Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music
All of which brings us to Julie Coryell's Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (Hal Leonard Corp., 1979, with preface by Ramsey Lewis; new edition with preface by Julie Coryell, 2000). I originally picked up the book in hopes of getting some insights into the earliest years of this music that would come to be known by the high-tech label, jazz-rock fusion. The book consists almost entirely of interviews and conversations that Ms. Coryell held with some of the pre-eminent names in jazz in the 1970s a decade that many have written off as being a musical wasteland for both jazz and rock; at the same time, a decade during which Coryell could find herself talking to a huge range of creative, productive musicians. From Larry Coryell to Herbie Hancock, from Steve Gadd to Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin to Jaco Pastorius, Ron Carter to Jean-Luc Ponty, Al DiMeola to the Brecker brothers, Gary Burton, and even Miles Davis himself.
I always knew that In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew were far from the first forays into jazz-rock fusion (let's call it simply JRF, okay?). They hadn't popped up from a vacuum nothing ever does (with the possible exception of George Bush's electoral victories but that's a story for an entirely different place). It's clear that Miles was responding to, and adding to, a musical movement that had been percolating for a few years in the compositions and performances of many smaller, less-well known (and some never-to-be-known) bands in little, out-of-the-way venues, and especially in clubs that had primarily been known up to then for their steady menu of rock acts. Most of these performers and their bands just don't show up in the historical records now but one group in particular regularly shows up as being "one of the first, if not the first group of professional musicians to actually perform and record a new kind of music that even they knew was ahead of its time. The band was called The Free Spirits, and was formed by Larry Coryell (guitar and sitar), Jim Pepper (tenor sax and flute), Bob Moses (drums), Chip Baker (guitar), and Chris Hill (electric bass). The Free Spirits recorded and released their only album as a group, Out of Sight and Sound, on the ABC Paramount label in 1966, some 3-4 years before Miles's own ground-breaking recordings.
I've been researching saxophonist Jim Pepper's music (visit website) in an attempt to learn how it became a model and stepping-stone for musicians of all stripes, and found it interesting that he had been one of the first real pioneers in JRF. Pepper's parents were Kaw and Creek Indians; his father and grandfather were singers in the Native American Church's Peyote tradition. Pepper learned the chants of his father and grandfather from the time he was no more than three years old, as he recalls. As a teenager, he picked up the saxophone and began learning R&B songs from the radio. It was from these radio shows that he picked up the occasional piece by Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and others. He eventually began to apply what he learned about jazz to new arrangements of some of the Peyote chants he had been hearing and singing since childhood. The first real result of this integration of musical forms was the song "Witchi Tai To , which so captured the imagination of musicians and fans around the world, that it became a crossover Top 40 hit for him and a favorite to be covered by artists as disparate as Brewer & Shipley, Harper's Bizarre, Jan Garbarek, Oregon, and countless others around the world representing a wide range of musical styles. I wanted to be able to better trace how Pepper came to be one of the first definers of the JRF idiom, and where his musical evolution took him from there. A book by a Coryell, no less with interviews of many of the people associated with JRF, seemed a good place to start.