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Journey into Jazz

Some Thoughts On Fusion

By Published: December 3, 2003

Fusion is an interesting word : it brings to mind the welding of two or more disparate styles, so that the amalgamation turns out to be a third entity

It hardly needs any emphasis to reiterate the fact that jazz has been like a river, magnanimously accepting the smaller streamlets that come tumbling in from every likely and unlikely corner. Like the English language, it lives due a constant influx of new vocabulary from every which way...

And the happy some total is the fact that all these outside influences leave jazz enriched, refreshed and as if just reinvented.

Reinvention is nothing new for jazz for the seminal inputs that came in from some of the now-fuzzy giants during the turn of the century, when the nineteenth century made way for the twentieth, gave rise to new idioms, new styles, new genres. Pretty much the same happened during the wildly creative years in 1950s and ‘60s, wherein powerful individuals with their own distinct voices contributed so much that just a handful of bright young fellows became the proponents even mainstays of bop, hard bop, cool, modal, modern and free schools of jazz.

While these large streams do not seem to be branching out now, jazz in all its fair-mindedness has remained inventive and accommodating; one can easily make this out by listening to some bright new youngsters on the scene.

Fusion is an interesting word: it brings to mind the welding of two or more disparate styles, so that the amalgamation turns out to be a third entity. It’s almost like dull grey zinc metal getting mixed with rosy colored copper and a bright golden brass, emerging as the lustrous output that must seem like magic to the non-metallurgist.

Fusion is also a dirty word to all those jazz fanatics who have decided to stick to one genre, be it bop or free jazz or swing and big band style. However, they too would have to grudgingly admit the fact that even during some of the "chastest" periods of the swing era big bands like Stan Kenton or Woody Herman, groups played popular ditties like "The Peanut Vendor," "Brazil" and "La Mer," etc. Not only did they play non-swing tunes, but they also sucked in Latin influences – and usually the results were much like a graceful lady easily slipping into clothes with totally foreign styles.

So the earliest fusion seems to be the Latin influence, which may not have been as marked as the huge influx during the bossa nova years: some of the most hard-boiled jazz combos like the MJQ also had fallen for its charms. Their collaboration with some of the Brazilian superstars are indeed masterpieces.

Though many may choose to disagree with me, at this juncture, during the pre-bossa nova years, Latin masters like Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat, Peres Prado, and others gave their best to the popular music during the heydays of new and catchy dance styles like the cha cha cha, and revival of older ones like the bolero, mamba, samba and a whole lot of similar rhythm-based innovative styles.

Speaking from improvisation point of view, not only these masters had beautiful compositions going for them, they also had established jazzmen playing in their bands: the "sessions artistes."

Therefore a high quality output was always a foregone conclusion. Jazzy numbers like "Caravan" or "Beguine The Beguine" or" The Breeze And I" definitely come from the Latin quarters – and these have been played so many times by established jazzmen that the origins are by now pretty much obscured. When one listens to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy rendition of "Besame Mucho," it sounds too much like a jazz composition and hardly like the Latin ditty that it is.

The next important fusion was the Indo-jazz venture sparked by Pandit Ravi Shanker and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, both students of an amazingly gifted teacher Ustad Allauddin Khan of the famous Maihar school of Hindustani [Indian] classical music.

Jazz aficionados as usual differ on the fundamental feasibility of fusion music, which is a moot point indeed. Many have tried, several have succeeded and some have fallen flat on their respective faces: that may be the more common opinion, if a cross section is taken at random from jazz lovers.

I can only speak for myself, and though I did feel greatly elated to hear the British genius John "Mahavishnu" McLaughlin do some pretty spirited jamming with L. Shankar on violin alongside two percussion specialists from South India during the heady flower power days, it all seems dated now. On the other hand, some pretty low key jamming by the less flashy Ustad Ali Akbar Khan matching wits with John Handy [now there you have a real blues-isnpired saxophonist, deserving an article all by himself] on their brilliant album Karuna Supreme has withstood the staleness-causing power of Time rather solidly.

Terry Riley, the keyboardist with rather fuzzy-wuzzy intellectual ideas on music in general – some may refuse to include him in a list of respectable jazzmen – has also done an excellent job in his seminal work In C, which happens to be an entire album composed with the note C as the central figure. Downbeat magazine had mentioned during the post-flower power era that Riley, with his barely perceptible ideas on music, had been influenced by a singing minstrel from India, Pandit Pran Nath, who is a globe trotter and sort of a music evangelist.

The fact that some teachers in India take up to three years to teach one single note to a student freaked Riley out, possibly one reason why he wanted to give all he had to one single note: C. It is a classic work, bringing to mind the brilliance of Keith Jarrett and his versatile fecundity in creative compositional matters.

The globe-trotting cornet player Don Cherry [I heard he claims his favourite cornet came from a pawnshop in Pakistan] very candidly showed the influence of Indian music on several numbers in his albums during the ‘70s, a time when the Miles Davis school was continually putting out brilliant new artists, and Davis himself had Badal Roy playing the tabla and other percussion instruments – sometimes sitar sounds are heard on some numbers, too.

Trumpeter Don Ellis, with a more staid outlook, had picked up the thread of "microtones," a topic dear to the Indian classical performer. Microtones are virtually the backbone of this style of music, and without microtones – for instance, when a piano is used for playing such music – the spontaneity, the verve, the "rasas" or the emotional content, and the entire intended effect of the raga or melody gets lost.

This music sounds as flat as yesterday’s cup of tea, sipped today.

Some more on my hobby horse later.

Take care and keep writing in....

Ciao.



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