that would destroy what would be the key track on a lesser band’s album with screaming saxes and thrashing guitar, just to show how easy it is to do so.
But I’ve finally gotten to what could be seen as the father of all fusion: Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” From the first note of “Pharaoh’s Dance,” it was like a smack in the face for having passed over it for so long. It has some of the darkest music I’ve heard this side of “South of Heaven.” I hadn’t realized a guitar solo could be as menacing as what John McLaughlin put forth, nor that a simple melody could be so haunting in its own isolation as everything around it churns and works against itself. By the final searing solos on the “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” close, the loose, thick funk tore to shreds what I thought a groove could be.
The exhilaration of not knowing what’s coming next has reminded me of why I got into music in the first place. It’s that thrill that there’s something out there I had never even thought could be done with an instrument, coaxing emotions and concepts from basic rock backgrounds with plenty of overt technique and understanding of the range their tools have. I know I’m still new to the genre, and learning is the best part, so here’s to finding out more about what I don’t already know and that there won’t be an end of the depths to search.