Chick Corea and Jazz-Rock Fusion in the 1970s.

It was sad to hear of the passing of the great jazz pianist, Chick Corea, yesterday. Though not a great jazz fan as such, I do have a thing for the Jazz-Rock fusion era in the 1970s, and certain other Fusion musicians who were adventurous at the time. Like many jazz musicians, Chick Corea was prolific, and it would be easy to overlook the Fusion phase, which sometimes seems a bit over the top. Indeed, strictly speaking, I would say that the style is exemplified by only three groups: Chick Corea’s Return to Forever; John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

It is often said that all of key players in Fusion were alumni of the electric phase in Miles Davis’ career, from around 1969 to 1971, and focussing on the Bitches Brew LP. This is slightly misleading, as the relevant albums featured a number of keyboard players, such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Corea. Hancock and Zawinul’s later groups are usually included in Fusion, but the three groups I referred to above are all very much electric guitar oriented ensembles, and this aspect is not always to the taste of jazz fans. Whereas rock fans are attracted to the technique and speed of the Fusion players, in particular, McLaughlin, Coryell, and the Return to Forever players, Bill Connors then Al di Meola.

All of the main players appear on the early Larry Coryell LP, Spaces, with the characteristic cover art. Chick Corea only played on one track; and the bassist, Miroslav Vitous would then form Weather Report with Zawinul. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham went on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with Rick Laird on bass, Jerry Goodman played the violin, and Jan Hammer emerged with his unique keyboard style. The Mahavishnu Orchestra released two studio albums, and one extraordinary live album, called Between Nothingness and Eternity. The latter might be criticised for the length of the tracks, and McLaughlin over-playing, but the version of ‘Sister Andrea’ is a favourite. That group split in acrimony, and various solo albums followed, with Billy Cobham getting the critical acclaim for his Spectrum LP. This included a fantastic one off group featuring Cobham on percussion, Hammer on keyboards, Leland Sklar on bass, and Tommy Bolin on guitar (who subsequently joined Deep Purple in 1975). The track titled ‘Stratus’ is extraordinary, but there were also contributions by horn players. Cobham’s next LP, Crosswinds, featured the Brecker brothers on horns, and was closer to jazz than rock.

Meanwhile, Larry Coryell unveiled a fusion group called the Eleventh House, whose debut LP was released on the smaller Vanguard label in 1974. The album had Randy Brecker on horns, with Danny Trifan on bass, the blind keyboard player Mike Mandel on keyboards, and Alphonse Mouzon played percussion (he also went on to join Weather Report). In my view this LP is a tour de force, and may well be the best Fusion LP of them all, if not so well known. The follow up LP, Level One, was released on the Arista label in 1975, and featured Michael Lawrence on horns, and John Lee on bass. The remainder of the Eleventh House material, and outakes from the Spaces LP, appeared on the Planet End LP.

Finally to Chick Corea and his contribution to Fusion. Return to Forever was originally an LP title, before the music got more rock oriented, and the playing more elaborate. Corea and bandmates Lenny White on drums, and Stanley Clarke on bass, were all unique players. But the Fusion period also saw them get involved with Scientology, and dedicating their music to L. Ron Hubbard. The album cover art varied, and could be particularly garish, as with 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before. The high brow critics were rather bemused by Return to Forever, given the kind of style that they knew Corea could play in trad jazz. But with the arrival of the young Al di Meola on electric guitar they just got better and better, culminating in a move to a major label, Columbia, for the Romantic Warrior LP in 1976.

Both the cover art (by Wilson McLean) and the playing is great on this album, and listening again to it last night on re-mastered CD it sounded fantastic, but even as a period piece it holds up. Fusion could be over the top at times, with frenetic playing and over blown song titles, but for purely instrumental music it certainly holds the attention of the listener. After 1976 the main players formed different temporary combinations, such McLaughlin and di Meola playing acoustic guitars in the Spanish style; Jan Hammer appeared on many LPs, including playing with Jeff Beck, the other notable British guitarist. There was even a short-lived record label, Nemperor, that released solo LPs by Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, and two from Tommy Bolin before he died in 1976. But if there was only one album that combined all the elements of jazz-rock Fusion, with great cover art in the mid 1970s, it was Corea’s Romantic Warrior.

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