Turns out, this was one funky ship that ran ashore. Our latest Desert Island Disc lists focus on 1970s fusion, and top vote-getters included Herbie Hancock’s thunderously groove-filled 1973 triumph Head Hunters. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, a collaboration with James Gang/Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin from ’73, also received two nods. Weather Report’s debut was mentioned twice, too.
Meanwhile, so deep were the contributions of Miles Davis and Chick Corea (who put out a series of brilliant solo records, founded Return to Forever and made important contributions on records for both Stanley Clarke and Davis during the ’70s) that we decided to create separate lists just for them. S. Victor Aaron handles the Miles list, then offers one focusing elsewhere. Nick DeRiso then explores Corea’s best albums from the decade, and then compiles a non-Corea grouping.
Jeff Beck makes a pair of appearances too, on projects with Jan Hammer and Clarke. Alan Holdsworth received notice as a member of Tony Williams’ Lifetime and as a sideman with Jean Luc Ponty. Elsewhere, you’ll find Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Pat Metheny — but also Joni Mitchell and Edgar Winter too …
BILLY COBHAM – SPECTRUM (1973): It has nearly all of the excess that fusion is supposed to have, especially the drum and guitar solos. And yet that excess is brought into focus with some fine and entertaining compositions.
JEFF BECK – LIVE WITH THE JAN HAMMER GROUP (1977): My introduction to Jeff Beck. Here you have a guitar virtuoso who keeps his chops in check, his talent there to serve the tunes. If you can forget the truly awful vocals on “Full Moon Boogie,” this album gets on the list of best live recordings of the late 70s.
EDGAR WINTER – JASMINE NIGHTDREAMS (1975): A kind of outlier in the Winter discography. There’s soul, funk, and some absolutely burnin’ rock, with the guitar chair held down by Rick Derringer.
JEAN-LUC PONTY – COSMIC MESSENGER (1978): A friend of mine turned me on to Ponty. I’d never heard of him, but was drawn in by the electric violin in a jazz context. OK, that and the crazy “Egocentric Molecules.”
PAT METHENY GROUP – AMERICAN GARAGE (1979): This record was my introduction to Metheny. Parts of it are more rock than jazz but hey, that’s what fusion is about, isn’t it?
The Miles Davis list …
1. MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW(1970): The standard bearer for all of fusion.
2. MILES DAVIS – TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON (1971): Miles melds together rock, Sly Stone and James Brown into a cohesive theme about another African-American who busted down barriers.
3. MILES DAVIS – LIVE-EVIL (1971): A strangely beautiful juxtaposition of rugged live performances and gentle studio explorations.
4. MILES DAVIS – DARK MAGUS (1974): A live souvenir of the Cosey/Lucas band, but one that’s more focused than the widely celebrated Agharta/Pangaea pair.
5. MILES DAVIS – BIG FUN (1974): Odds and ends collections are usually a mess, but these recordings occurred at a time when Miles’ chaff would have been wheat for anybody else.
1. WEATHER REPORT – WEATHER REPORT (1971): So sensitive an effort that it included shadings created not by Joe Zawinul’s fingers but by Wayne Shorter playing his sax near enough that its vibrations moved the piano’s inner strings, Weather Report is perhaps the band’s most honest record. You just have to lean in closer to appreciate it.
2. MILES DAVIS – TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON (1971): His earlier Bitches Brew gets all the pub, but I’d argue Davis’ followup actually bests it, in the sense that all of the nascent, at times unformed ideas of that earlier album come together here in one throat-punch explosion of brilliance.
3. HERBIE HANCOCK – HEAD HUNTERS (1973): Hancock brought Bennie Maupin along from his previous sextet, while adding explosive rhythmnists Mike Clark and Bill Summers. Together, they’d make this the first jazz record to go platinum. Even today, it remains a heady concoction of rock, Afro-Cuban, Latin music and grease-popping funk.
4. LIFETIME – BELIEVE IT (1975): Tony Williams retooled Lifetime with the addition of Soft Machine alum Allan Holdsworth on guitar and a brawny, deeply innovative new sound was born. I used to pull this album out, and cue up its ridiculously propulsive opening cut “Snake Oil,” whenever someone argued with me about whether jazz could “rock.”
5. STANLEY CLARKE – JOURNEY TO LOVE (1975): Great grooves, and great playing — not just from Clarke, who is a slap-pop wonder — but also from a stirring cast of friends that includes Return to Forever bandmates Chick Corea and Lenny White; John McLaughlin; George Duke; Steve Gadd; David Sancious and, over two brilliant tracks, Jeff Beck.
1. FREDDIE HUBBARD – RED CLAY (1970): Funky, chunky and never clunky, Hubbard’s astounding command of the trumpet was at its peak and he mated it to a tough rhythm section and some in-the-pocket originals. He even made John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” groove like a mofo.
2. WEATHER REPORT – WEATHER REPORT (1971): The original idea of WR was meant to build on the concepts introduced on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and they immediately took those concepts to interesting places.
3. BILLY COBHAM – SPECTRUM (1973): Tommy Bolin’s tour de force on “Stratus” is the only reason needed to put this record on the list. And the rest of the album is pretty damned good fun, too.
4. JEAN-LUC PONTY – ENIGMATIC OCEAN (1977): Ponty goes into the studio with Alan Holdsworth and pre-Jounrey Steve Smith and comes out with his most consistent, tighyly-constructed effort within a torrid string of classic fusion albums from him.
5. PAT METHENY GROUP – PAT METHENY GROUP (1978): This album sounds as fresh today as it did during the overwrought late 70s. Metheny penned several of his all time best songs for this album, too, like “San Lorenzo,” “Phase Dance” and “April Joy.”
1. HERBIE HANCOCK – HEAD HUNTERS (1973): There is just not enough people out there who have type of funk and soul that Herbie has.
2. JACO PASTORIUS – JACO PASTORIUS (1976): The amount of beauty within Jaco’s music never ceases to amaze me. The short, concise and anything but simple “Portrait of Tracy” is a perfect example.
3. WAYNE SHORTER – NATIVE DANCER (1974): This classic collaboration with Milton Nascimento stretches the term fusion with its Brazilian elements.
4. RETURN TO FOREVER – LIGHT AS A FEATHER (1972): The first recorded performance of “Spain”, which has become a staple in the jazz scene — and performed by many including Stevie Wonder.
5. JONI MITCHELL – MINGUS (1979): Featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie, Jaco, and Mingus, who tragically passed away before the recording of the album was complete, this album creates a compelling texture from the combination of two similar yet distinct musical styles and backgrounds.
The Chick Corea list …
1. RETURN TO FOREVER – NO MYSTERY (1975): The follow up, RTF’s medieval-themed Romantic Warrior, sold more copies — but this is the groovier, more varied, more group-focused project. Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Al Di Meola each contribute originals, even as Corea showcases his unique ability to make classical influences like Bartok and Chopin so utterly, utterly funky.
2. MILES DAVIS – BITCHES BREW (1970): You hear, buried deep within Davis’ stunning conception — its swirling psychedelia, its droning vamps, its bombastic sorcery — the precise moment in which every swirling, spaced-out jam for the looming decade was born for Corea.
3. CHICK COREA – RETURN TO FOREVER (1972): So different than the fiery rock-infused work of others in the period, the initial RTF album was actually released — gasp! — on the typically more staid ECM. Still, all of the elements are there in this debut, as Floria Purim, Airto Moreira and Clarke blend undulating rhythms with astronaut jazz to create something wholly new.
4. STANLEY CLARKE – CHILDREN OF FOREVER (1973): A series of groove-filled spirituals and forward-thinking fonky workouts, this album finds Corea playing a key role as both keyboardist and producer. The album’s central message of hope is deftly conveyed by guest vocalists Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater, but Pat Martino may be its secret weapon.
5. CHICK COREA – MY SPANISH HEART (1976): A brilliant melding of jazz fusion with Corea’s deepest exploration yet of his own Spanish influences, the album’s high point arrives over a pair of suites called “Spanish Fantasy” and “El Bozo.”