Saturday, July 26, 2008

Blue Mitchell - Fun With Fusion

If you had told me a year ago that I would have a genre on my iPod called "Fusion" I'd have told you you were crazy. While I like a good soul jazz album as much as the next person (Jimmy Smith, Lonnie Smith, Houston Person, Boogaloo Joe Jones, et al.) once you start adding strings and vocals, that's where I draw the line. Unfortunately, it's the worst examples of fusion that tend to be the ones record companies make available to us in great numbers (Kenny G., Kirk Whalum, Tom Scott, et al), and in any case I've always found that a little Crusaders can go a long way. But recently, with the proliferation of music blogs like My Jazz World, such an incredible number of fusion albums have been made available to the public that it forced me into a re-examination of the whole genre.

The fact that for decades the CTI catalog has been the most visible (read avalable) fusion on the market has done a real disservice to everyone, from the record companies right down to the consumer. In the first place, I find the CTI sessions the least compelling fusion albums that I've heard over the last year. Just one example of this phenomenon is the great Blue Mitchell. After his tenure with Riverside in the early sixties, he signed with Blue Note when he and Junior Cook were let go of the Horace Silver quintet. After some terrific quintet albums he recorded a couple of funky big-band type sessions before his first out-and-out fusion session, Bantu Village, in 1969. After that, he recorded sessions for a number of labels (Impulse, Roulette, RCA) that are notable for their incredible consistency of quality jazz--albeit in a fusion style. Which means, if you hate Isaac Hayes, Booker T., and The Crusaders, you're probably going to hate these records too. But . . . if you've secretly kept all of your Blackbyrds, John Klemmer, and Maynard Ferguson vinyl, you'll LOVE Blue Mitchell's fusion sessions.

The thing that makes these sessions so great are the players, from pop/fusion stallwarts like Chuck Rainey and Lee Ritenour to hard bop greats like Harold Land, Cedar Walton, Hampton Hawes, and Eddie Harris. The solos are fantastic, and to lump these kinds of sessions in with no-talend smooth jazz of the last thirty years borders on the criminal. The only one of Mitchell's sessions that is available on CD is, of course, not one of his best. Though Graffiti Blues is a worthy pickup, my favorite album is Stratosonic Nuances with the great Harold Land on tenor and Cedar Walton on electric piano. But there is equally great music to be had elsewhere, as evidenced by this cover of Horace Silver's "Peace" on the Roulette album Last Tango Blues.

Why, in this day and age, record companies can't make all of their sessions available as downloads is beyond me. I understand them not wanting to put out money and time to produce all of those lost sessions on CD, but it can't take that much effort to make albums available on iTunes, or similar sites. Fortunately, most of those lost albums are out there if you do a bit of searching. So, if you enjoy the occasional Wah-Wah pedal guitar, thumb-slapping bass, and Fender Rhodes piano, check out some of the many music blogs out there offering up hundreds of 70s fusion albums--albums that also happen to contain some fantastic jazz solos by the sixties hard bop greats who, it turns out, never really stopped playing after all.

No comments: