In times like these we could all use a little fusion. Crossing over into different genres and borrowing elements from diverse cultures have always been key elements in jazz composition and improvisation. Fusion takes many forms in jazz, whether it is the incorporation of classical style in the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet, or John Coltrane’s jazz interpretation of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music movie soundtrack.
Jazz Fusion in the 70’s most commonly referred to the melding of jazz and rock elements and instrumentation. Bands like Return To Forever, and artists like Larry Carlton represented the progressive philosophy that filled the ‘RVR playlist. The band that may have best defined “fusion” was Weather Report.
Weather Report was built on a solid traditional jazz foundation. At the time the group was formed in 1970 it featured Austrian-born keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul who was best known for his 1966 composition Mercy, Mercy, Mercy while he was a member of Cannonball Adderley’s band. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was a rare jazz live recording that became a crossover hit and got extensive airplay on popular stations across the country. It peaked at #2 on the Soul chart and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. I vividly recall this tune from my childhood.
The other cornerstone of the group was Wayne Shorter, already an impressive figure in jazz as composer and saxophonist for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ seminal fusion quintet. Shorter’s sound was greatly influenced by the hard tenors he grew up listening to such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, but he soon developed his own unique style–spare and penetrating. His approach to soloing was in sync with Joe Zawinul and formed the philosophy of the Weather Report sound. As Joe Zawinul noted, “No one solos, we all solo. Even solo sections merge solo line with other melodic parts.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic member of the group was bassist Jaco Pastorius who lost his fight with personal demons and met an untimely death at the age of 35 after sustaining injuries in a fight outside of a south Florida music club. He left behind a legacy of unique bass solos both with the group, as a headline performer, and in other jazz settings that influenced the generation of electric bassists that followed. Joe Zawinul would often double Jaco’s bass riff on synthesizer creating a more cosmic aura. The Pastorious composition Teen Town, from the 1977 release Heavy Weather, features Jaco on drums as well as bass; he recorded the drum part first before overdubbing the bass line. He is accompanied on percussion by Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña.
Finally, from the same album, A Remark You Made which showcases the individual strengths of the band members and includes a thoughtful, brooding solo by Wayne Shorter supported by Jaco’s restating and doubling of the theme on his bass, and punctuated by contrasting bright tones from Joe Zawinul.
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, nineteen-seventy something, and I’m riding home on the public bus from White Plains, New York, a freshly purchased copy of Rufusized in hand. Little did I know that I would be blown away by the excitement of the opening track, marveling at the audacious vocals of a unique singer that would soon become one of my lifelong favorites.
“Once you get started, oh it’s hard to stop…”
And I never have stopped loving the shouts, growls and soulful purring of the artist who has influenced generations of R&B singers. I followed that fateful purchase with the earlier Rags to Rufus, then anxiously awaited every subsequent release from Rufus, followed by Chaka’s solo albums throughout the eighties. Rufus’ sound featured Chaka’s lead and multi-tracked background vocals. This wall of Chaka is well represented here on Sweet Thing, just one of her numerous signature songs. Tony Maiden adds a memorable guitar lick to this classic.
Mary J Blige, an R&B giant in her own right, pays homage to her hero in this fine cover from her 1992 release What’s The 411?
Mary J later teamed up Chaka on their high energy performance Disrespectful from Chaka’s 2007 album Funk This. The duo complement each other with a lively call-and-response featuring perfectly executed vocal hand-offs throughout.
The tie in with jazz and WRVR? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I ever heard Rufus on WRVR, but Chaka’s style and sound crosses so many genres, and she has displayed a great affinity for the jazz form. No less than the immortal Betty Carter praised Chaka’s scatting on Be Bop Medley from her eponymous 1982 release.
This stunning performance followed the release of one of my all-time favorite albums, What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me from 1981. On full display is Chaka’s unequaled skill at transforming even classic compositions with unique arrangements and dynamic interpretations. Check out her twist on Dizzy’s And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia), followed by her elevation of the Beatles’ We Can Work It Out.
Here is the list of personnel on classic cover of the be-bop classic (Worthy of special note is the synthesizer solo by Herbie Hancock):
Track 6 “And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)”