With the exception of my first entry, I’ve systematically been avoiding jazz for this column’s entire tenure. “It’s too niche!” my brain vociferously asserts, as it commands my fingers to write articles about experimental metal and IDM. But odds are that if you’ve been reading these entries this far, perhaps you’re willing to go a little further. Gather round, and I’ll tell you all about some of the best works of jazz fusion music has to offer.
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew Despite its roots in rock music, those new to jazz who decide to take on Bitches Brew will almost certainly find themselves thrown in at the deep end. The revolutionary LP features pieces of 20 minutes in length and beyond, frantic, overwrought instrumental sections (apparently too many cooks don’t spoil the soup) and a fairly maximalist attempt to combine the most superlative features of both jazz and rock music.
Herbie Hancock – Headhunters It’s not all that common for a musician to both invent and perfect a genre over a course of 41 minutes, but that’s exactly what Herbie Hancock did with Head Hunters. Funky as hell and as jazzy as you’d expect from possibly the best jazz keyboardist of his generation, Head Hunters is a four-track odyssey of sprawling, mind-bending jazz funk, the likes of which would one day be watered down, stripped of all soul and vigour and used as the kind of muzak stereotypically found in lifts in films; the kind that evades real-life, first-hand discovery and perception, and for good reason. If you want to see what the performers of this stuff were likely aiming for, Head Hunters is the record to listen to.
Snarky Puppy – We Like It Here Jazz is almost certainly less relevant in pop culture now than it would have been in its heyday during the 60s and 70s, and rock music shares this trait too, to some extent. So it’s nice when one album totally reinvigorates a genre clouded with criticisms of indulgence and triteness. We Like It Here is what happens when an unstoppable force meets a highly movable object. You are the object. The music is the force. This is a metaphor.
We Like It Here confronts the listener with all the best qualities of great jazz fusion. From the raging deconstructionism of What About Me? to the towering mammoth of Lingus, it’s a tour-de-force of the capabilities of human imagination and performance.
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Blood On The Floor One of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s most pertinent predecessors, Arnold Shoenberg, thought that musical pieces should not be given names, lest they detract from the purity of the music and deny it the freedom to speak for itself. Yet the titling of Turnage’s erratic jazz-classical works is arguably central to their impact, and is a true testament to the power of suggestion.
As for the music, I’ve often thought of Blood On The Floor as the aural equivalent of a William Burroughs novel – the sharp, discordant melodic lines, the jagged segues into upcoming sections, the allusions to drug abuse. Third stream is an extremely controversial genre (if you can believe such a thing exists), but the nightmarish and cathartic energy of Blood On The Floor is one of its greatest triumphs.
Flying Lotus – You’re Dead! It’s one thing for a Los Angeles-based producer to push past ostensibly endless swathes of contemporaries and burst through the fray with some of the most innovative electronic music of the decade. It’s quite another for this music to be melded with brain-melting jazz timbres and rhythms. It should hardly be surprising, considering Flying Lotus counts Alice and Ravi Coltrane amongst his relatives, but You’re Dead is still very impressive.
It’s not just IDM and jazz that get a look-in either – soul, Hip-hop and rock approaches are blended into the mix. With each release, Flying Lotus garners more and more critical attention (both positive and otherwise), but always makes sure to push the boundaries a little bit more. You could quite feasibly argue that You’re Dead! is overambitious, sloppy, meandering or just not very well pulled-off, but I defy anyone to say it’s doesn’t make for an interesting listen.
Nick Drake – Bryter Later In some ways, folk and jazz are almost natural opposites. So it’s all the more impressive that Bryter Layter is such a phenomenal record. Nick Drake is one of the greatest folk singers to ever grace the field of music, but parts of Bryter Layter ooze with jazz. The instrumentation, the harmonies, the cool, distanced nature of the record. The improvised fragments of solos which dip in and out of the flow of music. Yet at the heart of it all, the lyrics and delivery retain the simple honesty which is rightly associated with the best tropes of folk music.