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Cold fusion

There’s an almost unspoken agreement that jazz-rock fusion comes under the prog umbrella. This relationship, forged in the late 60s and early 70s by the alumni of Miles Davis, lasted until the end of the golden era of prog and was based on a shared heritage of instrumental virtuosity. In the beginning it tended to be jazzers wanting to expand their vocabulary in a rock context – rock music at the time was not only reaching an ever wider audience but was also open to experimentation – but soon had rock musicians adopting a jazz-rock style; Relayer by Yes (1974) and Symphinity by Windchase (1977), the continuation of Australian band Sebastian Hardie, are prime examples and there’s even a continuation of this theme in On the Silent Wings of Freedom from Yes’ Tormato (1978). Camel shifted towards jazz-rock for Moonmadness (1976) and continued with that style after recruiting Richard Sinclair on bass for Rain Dances (1977).

Emergency! by Tony Williams’ Lifetime (1969) is widely regarded as the first of the fusion albums but my introduction to the genre was when I bought the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s brilliant Birds of Fire (1973) in 1975 which I regarded as the gold-standard until I’d got my hands on a copy of Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973). It’s the stunning, fast and furious guitar/keyboard/violin interplay that marks this period of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as stand-out. The second incarnation was good, but tended towards the symphonic and though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it wasn’t what Mark I was about.

The drift from jazz to jazz-rock fusion to symphonic jazz rock is best illustrated on Romantic Warrior (1976) by one of the foremost fusion bands Return to Forever, which is really a dazzling piece of symphonic prog largely thanks to the array of keyboards used by Chick Corea lending the music a symphonic prog palette; with the exception of Santana, a band I started listening to in the early 70s whose Latin-flavoured jazz rock utilises organ as the main keyboard, most straightforward jazz-rock fusion tends to rely on electric piano with the synthesizer as a lead instrument.

In the UK it was Soft Machine who led the charge, embracing the British jazz scene of the time. Their move from pop-psychedelia to jazz was catalysed by the replacement of bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers with Hugh Hopper (who had been the group’s tour manager), allowing Mike Ratledge to exert a greater compositional influence. The subsequent recording, Volume Two (1969) can be best described as an early experiment in jazz fusion. Soft Machine experimented by adding a quartet of horn players from Keith Tippett’s band and saxophonist Elton Dean became a new full-time member and the group, exhibiting ever greater instrumental finesse, headed towards free-improvisation. It’s hardly any wonder followers of the so-called Canterbury scene remark upon the inability of the group to maintain a stable line-up; Robert Wyatt departed in 1971 before an effort to introduce more structure to their music by Hopper and Ratledge, together with the recruitment of ex-Nucleus drummer John Marshall, precipitated the departure of Elton Dean in 1972 and the appearance of his replacement, Karl Jenkins. Hopper left in 1973 after recording Six, leaving the band to beat a path towards more conventional jazz-rock. The introduction of a guitarist for the first time since 1968, the highly-rated Allan Holdsworth fresh from Jon Hiseman’s jazz/blues rock band Tempest, solidified a style that epitomised melodic British jazz-rock. Though he only graced one ‘official’ Soft Machine album Bundles (1975) before decamping to work with Tony Williams, the man who started the whole fusion trend, Holdsworth’s distinctive style totally changed the sound of Soft Machine though the compositional influence of Jenkins was becoming clearer and Ratledge seemed to become less involved. Softs (1976), is a continuation very much in the same vein. John Etheridge took over guitar duties, recommended to the band by Holdsworth and having previously played in Darryl Way’s Wolf, a prog band I’d consider to be a natural progression from Curved Air. I’d managed to see Etheridge on a couple of occasions, once in November 1984 at the Seven Dials Jazz Club in Earlham Street, Covent Garden where I was guided in by the sounds of The Tale of Taliesin from Softs emanating from the open door, and a few years later in a pub in the Old Kent Road where my brother Richard and I chatted to him as he was setting up his equipment. On the first occasion, his trio was supported by the Gary Boyle Trio (Gary Boyle had been the guitarist for Isotope) with Brian Auger making a guest appearance.

Isotope was in fact the second band from this genre that I got into, seduced by the cover photography, Steve Lake’s sleeve notes and the geekiness of the band’s name (I was a Biology, Chemistry, Physics student at school and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve stood on top of the nuclear reactor at Sellafield). I’d seen them on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test and, fortunately, the music lived up to expectations. Having Jeff Clyne on board might have helped but Gary Boyle’s guitar playing and the crisp drumming of Nigel Morris was quite a revelation. Though the compositional credits were for the most part awarded to keyboard player Brian Miller, it always seemed like Boyle’s band to me – possibly in retrospect because he and Nigel Morris were the only two constants throughout Isotope’s lifetime. The sound on the eponymous first album from 1974 is fairly rough and ready but well balanced. I originally owned this on cassette until it was released on CD on the Esoteric label in 2011 and more recently bought an original vinyl copy. I own vinyl copies of both Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) bought in 1977 and 1978 respectively. As the band matured the sound became slicker but the line-up evolved for each release and the material seemed drained of emotional content.

In retrospect, this form of jazz-rock had become a little sterile by 1976, the year of Softs and a year after Deep End. I still believe Soft Machine’s Bundles and Softs have some exceptional moments but other material has an almost soul-less or mechanical ‘going through the motions’ vibe which seems to me to have been the prelude to Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus recordings of the 1990s. These may have sold millions but were well suited to the all style and no substance advertising campaigns of faceless multinationals.

There’s a Canterbury connection to Isotope that comes via Hugh Hopper who played bass on Illusion and on the track Fonebone found on Deep End. Producer Robin Lumley links Isotope to Brand X, for whom he played keyboards.

Brand X was a different kettle of fish. Originally formed in 1975, by the following year they had become firmly stylistically set in the jazz-rock camp, displaying inventiveness and sonic variety. The band had a kind of revolving line-up which somehow worked to keep the material fresh and relevant. Sometimes addressed as ‘Phil Collins’ other band’ or ‘the British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, their initial success may have been helped by opening up jazz-rock to a generation of Genesis fans but it would be really unfair to the rest of Brand X to solely pin their success on Collins. I got to see one of the incarnations of Brand X (sans Collins) in a double-headlining gig with Bruford at the Venue in 1980 and it was an exceptionally good evening. Brand X had brought out Do They Hurt? that year which I thought was better fare than 1979’s Product. Product was overall a relatively poor offering, containing funk and Phil Collins vocals which I thought marked the demise of the group, with Is There Anything About (1982) qualitatively somewhere between the other two. These last three albums all sprung from the Product sessions so it’s strange that the least good was released first.

A number of artists still operate in this field - Pat Metheny for instance, and my brother Richard headed his own jazz-rock band Absolute Proof around the millennium. Though their performances were given rave reviews in the local press it was difficult to attract a substantial audience in our native Cumbria and they folded after a couple of years.

The key to survival is adaptation. Were Bruford jazz-rock or were they prog? It really doesn’t matter – together with National Health, I believe they epitomise the link between prog and jazz-rock. Perhaps Weather Report, another one of the three great fusion bands, best represent the link between jazz-rock and funk and I think bands like Barbara Thompson's Paraphernalia and the short-lived Major Surgery are the foremost examples of bands that link jazz-rock and jazz. In my opinion, all these bands form a spectrum of crossover music. Some bands may have been jazzier, some bands more prog but wherever a band fitted into this spectrum, the results of absorbing other influences was a fundamental part of the prog ethos.

Barbara Thompson's Paraphernalia, Holland Park 18th August 1984

Postscript 2022

The original Cold Fusion blogpost dates from September 2013 and was prompted by the preparation of a mix-CD of jazz-rock tracks for a friend who was rediscovering prog. Since that time I’ve built up a bigger collection, with examples from progressivo italiano of the 1970s and more modern acts such as Sweden’s Hooffoot and the Canterbury-based Lapis Lazuli, making my previously held belief that the genre stalled incorrect. The UK acts faltering towards the end of the 70s were under the same pressures as prog bands, where progression was stifled by a music industry in thrall to commodity; jazz would always sell, but jazz-rock was niche. The ground on mainland Europe may not have been any more fertile but to someone brought up on progressive rock, the Mediterranean and folk influences in bands such as Arti e Mestieri, Maxophone and Napoli Centrale provided sufficient variation and warmth to alter my stance on the pronouncement that jazz-rock was a spent force. An alternative way to keep the genre relevant, one adopted by the more recent proponents, is by utilising long-form compositions where thematic development and recognisable prog tropes such as pauses, rhythmic complexity, a broad palette or changes in amplitude prevent any stagnation.

There’s still scope for progression in jazz-rock.

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