In the late 1960s, a generation of jazz musicians, drawn as much to The Rolling Stones and James Brown as they were to John Coltrane and Lester Young, kick-started the jazz-rock fusion era. Marrying the adventurous, highly-skilled attributes of jazz to the irresistible beat and swagger of rock, they created some unforgettable music, the influence of which is being felt to this day. As ever, with lists such as this, some key figures are absent. You can take it as read that the ‘electric’ recordings of Miles Davis, with whom many of the musicians mentioned below started their jazz-rock journey, are more than worthy of checking out. So too the works of fusion pioneer Larry Coryell. Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime, and Nucleus could also be swapped for any of the below. The five presented here, however, are undoubtedly at the heart of the genre.
Related: “The 7-Day Fusion Challenge”
London-based Brand X is probably most famous for featuring Phil Collins on drums. Although Collins, a fantastically underrated drummer, flitted in and out of the group, the band’s other core players are equally worthy of mention. Founding member John Goodsall also showcased his stellar guitar-playing with the protean hard-rockers Atomic Rooster (alongside another great drummer; Carl Palmer). Bassist Percy Jones, a former member of Soft Machine (a band which could quite easily have made this list) has always been an in-demand session musician, working with Kate Bush and Brian Eno, among others. Together they created a singular sound – playful and jazzy with plenty of funk.
Speaking of stellar guitarists, they don’t come more versatile or mercurial than John McLaughlin, leader of NYC’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. The band made their intense, complex music sound easy, an intoxicating blend of sophistication and rawness that owed as much to Eastern as to Western influences. Similar to Brand X, the group underwent several line-up changes, though always featuring fantastic players. Not least among them is drummer Billy Cobham, whose explosive playing has graced some of jazz fusion’s greatest recordings.
At their height, America’s Weather Report served as a veritable who’s-who of top-class talent. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul served as sideman to some of jazz’s greatest players, including Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. Saxophonist Wayner Shorter, another former Davis collaborator, would forge a solo career of wonderful depth and invention. Jaco Pastorius, meanwhile, has been widely lauded as one of the greatest electric bassists ever to pick up the instrument. The band recorded one of the most famous and commercially successful of all fusion albums: 1977’s Heavy Weather.
Return To Forever
A project largely driven by pianist/keyboardist Chick Corea, Return To Forever remains essential listening for any jazz-rock fan. Corea was a true original, one of jazz’s most celebrated players, who restlessly searched for new methods of expression. Corea is another on this list whose sound graced key Miles Davis recordings, including seminal albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. With Return To Forever, he created sophisticated, cerebral music, rich in atmosphere and invention.
Driven by one of the most talented keyboardists we’ve ever witnessed: Herbie Hancock. The Headhunters served up the most down ‘n dirty, deep funk-rock you could ever wish for. Their self-titled 1973 debut was a huge hit and little wonder. Packed with tight, melodic hooks and powered by swinging, swaying drums, it’s a wondrous record. Of particular note are contributions by multi-reedist Bennie Maupin, whose out-there style helps whip up the whole into an unforgettable experience.
-Photo: Herbie Hancock, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)