In the final piece of these exhaustive, four-part salutes to the top releases of 2012, the fusion jazz records are surveyed. But in doing so, I’m reminded of the vast ground “fusion” really covers. There’s very little in common between, say an album by Metallic Taste of Blood and another by fo/mo/deep, but here they both are with entries on the same list. Some of these are slotted “fusion” jazz because there isn’t any other place to put them: the two Cuneiform releases — Pixel and Janel & Anthony — are jazz in a broad sense but otherwise indescribable.
However you define it, this was a bumper crop for fusion jazz with great records coming from long-time stalwarts and newcomers alike. I don’t really know how popular is this music form today — it’s never gone mainstream — but the quality is as good as it’s ever been. And thus, I’ve had a hell of a time making sure all worthy albums get included. Sometimes I wonder if I truly made it easier on myself by not imposing a set number of items for this tabulation.
Figuring out the top fusion record was likewise tough, That is, until I thought of which album best represented the classic style of fusion, the kind that got me hooked on the genre in the first place. Then, the choice became very clear.
Click through the titles for the complete reviews …
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Spectrum Road – Spectrum Road: Recently we’ve seen a lot of fusion acts — including many listed below — adhere closer than has been in a long time to the fusion principles first advanced by Miles Davis with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. This is where open-ended, vamp-based songs unfold slowly to encourage everyone to improvise. That’s been a very positive development, but scant attention has been paid to another kind of fusion that first emerged about the same time: the volcanic, fast-moving and muscular jazz-rock fathered by Miles’ drummer Tony Williams and his pioneering Lifetime band.
The power and the fury of the original, John McLaughlin/Larry Young Lifetime band has now been channeled through a supergroup that not only lives up to the billing, they even exceed it. Spectrum Road, named after the Lifetime song “Spectrum,” is a tribute band, sure, but one that not only celebrates the music of its subject, it even tries to make it better. And sometimes, it even succeeds in doing so. Start with the drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana. She’s worn her debt to Williams on her sleeve, even made her own ass kicking Lifetime tribute album previously, but she is also nobody’s hack, as Lenny Kravitz will attest. Medeski, Martin & Wood organist John Medeski is maybe the closest thing to Larry Young today, but the similarities lie mostly in the abandon by which both attack the B-3 and pretty much stop there. Vernon Reid will forever be known as the lynchpin behind the groundbreaking metal band Living Colour, but his credentials in the areas of fusion or anything on the outskirts of jazz are just as impeccable. Former Cream frontman and bassist Jack Bruce is most like his counterpart in Lifetime because, well, he was that guy, too.
With one exception (“Blues For Tillmon”) every song is a Lifetime cover, re-done to resemble the original in spirit, but with every band members’ own personalities fully manifest. Spectrum Road is the one fusion album, from the opening explosions of “Vuelta Abajo” all the way through knocks me flat on my ass whenever I hear it. As good as they are, I can’t quite say that about any of the other fine entries here.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Esbjörn Svensson Trio – 301: The leader is dead but his vision is very much alive on the second posthumous release. A worthy entry in the e.s.t. catalog even if Esbjörn Svensson was with us today and this innovative trio had since gone on to higher heights.
Manu Katché – Manu Katché: Katché’s vision in this instance of no bass player but adding an organ player and a technologically savvy trumpeter in Nils Petter Molvær succeeds because in the end, it’s still a Manu Katché record.
fo/mo/deep – A Beautiful Bang: Yes sir, there are still a few bands out there making that soul-soothing, butt-swaying, feel-good blend of jazz and funk.
Marcus Miller – Renaissance: There’s an attention to detail and the openness to a multitude of styles found on all Miller records, coupled with the vitality of playing with young, eager and talented musicians and Miller’s strongest set of songs in some time.
Carl Weingarten – Panomorphia: Think new-age fusion is boring? Weingarten is just too artful and astute to be boring.
Animation – Transparent Heart: Like Miles, Bob Beldon reinvigorates himself by surrounding himself with young players and also like Miles, he pushes them to create on the spot. The resulting album is immediate, fresh and dynamic.
Donny McCaslin – Casting For Gravity: Electric jazz so well envisioned and carried out, it makes the highly accoladed Perpetual Motion album seem transitional.
Jake Playmo – My Favorite Toys: Standing at the intersection of electronica, jazz and kraut rock, My Favorite Toys is part of the fun fusion music we in the States too often miss out on.
Torben Waldorff – Wah-Wah: This is one of those albums that sounds good from the get-go and gets even better as you dig deeper into it. Another quiet, well-crafted triumph for this vastly talented guitarist and composer.
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Live: These recordings are a lot like what you hear on the studio albums, breathtakingly replicated on the stage without a safety net, and the lack of the security only appeared to encouraged them to take even more chances.
douBt – Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love: Both brash and calculating, douBt as set out to do what few these days has been capable of doing: bring the fury of a rock and funk-minded power trio to the nimbler vagaries of modern and avant garde jazz.
Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio – Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio: Defies expectations about what a totally improvisational album can sound like by being so melodious, joyful and just a heck of a lot of fun.
Ligro – Dictionary 2: An Indonesian power trio with the chops and enough sophistication to pull it away from the pack, Ligro is a force to be reckoned with in any country.
Janel & Anthony – Where Is Home?: This record should feel right at home for anyone who appreciates and enjoys experimental music that’s soothing and layered enough to reveal something new with each listen.
Pixel – Reminder: This Norwegian troupe with the non-chordal trumpet/sax/standup bass/drums configuration play the vigor of indie rock and improvisational freedom of modern jazz. A most impressive debut for a band led effectively by bassist-vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang.
Naked Truth – Ouroboros: Another set of loosely structured music that downplays soloing and places emphasis on collective improvisation and barren, harshly colliding soundscapes and a careful balance of hand-made and technologically-assisted music. Newcomer Graham Haynes with his electronically contorted cornet proves to be a fine fit for the Naked Truth’s esoteric character.
Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective – Roots Before Branches: Because Cole does such a bang-up job blending Afrobeat with other strands of music, he broadens the appeal without diluting it.
Metallic Taste Of Blood – Metallic Taste Of Blood: Metal-dub-fusion from a collaboration of forward-thinking musicians who have all proved it well before joining this ensemble and with their self-titled debut, they’re are already justifying a long-term existence.
Jeff Lorber Fusion – Galaxy: The Jeff Lorber Fusion is not just back in name, it’s back in the music, too. Lorber reasserts his old school self to the delight of his original fans.
Steve Smith and Vital Information – Live! One Great Night: Vital Information has shown once again that seriously elaborate fusion jazz created and performed by seriously good studio musicians can be delivered on stage with compulsion and freakish fun.
Animation – Agemo: A re-mix of a recreation of Bitches Brew manages to cast Miles’ classic Bitches Brew compositions in a fascinating, 21st century light.
Justin Walter – Stars: An unusual mixture of modern creative jazz and experimental indie rock, Walter makes jazz fresh again by annexing bits of contemporary music and various odd sources into it.
Cory Wong – Quartet/Quintet: Wong not only made an album blending a half dozen or so kinds of styles, but also utilized two distinct approaches to performing it. He succeeds with either method.
InterStatic – InterStatic: A fresh take on the venerable organ/guitar/drums format, performing thinking man’s rock-jazz that doesn’t require anyone to strain their brains in order to appreciate it.
Hardcoretet – Do It Live
Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
Lee Ritenour – Rhythm Sessions
Mandingo Ambassadors – Tougna
Medeski, Martin and Wood – Free Magic
David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
Stephen Richard – Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 2
Claudio Scolari Project with Daniele Cavalca and Simone Scolari – Synthesis
Dan Meinhardt – Gone West
Daren Burns, with Wadada Leo Smith – Fear Is Not The Natural State of Civilized People
Daniel Freedman – Bamako By Bus
Manuel Valera – New Cuban Express
Brad Hammonds Group – Greene Street