First, let’s clarify one thing: Jazz fusion and jazz-rock are the same (to start with at least). The confusion may come from the preferences on each side of the Atlantic. While Europeans will most probably say “jazz-rock”, Americans will prefer referring to it as “jazz fusion”.
Jazz Fusion? Jazz Rock?
Jazz fusion is a music genre combining jazz with other music. This approach started with – and is very well known for – its jazz-rock fusion period during the late 60s and 70s, hence the confusion.
For the first years of this new music genre, jazz fusion was practically equal to jazz-rock. But in fact, jazz fusion includes jazz-rock. And jazz fusion went a lot further than only combining with rock or funk or Indian music. In fact, the term jazz fusion should be seen as a musical approach, trying to merge (or to fuse) with other musical styles. Jazz-rock being one result of this approach.
Jazz fusion went further. It fused with heavy metal, to create jazz metal; or with R&B, funk, and pop music, to become smooth jazz; and even with elements of funk, soul, hip hop, as well as disco, to become acid jazz.
The Best Jazz Fusion Albums
We are listing here 5 albums that will help you understand or feel this genre, appreciate its diversity, getting to know its major contributors while listening to outstanding music:
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Miles Davis started to electrify his band in 1969 with In A Silent Way (already with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette), kind of initiating this jazz-rock genre. But strongly influenced at that time by contemporary rock and funk music, he decided to explore even further the electronic possibilities and fusion adventures: and here comes Bitches Brew, the landmark for jazz fusion. The reception of the album was half good only, but it grew to be one of Miles Davis‘s most iconic albums. A must-have.
All tracks were recorded at Columbia Studio B, NYC, during four sessions, lining up different musicians:
August 19, 1969: Miles Davis (tpt); Wayne Shorter (ss); Bennie Maupin (bcl); John McLaughlin (el-g); Chick Corea (el-p); Joe Zawinul (el-p); Dave Holland (b); Harvey Brooks (el-b); Jack DeJohnette (d); Lenny White (d); Don Alias (perc); Jim Riley (perc)
August 20, 1969: Miles Davis (tpt); Wayne Shorter (ss); Bennie Maupin (bcl); John McLaughlin (el-g); Chick Corea (el-p); Joe Zawinul (el-p); Dave Holland (el-b); Harvey Brooks (el-b); Jack DeJohnette (d); Don Alias (d); Jim Riley (perc)
August 21, 1969: Miles Davis (tpt); Wayne Shorter (ss); Bennie Maupin (bcl); John McLaughlin (el-g); Chick Corea (el-p); Joe Zawinul (el-p); Larry Young (el-p); Dave Holland (b); Harvey Brooks (el-b); Jack DeJohnette (d); Lenny White (d); Don Alias (perc); Jim Riley (perc)
January 28, 1970: Miles Davis (tpt); Wayne Shorter (ss); Bennie Maupin (bcl); John McLaughlin (el-g); Chick Corea (el-p); Joe Zawinul (el-p); Dave Holland (el-b); Billy Cobham (d); Jack DeJohnette (d); Airto Moreira (perc)
Release date: 1970.03.30
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire
Birds of Fire
One of the best guitar players ever, one of the best drummers ever, both previously initiating this new genre being part of Bitches Brew. The second album of the Mahavishnu Orchestra is a must-have for all fusion lovers.
“Music is born out of the inner sounds within a soul; all the music that was ever heard came from the inner silence in every musician.”
John McLaughlin: guitars; Rick Laird: bass; Billy Cobham: drums, percussion; Jan Hammer: keyboards, Moog synthesizer, Fender Rhodes; Jerry Goodman: violin
Release date: 1973.01.03
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
The band released their first album in 1971 (Weather Report), already jazz fusion. Heavy Weather is the eighth album (after 1 live and 6 studios) but surely their finest. The opening track is the now-standard “Birdland”. Amazing musicians breathing new life into the genre.
Joe Zawinul: electric piano, grand piano, synthesizer; Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones; Jaco Pastorius: bass, steel drums, drums; Alex Acuna: drums, conga; Manola Badrena: percussion.
Release date: 1977.03
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters
The breakthrough album for Herbie Hancock, with jazz-rock but also jazz-funk fusion. It created bridges in between wilder audiences, enough for Head Hunters to become the first jazz album to sell over a million copies.
Herbie Hancock: Fender Rhodes, clavinet, ARP Odyssey synthesizer, ARP Soloist; Bennie Maupin: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, saxello, bass clarinet, alto flute; Paul Jackson: bass guitar, marímbula; Harvey Mason: drums; Bill Summers: agogô, balafon, beer bottle, cabasa, congas, gankogui, hindewhu, log drum, shekere, surdo, tambourine.
Release date: 1973.10.26
Frank Zappa – Hot Rats
(Bizarre Records, Reprise Records)
It is considered early jazz-rock (as released before Bitches Brew) but still an amazing one, even for the Frank Zappa fans.
“A movie for your ears”.
— Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa: guitar, octave bass, percussion; Ian Underwood: piano, organus maximus, flute, all clarinets, all saxes; Captain Beefheart: vocals on “Willie the Pimp”; Max Bennett: bass on all tracks except “Peaches en Regalia”; Shuggie Otis: bass on “Peaches en Regalia”; John Guerin: drums on “Willie the Pimp”, “Little Umbrellas” and “It Must Be a Camel”; Paul Humphrey: drums on “Son of Mr. Green Genes” and “The Gumbo Variations”; Ron Selico: drums on “Peaches en Regalia”; Don “Sugarcane” Harris: violin on “Willie the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations”; Jean-Luc Ponty: violin on “It Must Be a Camel”; Lowell George: rhythm guitar.
Release date: 1969.10.10
To explore further this genre, a quite extensive list of jazz fusion albums is available here (Wikipedia)
Also, you can read our post: What are the genres of jazz?