(I had started composing this post before I learned that April is Jazz Appreciation Month. Mmm, smells like part one of a series.)
One of the very first radio shows I ever did was a jazz show. Hungry for airtime of any sort in 1978, I volunteered to fill in for the guy who did the Sunday night jazz show at our campus radio station. The tiny bit I knew about jazz was just enough to double as profound ignorance, and I’m pretty sure that the resulting show would have seemed a hideous mishmash to anybody with actual jazz knowledge.
Like most teenagers at the time, I’d listened not to Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; the jazz I heard was fusion. It thrived in the 1970s, growing out of Miles Davis’ electric experiments of the late 60s, which themselves culminated in the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In a Silent Way was a direct inspiration for the group Weather Report, who probably sold more records than any other fusion group during the 1970s, including the certified platinum Heavy Weather, released in 1977. The first track on the album, “Birdland,” even got some airplay as a single. Weather Report featured a couple of prominent alumni of Davis’ late 60s band, sax man Wayne Shorter and keyboard player Joe Zawinul. Influential bassist Jaco Pastorius joined in time for Heavy Weather and remained into the 80s. Here’s “A Remark You Made” from Heavy Weather, performed live in 1978.
Another dominant fusion band of the time was Return to Forever, which had formed in the early 70s as well—its classic lineup of Chick Corea on keyboards, Al DiMeola on guitar, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Lenny White on drums appeared together on a handful of albums, including the 1976 release Romantic Warrior. It was the band’s biggest seller, probably because a lot of prog-rock fanciers liked what they heard—the prog-rock audience was a natural constituency for fusion bands. Return to Forever reunited for a tour last summer; here they are on British TV in 1976 performing “Sorceress” from Romantic Warrior. Chick Corea seems to be having trouble with one of his keyboards, and whoever put the video together has added some annoying popups, but you’ll get the idea.
Other major names in fusion included the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by guitarist John McLaughlin, a onetime collaborator with Carlos Santana. It included drummer Billy Cobham, who also recorded solo, and keyboard player Jan Hammer; a later edition of the band included violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Plus there was Larry Coryell and Eleventh House, and the original Pat Metheny Group, which formed in 1977.
It was in college that I learned about Wisconsin’s own fusion band, a Milwaukee group called Sweetbottom. It was formed in 1973 by guitarist Daryl Stuermer and his bassist brother Duane. The group also featured sax player Warren Wiegratz and drummer Mark Torroll. Daryl Stuermer wasn’t in the band for long—the story is told that Frank Zappa heard him in Sweetbottom, and through that association Stuermer later secured a spot in Ponty’s band. After that, he joined Phil Collins and remains with him, also playing with Genesis on their 2007 reunion tour. But way back in 1977, after Stuermer had left the band for his gig with Ponty, Sweetbottom recorded its self-titled debut album. Several of the tracks appeared again a year later on the group’s major-label debut, Angels of the Deep. The group recorded only one other album before splitting: Turn Me Loose in 1979, although they reunited for a live album in 2002 and are still fondly remembered ’round these parts. Stuermer returns to Wisconsin every year for Summerfest in Milwaukee; Wiegratz is also a regular there and elsewhere around the Milwaukee area with his band Streetlife.
I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for why fusion faded out of fashion in the 1980s in favor of soporific smooth jazz. Something to do with the general abandonment of the 70s’ adventuresome, anything-goes spirit in favor of bland Reagan-Era comformity, maybe? Fusion is sometimes a tough listen—weird time signatures, strange harmonies, furious explosions of sound—while smooth jazz goes down like cotton candy, so maybe the triumph of the smooth was foreordained. Fusion is music of a different flavor entirely.
“Angels of the Deep”/Sweetbottom (out of print)