Players from the jazz world as well as rock, R&B, metal and more come together in unique ensembles to create some of the most innovative, technically proficient music in the world. Otherwise known as jazz fusion ensembles, these combinations bring together the cream of the crop from a variety of different musical styles.
About Jazz Fusion
Jazz was already a well established musical genre when rock hit the scene in the 1950s. Throughout the early days of rock, the two genres were very distinct entities – in fact, there was a certain degree of tension between the two.
Everything changed in the late 1960s, thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances. First, jazz musicians began to feel confined within their genre. They were expected to adhere to a certain style of jazz, be it hard bop or avant garde, that allowed very little wiggle room for creativity. A wave of creative energy accompanied the counterculture movement, and jazz musicians wanted to be part of it.
Second, rock musicians began to become more proficient in their playing. Jazz music is almost unanimously considered to be the most technically challenging form of music to play. On the other hand, many early rock musicians could only play the simplest of chord structures. As rock became more popular, rock musicians focused more on perfecting their crafts. Suddenly, there was a wave of rock musicians capable of performing jazz – and given both genres’ roles in the Civil Rights Movement, these musicians met each other.
The musicians came together to form jazz fusion. Jazz fusion isn’t a genre but rather a philosophy: blend jazz with elements of any and all other genres of music. Initially rock was the most common mixer, but experimentation grew throughout the years.
By nature, jazz fusion is a group exercise, and so ensembles have figured prominently over the years.
Who's Who in Jazz Fusion Ensembles
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones are an example of how two musical styles that couldn’t seem more different can actually blend together seamlessly. This ensemble mixes jazz with bluegrass in a style sometimes referred to as blubop. This award-winning group is equally at home at mountain bluegrass fests and city jazz clubs.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force
This relatively short-lived ensemble was one of the first jazz fusion groups to emerge in the late 60s. Comprised of several representatives from British blues rock music, they were a particularly British phenomenon and played most of their shows in that country. In the years after their 1970 demise, however, jazz fusion fans picked up on the band and now rate their two albums as giants of the genre.
Weather Report is one of the most significant jazz fusion ensembles of all time. The American group started out as a funk band but moved quickly into jazz waters. They were performing during one of jazz fusion’s golden ages – the late 1970s through the mid 1980s – and they outsold almost all of their contemporaries. They also outlasted them. Jazz fusion groups are loose collectives by nature and tend to fall apart fast, but Weather Report acted more like a band and stood the test of time.
Pat Metheny Group
The Pat Metheny Group was one of the Weather Report’s contemporaries, and in fact they endured beyond the Weather Report, but with a revolving door of members. Before forming the ensemble, Pat Metheny had achieved fame on the jazz scene with a number of solo albums. They are among jazz fusion’s most successful ensembles, and they have the Grammys to prove it.
Chick Corea Elektric Band
Jazz pianist Chick Corea is something of a prolific creator of jazz fusion groups, but his 1970s Elektric Band is his best known and most successful. The line-up of the Elektric Band has changed many times over the years, but the one thing that remains the same is that this ensemble tends to emphasize the jazz in the jazz fusion, rather than the other influences that tend to be played up by other ensembles.
There are many more fusion ensembles, and in fact there is disagreement about what constitutes an ensemble and what doesn’t. Some people count the bands that backed up Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk as fusion ensembles, for instance, while others don’t. Like the definition of jazz fusion itself, the definition of the ensembles that play the music is equally elusive.
Explore More Jazz Fusion Ensembles
Want to delve deeper into the genre? Give these groups a try:
- Medeski, Martin and Wood
- The Rippingtons
- James Taylor Quartet