1970s "Fusion"

When I was a teenager I loved rock, and in fact looking back it seemed as if everything I listened to had to have a guitar solo in it. At the time you certainly would not have got me listening to much in the way of jazz or rhythm and blues, which in itself is surprising considering I grew up listening to a lot of jazz music. These days however, it seems that maturity has allowed me to expand my musical horizons a lot more, and it was after seeing a brilliant contemporary jazz-soul band called the Alan Brown Project one night that I began to delve into the wonderful fusion music of the 1970s, and boy oh boy what a treat I was in for.

Now when I mean fusion I’m talking about music which combines two, or more styles together to create a new style, and in the process fusing elements of the two styles together. Two examples of fusion that have appealed to me greatly have been jazz fusion in particular the work of Traffic, and Steely Dan, and fusion within R&B/soul especially the work of Stevie Wonder, and The Meters.

Jazz fusion combines together jazz and rock elements and usually includes the presence of horns, a more prominent piano sound, and highly sophisticated rhythms. Jazz fusion artists also tend to experiment more with extended jams, as well as often putting a stronger emphasis on improvisation. Two works that have captured my eye significantly from the 1970s period within this style have been Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die, and also Steely Dan’s Aja. John Barleycorn Must Die sees a strong emphasis placed on free jamming, and throughout the album sees appearances by the flute, saxophone, and piano/Hammond organ. The album showcases a strong jazz/blues influence on many of the tracks, with Steve Winwood’s soulful vocals almost playing second fiddle to the amazing playing and virtuosity on display. In contrast, Steely Dan’s Aja is much slicker and very well produced, and is an album I would describe as sounding like cocktail jazz. It is very “cool” sounding, and when listened to you can just picture yourself sitting in a bar somewhere in New York with the band themselves playing live in front of you. The interesting thing about “Aja” is that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen hired a full cast of talented jazz session musicians to play on it, a move that gave the tracks on the album that slick and heavily polished Jazz-Rock sound. Keyboards and horns feature prominently on this album also.

In terms of fusion within 1970s R&B/soul, two albums that I have enjoyed immensely have been Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, and The Meters Rejuvenation. Both albums showcase a fusion of funk, soul, rhythm and blues, and gospel and in doing so do a fantastic job in blending so many different styles together without compromising the quality of the music. Innervisions is a funk album instrumentation wise, with a strong soul/gospel influence in the vocals. Stevie also places a strong emphasis on rhythmic patterns on Innervisions. This can be seen across the album as he experiments with keyboards and synth technology, something that was quite revolutionary for an African-American artist at the time. On the other hand, his socially aware lyrics fit into the gospel/soul mould which he had been a pioneer of for many years up to that point. Rejuvenation by The Meters is less experimental than Innervisions and follows a more traditional electric band model. The tracks on this album usually see soulful vocals backed by a funky beat combining drums and bass, while topped off with nice touches of electric piano, organ, and horns. The extended jam of “It Ain’t No Use” is this albums centrepiece, a song that includes a seven minute free style jam highlighting just how good funk and rhythm and blues can sound when combined together effectively.

I am now a huge fan of the fusion music from this period, and through my listening experiences have come to appreciate more the skill that is involved in combining such distinctive elements from different styles into one. Artists had been combining and mixing styles of music for years prior to the 1970s, and have continued to do so since. But on the back of work from people like Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis, the early to mid seventies period showcased some amazing efforts in fusing different music styles together, and experimenting with different sounds on records. Artists were more open to ideas and trying new things on records, and whether or not you were primarily a rock musician, or a soul musician did not stop artists from looking at how they could incorporate elements of other styles into their own. All rules were off and anything was possible, with the results speaking for themselves.

– Sam


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