- Phil Freeman
This season on the Burning Ambulance Podcast, we’re going to have a single subject we’re going to be exploring through all ten episodes, and that subject is fusion.
Fusion, of course, is a term that means different things to different people. When most people hear it, they probably think of bands from the 1970s like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report: groups that were formed by ex members of Miles Davis’s band that played extremely complex compositions that were sometimes closer to progressive rock than to jazz, but which still left room for extended improvisation. What’s interesting about that positioning is that it’s very easy to draw lines between that stuff and the music being made by Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Santana, all of which gets filed under just plain rock. And if you extend the boundaries out just a little bit further, you get to the music Latin artists like Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and the Fania All-Stars were making at the same time. Or think about some of the really adventurous funk and R&B that was being made by Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament and Funkadelic, the Ohio Players, Slave, the Isley Brothers… This is what’s so interesting to me about fusion, is that at its best it’s about all kinds of musical boundaries being knocked down.
I recently spent some time listening to a whole bunch of albums by keyboardist George Duke, released on the MPS label between about 1971 and 1976. Duke was a really fascinating figure, because he traveled between worlds to really unprecedented degree. He had his own trio in the late 60s, and somehow or other hooked up with electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. They made an album together, and the gigs they played in L.A. brought them to the attention of Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley, two people who couldn’t have been doing more different things. But Zappa hired Ponty to play on Hot Rats, and then wrote and produced an entire album, King Kong, on which Ponty played Zappa’s compositions, and George Duke was the keyboardist on that record.
And after that, both Zappa and Cannonball Adderley – who, don’t forget, had Joe Zawinul in his band before that, who composed “In A Silent Way” and played with Miles Davis, and formed Weather Report with Wayne Shorter – both Adderley and Zappa wanted George Duke in their bands. He wound up taking both gigs, doing two years with Zappa, then two years with Adderley, then going back to Zappa’s band for three or four more years. He had left the group by 1975, though, so he was not part of the concerts recorded for the album Zappa In New York. But Randy Brecker was.
Brecker and his brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died in 2007, worked together in dozens if not hundreds of contexts from the late Sixties to the Nineties. They were both part of that Zappa concert, which was related to their being part of the Saturday Night Live band at the time; they played on a million recording sessions for everyone from Aerosmith to Bette Midler to Aretha Franklin to Lou Reed to Dire Straits to Donald Fagen. They were part of drummer Billy Cobham’s band in the early to mid ’70s, playing on Crosswinds and Total Eclipse and Shabazz and A Funky Thide Of Sings. And right around that same time, they formed the Brecker Brothers band and made a string of albums for Arista that were extremely successful.
Now, what matters for the purposes of this introduction is that the side of fusion the Brecker Brothers represented was very different from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Weather Report side. That was, for lack of a better term, white fusion. It was marketed to white rock audiences. Those bands toured with rock bands. They played arena concerts. Lenny White talked about it in the previous episode of this podcast — the members of Return to Forever hung out with members of Yes.
On the other side of the coin, there was black and Latin fusion. Like I said above, there was some incredibly challenging music being made under the headings of salsa and Latin jazz in the 70s – you should check out the episode of this podcast where I interviewed Eddie Palmieri to hear more about that, as well as the episode with Billy Cobham, where he talks about performing with the Fania All-Stars. There are funk records that are every bit as complex as prog rock. Jazz artists like Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard, George Duke and even Joe Henderson were all making records that can really only be described as fusion in the early 70s, and that’s without even getting into what Miles Davis was doing, particularly with his live band from 1973 to 1975. But except for George Duke, who actually had Frank Zappa cut a couple of guitar solos on his 1974 album Feel, they were drawing more from funk than from rock, and they were marketed more to black audiences than white. And as Randy Brecker explains in this interview, that was where the Brecker Brothers fell. They had more success on black radio and on the R&B chart than in the rock world.
Now, eventually, that more funk-oriented, R&B-oriented side of fusion slid in an explicitly commercial, radio-friendly direction, and a lot of it ended up as smooth jazz. Which is to some degree why the term is vilified in some quarters today. But that doesn’t take anything away from the good stuff, and Randy Brecker has been involved with some very good records over the years.
This was a really fun conversation that went in some very interesting directions. I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Music in this episode:
The Brecker Brothers, “Some Skunk Funk” (Heavy Metal Be-Bop)
Billy Cobham, “Taurian Matador” (Shabazz)
The Brecker Brothers, “Sneakin’ Up Behind You” (The Brecker Brothers)