The Best of 2010, Part 3: Fusion Jazz

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Upon reflecting back on the year, I’ve concluded that Torben Waldorff’s American Rock Beauty ranks up there among 2010’s finest fusion jazz records.

by S. Victor Aaron

It’s been a great year for fusion records, as there has been an abundance of new ideas and well-recycled old ideas. Moreover, there’s a wide diversity of ideas, at least, if your idea of what constitutes “fusion” is broad enough. I define it pretty broadly here: pretty much anything that’s instrumental that isn’t quite straight jazz or whack jazz will fall into the “fusion” bucket. I quickly found I had to resolve that dilemma that way when trying to figure out where to put guys like Pat Metheny, Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, all of whom tend to blur the distinctions among the three areas of music. Since fusion is more of a default genre than the other two, the call is for them to be called fusion. Which is is damned good thing, because all three of these guys have entries this year that merit year-end accolades.

Alongside these stalwarts are acts who are still emerging, and yet have managed to make compelling records without anything approaching the notice or reputation of the established vets. And that’s why this year’s Best Of, Fusion Jazz Edition is so much fun. The fun begins by telling you all again about an exciting newcomer who made a fusion record that stands above the rest…

Best CD Of The Batch: Greg Ward’s Fitted Shards – South Side Story

Lsst September when I was writing up a review of Greg Ward’s first album South Side Story I had this feeling that three months later I would be writing about it again in the context of it being the best fusion jazz record I have heard from this year. Nothing had come along since then to unseat it, so this premonition has become reality.

The more I explore the jazz, fusion and experimental music scene of Chicago, the more apparent it becomes that it is way underrated. It’s easy to think of it personified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ken Vandermark and the whole Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), but these people and institutions only scratch the surface of this vibrant and diverse loose-knit community. One member of this community is a native of that town who has sopped up all the facets, from whack jazz, to funk, to post-rock, and this year assimilated all these influences and formal training into his debut South Side Story.

It’s forceful, sharply focused, and firmly twenty-first century. Unlike a lot of fusion that’s essentially rock with more chord and tempo changes, Ward starts with a foundation of smart, modern jazz, and builds intricate layers of rock, soul and classical on top of it. As a result, the music might literally be electric, but it retains all the appealing attributes of good straight-ahead jazz: improvisation, group integrity, and unpredictability. “All In” might have synthesizers in the wash, but the song packs the punch of Coltrane at the Vanguard. Likewise, the crashing electric guitars serve only to amplify jazz ideas, not heavy metal ones. But Ward doesn’t rely on might alone: a classically-influenced sonnet like “Castle Of Ice” is just as powerful in making its musical statement.

Thus, it’s clear that Ward as a composer and bandleader has fully realized conceptions. As an alto sax player, Ward plays with tempered intensity, or as I said in that September review, “muscular, assertive and full-bodied. He doesn’t ruminate over the right notes to play; he’s figured that out through what has clearly been years of wood shedding and study. That’s not to say he can’t get soulful or lyrical, but it’s purposeful, to the point and never overly honeyed.”

A most astonishing debut, it beats out all comers—new and old—as the most impressive fusion record of 2010.

(I couldn’t find a cool YouTube of Ward performing one of his songs from this album, but you can listen to a sampling of it playing on his web site here.

Best Song Of The Batch: Nels Cline “Floored”

I often struggle to find a song that clearly stands out above all others for a given year, but for this year and this genre, I had an inkling within the first ten seconds of listening to the Nels Cline Singers’ “Floored” for the first time. Though only Scott Amendola’s bruising beat could be heard then, it was a good enough groove that bassist Devin Hoff and guitarist Nels Cline were going to be able to exploit to the hilt. And exploit they did.

Hoff’s simple but effective bass riff defines the song, but Cline soon become the star of this song. He goes into full-on Hendrix mode but with a command of effects pedals that could have made Jimi himself envious. It’s a mastery that enables Cline to throw off textures and sinister attitudes whilst ravaging through his fretboard. He saves up the completely unhinged moment for the end, as the song abruptly shuts down a couple of ticks after five minutes. By then, the listener is knocked out from the barrage of licks and odd sounds wrung out from Cline’s guitar.

It’s avant funk-rock at concentrated strength. And I love it.

Best Reissue CD Of The Batch: Eberhard Weber – Colours

Thought I was going to choose Bitches Brew, huh? That Miles Davis classic is the better record, but it’s also been reissued countless times and had gotten it’s much-needed remastering a long time ago. The essential mid-late seventies works by German bassist-composer Eberhard Weber, however, had not, until this past January.

While Colours, named after Weber’s electric jazz quartet of 1975-1981 that featured the late American saxophonist Charlie Mariano, didn’t make music that was as groundbreaking as Brew, it was still groundbreaking. Weber forged a different path for fusion jazz, one that was distinctly European, with the nuances and structures of chamber music, the melodies and motifs of Northern European folk music and still retained the interaction and improvisation required of jazz. In short, these three LP’s arguably did more to define ECM’s classic fusion sound than any other.

If you somehow don’t have Bitches Brew already, then by all means go get it. After that, an investment in Colours is well worth it.

Best Of The Rest:

Nels ClineInitiate: Both Mark and I have put Nels Cline on our Best Of lists; just different Cline releases. Initiate is a display of the full reach of the Singers, which is very far and very wide.

Stanton MooreGroove Alchemy: Anders Osborne‘s backing band with Will Bernard at guitar makes a greasy, funky record in the finest New Orleans tradition.

Erik TelfordKinetic: Another impressive debut, this time from an Austin trumpeter whose got the whole seventies fusion vibe down pat.

Torben WaldorffAmerican Rock Beauty: Each of the songs have an undeniable radiant beauty to them, as Waldorff again spins off effortlessly lyrical songs. The Brian Blade Fellowship meets the Pat Metheny Group.

Pat MethenyOrchestrion: Metheny uses a beastly, old-fangled contraption to reveal more of what’s on his musical mind. It reveals the mind of a genius.

Elephant9Walk The Nile: Muscular, balls-out instrumental organ rock by the trio from Sweden.

Jeff BeckEmotion And Commotion: I prefer all-instrumental Beck records, but even the vocal tracks (especially those featuring Joss Stone) are good.

Gerry Gibbs And The Electric Thrasher OrchestraPlay The Music Of Miles Davis 1967-1975: Billy Hart explains why this live-in-the-studio Miles tribute stands out: “(Gibbs’) music has truth, depth and maturity.”

Eric Vloeimans’ GatecrashHeavensabove!: Funky, sassy electro-jazz delight from the trumpet-playing Dutchman.

Stephen RichardBread ‘N Water-Vol. 1: Warm, organic grooves and purposeful playing. This is how smooth jazz should be, but almost never is.

Mercury FallsQuadrangle: The perfect post-rock disc for when you’re in the mood for something a step or two above ambient.

Blue CranesObservatories: Indie jazz has never sounded better.

The Glenious Inner PlanetThe Glenious Inner Planet: This record is a lot of fun…seriously creative, fusion fun.

Nik Bärtsch’s RoninLlyria: Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin sounds like no one else. The ritualistic groove continues.

Sameer GuptaNamaskar: Gupta skillfully blends East Indian music forms with contemporary jazz in the best world fusion record I’ve heard this year.

SaloSundial LotusFracture: Dynamic and often impressionistic compositions fuel this solid, modern rock-jazz record.

Gary HusbandDirty and Beautiful Volume 1: John McLaughlin sideman Husband’s all-star album ends up being a better record overall than his boss’s 2010 release.

Bill FrisellBeautiful Dreamers: Is it chamber jazz or fusion jazz? Regardless, Frisell produces another low-key beauty with his new, guitar/viola/drums trio.

Lionel LouekeMwaliko: Loueke’s singular guitar and first hand understanding of West African music makes this the second best world fusion album I’ve heard this year.

NEXT: Part 4 Mainstream And Modern Jazz…


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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