- Phil Freeman
As you know if you’ve been listening this season, we have a single subject we’re going to be exploring across ten episodes, and that subject is fusion.
Fusion means much more, I think, than just the music that most people think of when they hear the word. I’m not talking exclusively about the big-name bands from the 1970s: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. Those groups, and the Miles Davis bands from 1969 to 1975, and many other less immediately recognizable groups, all did the classic fusion thing, playing extremely complex music that blurred the lines between progressive rock and jazz. We talked about those acts in the second and third episodes this season, when I interviewed drummer Lenny White and trumpeter Randy Brecker, both of whom were around then and were actively participating in making that music.
If you think of fusion as a mindset, though, rather than a style of music, the discussion gets a lot more interesting. And that’s really how I prefer to think about it. It’s not just a specific narrow slice of music, it’s a way you approach any kind of music you make. KRS-One said rapping is something you do, hip-hop is something you live. And that’s kind of close to what I’m talking about here, conceptually speaking. Fusion can be a style of music, or it can be a way you approach the making of music. And the people who fall into the latter category are the ones who I find to be the most interesting, and the ones who are more likely to have careers where almost every record they play on is at least worth hearing, worth giving a chance. You may not like all of it. But they’re creative enough that they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
Brandon Ross is one of those guys. He’s been on a hell of an artistic journey over the course of the last forty-some years. His first recording was on an Archie Shepp album from 1975, There’s a Trumpet in My Soul. He worked with violinist Leroy Jenkins. He worked with saxophonists Marion Brown and Oliver Lake. He worked with Henry Threadgill for something like ten years, in multiple bands or one evolving band. He worked with Cassandra Wilson on her breakout album, Blue Light Til Dawn, and the follow-up, New Moon Daughter. He’s made albums under his own name. The reason a lot of people probably know his name right now is he’s the guitar player in Harriet Tubman, with bassist Melvin Gibbs, who’s been on this podcast before, and drummer JT Lewis.
And now here’s the really interesting part – Brandon Ross has an album coming out a little later this year on my label, Burning Ambulance Music. He’s got a new group, see, called Breath Of Air, which is a trio featuring violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow. Something I learned in this interview, by the way, is that Brandon has done the guitar-violin thing several times, with Leroy Jenkins and also with Terry Jenoure, a very interesting violin player who isn’t nearly as well known as she ought to be. When I was researching Brandon to come up with questions for this interview, I learned about her and now I’m gonna be diving into her catalog, and I suggest you do the same. Some of her music is on streaming services; she released a 3CD set called Portal last year that’s fantastic. Anyway, Breath Of Air has a self-titled debut, most of which was recorded live in February 2020, right before the pandemic started and live music went away, and like I said it’ll be out a little bit later this year.
In the meantime, enjoy this conversation between me and Brandon Ross. We talk about his work with Henry Threadgill, about his work with Cassandra Wilson, about Archie Shepp and Oliver Lake and Marion Brown, about Harriet Tubman, about the sort of No Wave punk-funk jazz scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s that included Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and all the other guitarists that came out of that scene, including Michael Gregory Jackson and Kelvyn Bell and Jean-Paul Bourelly and James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid… we also talk about his particular approach to the guitar and to sound. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to think about in the hour or so of conversation you’re about to hear. I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Music in this episode:
Breath Of Air, “No One On Earth Can See You Anymore” (from Breath Of Air)
Henry Threadgill, “Little Pocket Size Demons” (from Too Much Sugar For A Dime)
Harriet Tubman, “Farther Unknown” (from The Terror End Of Beauty)