A couple weeks ago I offered up three old fave songs from the German jazz fusion group, Passport, then asked for comments.
The silence was deafening. <grin>
But, after a while, there was one comment. Essentially: “boring.” OK. Fair enough. A followup comment illuminated some issues with the music which I happen to share, but because I love the genre in general, I sometimes ‘hear past’ those issues, and can enjoy — even love — a song on its other merits.
That’s one of the interesting things about music, how personal and historically patterned it is. People and events we associate with music colour how we hear it. If we listen to a selection of music from a particular genre, and we love it or hate it, our appreciation for other music in that genre will be affected by this. That’s because a genre becomes identified by certain key elements. When we identify these elements in a particular song, they cue up our responses to the music. People often turn off their ears and minds to music from genres they’ve come to dislike. Check out the musical likes and dislikes of folks on facebook and dating sites. “Anything but country or rap” is probably the most common description. Even if they don’t completely shut their minds to it, it can be difficult to hear past the genre. It can be unfortunate as there’s quite a lot of great country and rap music available. (I draw the line at Death Metal…good luck finding something I’ll enjoy in that genre.)
What I’m going to do with this post is reintroduce people to jazz fusion by highlighting three songs from Al Di Meola’s album Elegant Gypsy, released in 1977, his second solo effort at the age of just 22. And then, assuming I can work it in, we’ll end with something a whole lot newer but which contains numerous similar elements. (Karen, stick with it ’cause I know you’ll like where it takes you.)
Let’s begin with Mediterranean Sundance, the vid for which appears above. There’s an exciting live version I posted on Facebook yesterday, but this studio version is the one I first encountered and fell head over heels for. Not fusion you say? Not even jazz? Well, no, maybe not. But it’s here because of its influence on the artist, on this album, on jazz and on music generally. That’s the kicker with fusion.
You probably think Mediterranean Sundance is an example of Spanish classical/flamenco guitar. Well, no, it’s not that either. There are two or three guitars in play in all of these versions, and all least one of them is being played with a guitar pick. Not a classical playing style at all. That’s where the fusion starts. Mediterannean Sundance is the result of a jazz fusion guitarist playing and composing with a flamenco theme.
People talk about the jazz fusion genre as a combination of traditional jazz forms and rock music, but fusion is where the popular movement of World Music really got kick started. The music I posted by Passport is heavily inflected with Brazilian themes, sounds and thythms. The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti brought in South Asian influences from India. Brand-X went for North African sounds with the Arabic inflected albums Moroccan Roll and Masques. The 70’s and ’80s proved to be a powerful percolater for the mashup of world sounds we now see as commonplace, and nowhere was that mashup more prevalent than in jazz forms, particularly fusion. For decades the Vancouver International Jazz Festival has featured musicians and music from a wide variety of genres, especially blues, African, latin, Brazilian and traditional ethnic folk forms.
If music historians cite the blues as the birthplace of jazz, then the world is the birthplace of fusion.
Elegant Gypsy Suite
OK, let’s move onto something that is very much fusion, Elegant Gypsy Suite. The musical kinship between this and Mediterranean Sundance is evident right from the opening guitar line and encouraged by the latin rhythms underlying it. However, as the composition develops over the song’s nearly 10 minute duration, it modulates and jumps through other modes, including jazzier riffs and some rock chord progressions, a more standard drum kit kicks in and further establishes rock motifs. Meanwhile the keyboard synthesizer inserts a variety of new sonic components.
You might think this is a wildly confused melange of a composition. Go back to Mediterranean Sundance and listen again. You’ll notice it’s also characterised by modal changes, by sections that are very much constrained to the classical guitar motif, and others that run much more toward rock riffs. The composition jumps between the two or three guitars, changes dynamic range, rhythm, tempo, themes, even the emotional content of the music. It’s a complex and sophisticated composition, every bit as much as Elegant Gypsy Suite, except that the latter includes so many more instruments, so many more sounds, and fuses a few extra musical motifs. What makes Mediterranean Sundance easier to follow is the continuity of the acoustic guitar sound, and, perhaps, the organic appeal of that guitar sound. It’s sophisticated music, cerebral, intended to engage the mind, the mind’s ear.
In the mid 70s, synthesizers were still relatively new to popular music and while it was easy to create interesting new sounds with them, it could be quite difficult to create interesting new sounds that were also richly organic. Simple waveforms produced interesting sounds, but not very engaging ones. Thin and sharp, particularly for ears now accustomed to more sophisticated synthesizers, eventually these sounds become uninteresting, even grating. A few synth patches on Elegant Gypsy Suite suffer this fate. Personally, I’m able to forgive them.
Flight Over Rio
Flight Over Rio opens with a saucy little bass intro. Then, after just a few bars, it’s almost entirely spoiled by a weak, grating sawtooth waveform, one of the simplest sounds a synthesizer generates. The notes themselves, given a more pleasing sound or timbre, present a wonderful counterpoint to the bass rhythm just established, but the timbre…oh, sigh, how disappointing, how grating.
The weak synth is a hallmark of fusion, even such accomplished compositional luminaries as Chick Corea and Josef Zawinul fail to synthesize sounds equal to their compositions. Jan Hammer, Elegant Gypsy’s keyboardist, is a notable musician and composer in fusion circles, but his ability to create interesting sonic landscapes comes up well short of his musicianship. Even more confounding is the way Hammer’s synth sounds seem to draw Di Meola’s guitar tones quite close to that sawtooth waveform.
It’s tempting to say Hammer did the best he could with the technology of the period, but progressive rock keyboardists from bands like Genesis (Tony Banks), Pink Floyd (Richard Wright), Yes (Rick Wakeman), Happy the Man (Kit Watkins) and King Crimson (Brian Eno), among numerous others somehow managed to coax rich, luxuriantly engaging timbres from their synthesizers. These sounds stand up, even today, against much more sophisticated sound generators.
It’s a real shame, because I really love this song and it’s hard to ‘hear past’ the quality of the synth sounds. The vibe-like notes played during the keyboard solo barely even ring…there’s no depth to them.
Tijuana Cartel ~ Persian
OK, now hit the FastForward button for 30+ years while jazz fusion percolates and largely falls into obscurity. Keep your finger down and let all that world music fusion continue rumbling. There’s dance. And hip-hop. And turn-tabling, and huge advances in synthesizers, waveform generators, sampling. Music ain’t nothing like Al Di Meola envisioned when he first picked up a guitar in the 1960s. Keep your finger on that fast forward until 2009 and you might find your iPod playlist sitting on this song by Tijuana Cartel, Persian, a song displaying a passion equal to Di Meola and his Mediterranean Sundance, but different from it at the same time.
I have no doubt Paul George, the virtuoso guitarist featured here, is intimately familiar with Al Di Meola, Paco Lucia and John McLaughlin. You can hear the fusion of flamenco and rock, with a little jazzy flair and a melding of rhythms and motifs from genres that have come and gone. It’s not so sophisticated or complex as Di Meola’s compositions from Elegant Gypsy, but that’s not a fault. Tijuana Cartel seeks to engage the body rather than the mind, the target nearly all fusion intended to delight. Persian is not altogether removed from the 33 year-old jazz form, but it gyrates to the strum of a different guitarist.
Moreover, I’m willing to bet Carey O’Sullivan is familiar with several of the fusion keyboardists. If not necessarily Jan Hammer, then Chick Corea or Josef Zawinul, at least. But, oh man, listen to the sounds he produces. Rich, sophisticated. In particular, set your ear for the one that sounds a bit like that sawtooth wave which so disturbingly enters Flight Over Rio’s opening. Now, isn’t that a whole lot more fun?
That said, it’s not hard to see the progression from Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy to Paul George and Carey O’Sullivan playing Persian Live at Coorabel Hall. Even if neither George nor O’Sullivan had ever heard any jazz fusion, the influence of the genre spread its lineage broadly and deeply throughout many existing and developing musical genres of the time, eventually finding their way to a golden coastline in a land downunder.