Alphonse Mouzon (1948-2016): Tribute to an Endlessly Versatile Fusion Legend

A seminal force in the birth of fusion, the remarkably adaptable Alphonse Mouzon died yesterday (December 25, 2016), having played drums alongside of dizzying array of jazz greats. The 68-year-old had earlier confirmed a cancer diagnosis.

He sat in with Gil Evans on his 1969 release Blues in Orbit, then Roy Ayers at the turn of the decade. Work with Larry Coryell established his rhythm persona — a great combination of power, style and speed — across a series of albums beginning with 1973’s Introducing the Eleventh House. That was a rawer, more groove-oriented sound than was coming out of John McLaughlin or Chick Corea’s groups of the same period.

The credit back then didn’t go to old jazz masters so much as a seminal rock and roller – kicking off a trend of flinty experimentation that continued throughout his life.

“We had more soul; it was almost like Southern home cooking,” Mouzon told Something Else!, in a discussion about the Coryell years. “Coming from that R&B background, it was different. That actually started back in 1969, when I touring with Chubby Checker — doing ‘The Twist’ and ‘Limbo Rock.’ (Laughs.) That’s where that started. Later, I went down to a jazz camp at Florida A&M, where I met Cannonball Adderly. He gave me some good advice, when he said: ‘You’ve got to get to New York.’ I paid my dues, played everywhere, and learned a lot. That’s why, as funky as we were, we could still go intellectual. I purposely wrote songs in 7/4, 5/4 — and wrote a song in 3/4 called ‘The Funky Waltz.'”

Alphonse Mouzon would collaborate with Jaco Pastorius, Donald Byrd and Arild Andersen, then had lengthy stints with McCoy Tyner, Larry Coryell and Herbie Hancock into the 1980s. He was later involved with one of Miles Davis’ final projects. That’s to say nothing of his underrated fusion dates as a band leader, and the celebrated debut album by Weather Report. “We were a jazz experiment,” Mouzon said of that period with Weather Report. “It was so open. I love that record, not because I am on it, but because it was so different — so refreshing.”

A fusion recording that ignores every convention, 1971’s Weather Report sounded something like an ambient, more acoustic version of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew — which, after all, featured two of the future members of Weather Report.

“We would play these motifs that usually Wayne [Shorter] or Joe [Zawinul] wrote. We would take these motifs, like a little passage, then we would listen and play,” Mouzon told Something Else! “It was orchestrated in a way, then we would start improvising and it all started coming together. It sounded like it was written down. We worked off cues from there, a nod of the head or somebody would lift two fingers. A lot of the songs were like that. We wrote motifs and played.”

That stint with McCoy Tyner followed, highlighted by Alphonse Mouzon’s appearance on the John Coltrane alum’s 1972 solo debut for Milestone, Sahara. An astonishing, fiercely individualistic, Grammy-nominated triumph, the album also featuring Sonny Fortune on saxes and flute. “With McCoy, it was all high energy,” Mouzon said. “More than on Weather Report, this was the same energy as rock. Sort of (Larry Coryell’s) Eleventh House but in a jazz context.”

Yet Mouzon’s appearance there remains no small surprise considering his initial successes with Weather Report. “It was a coming to an end,” Mouzon added. “After our tour of Europe, I wasn’t that happy with the situation. We were ready to part ways, anyway. So, it was perfect when I went with McCoy. I ended up doing four records with him. It was so open and free.”

Over time, that search for freedom led him into ever more adventurous waters.

Alphonse Mouzon’s 1974 album Mind Transplant – often cited as one fusion’s best records – featured a collaboration with Tommy Bolin, who had played with Deep Purple and Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. “He made that record, along with Lee Ritenour,” Alphonse Mouzon told Something Else! “There were actually three guitars, with Jay Graydon. I heard Bolin on the Spectrum record and I wanted him on guitar. We had met before, when we sat in back in Boulder in 1974. I had the night off and sat in. So, when I went back to New York and heard Spectrum, I had to have him. That was great. I just let him stretch.”

There were other rock connections. Robert Plant, in his acceptance speech on behalf of Led Zeppelin at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, named Mouzon as one the band’s principal influences. “John Bonham (Led Zeppelin’s late drummer) would listen to me all day – so they all knew me,” Alphonse Mouzon said. “This guy used to come and see me and Larry Coryell at the Bottom Line. … Hanging out with those guys was great. Mixing rock and jazz came easy. You heard more of that stuff back then. I used to hang out with Yes, at Jon Anderson’s house. … We listened to each other’s music. I have always been a rocker — and those guys wanted to play jazz.”

Though Mouzon’s legend was built around working as a drummer, he actually played everything from guitar to flute as a kid — and was featured on organ and synthesizer on classic albums like Mind Transplant, as well. Funky Snakefoot was an underrated 1973 blending of jazz, R&B and funk for Blue Note that showcased not just Mouzon’s skills as a drummer but also as an organist and Moog player. Even featured within a trio of keyboardists including Leon Pendarvis, Mouzon’s impassioned efforts stand out. He sang a little, too, in a kind of Stevie Wonder tour de force of funk-fusion. Later-era projects like 2011’s Angel Face, a terrific straight-ahead effort, found him on trumpet.

“I get too bored to just play the drums,” Alphonse Mouzon once told Something Else! “I’m self taught. When I was in high school growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, I began messing around with the piano, the xylophone, marimbas. When I went to New York, I had a piano in my room. I was a drummer but I didn’t have any drums! (Laughs.) So, I agreed to help be a roadie for the organ player in a big band (the Ross Carnegie Society Orchestra) that was playing across the street, and they let me play a few numbers. That was Larry Young; he played like McCoy Tyner. A very different type of organ player, so free. It was great. I picked up things along the way.”

Along the way, he played on four Herbie Hancock recordings, including 1980’s Mr. Hands, and collaboration with former Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, Return to Forever’s Al Di Meola and with Wayne Shorter as a solo artist. A highlight career moment arrived with 1991’s Dingo, which offered Alphonse Mouzon the long-awaited chance to record with Hancock and Shorter’s old boss Miles Davis. This project wasn’t Mouzon’s first intersection with the trumpet legend, however.

“You know, I dated his ex-wife Betty Davis, the singer — and he dated an ex-girlfriend of mine,” Mouzon confided. “We met years before when I saw a girlfriend of his on the street after he and Betty had split; he ended up coming to see me with McCoy. He found my card in this girl’s purse. I saw her on the street, stopped and told her I was playing with McCoy Tyner at the Village Vanguard. She said: ‘Maybe me and my old man will come.’ That Friday, I saw this girl coming down the stairs from stage. She was fine! Then I said wait a minute — who’s that behind her? Is that Miles? They walked in together, and sat at a reserved seat up front. He sat there, staring right at me. (Laughs.) I couldn’t even look over there. I was scared. We played for an hour, and I never looked over!”

Angel Face, which featured the likes of Cedar Walton, Ernie Watts, Christian McBride, Bob Mintzer, Wallace Roney and Arturo Sandoval, would be his final studio effort. More than 10 years in the making, the album was a bold reminder of just how much Alphonse Mouzon has meant to the development of his instrument, and of the genre itself.

There was something more, though, a gift for his daughter that’s probably more special now than ever. The stand-out track “Stepping Stone” features an eight-part harmony vocal by Mouzon’s daughter Emma Alexandra — recorded at three different ages, 5, 12 and 13 years old.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson