My favorite fusion band is the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album I love is The Inner Mounting Flame. Some people prefer Birds of Fire, but I love the intensity of their debut. This album caused a lot of buzz in the musician/guitarist world way back when and a lot of that has to do with the chops on display. I dig a lot of the melodies McLaughlin came up with, particulary on The Dance Of Maya and Meeting of the Spirits. Jerry Goodman’s electric violin is really a key element in the eeire mood that comes across on these cuts. Billy Cobham is an animal on this…he makes you shake your ass in 9/8.
Another of the big fusion bands was Return to Forever. Although everybody contributed, this is Chick Corea’s band and his compositions really stand out. Romantic Warrior is the one to get and it almost sounds like a progressive rock album. Chick might have been listening to Rick Wakeman for all I know. Everybody is in top form and the songs are just nuts! I love the Romantic Warrior tune because it’s acoustic and Al DiMeola always sounds great in that type of setting.
Speaking of Al DiMeola, his first 3 albums are all classics: Land of the Midnight Sun, Elegant Gypsy, and Casino. There are strong cuts all over the place, but the acoustic numbers really shine, especially Short Tales of the Black Forest. Jaco Pastorius also drops one of the funkiest bass lines of all time on Land of the Midnight Sun. Suite: Golden Dawn is a treatise on how to play fingerstyle funk ala Rocco Prestia from Tower of Power.
Jaco Pastorius’s debut is a true fusion album. He combines funk, jazz, rock, latin, and some really spaced-out type playing on this. He set a new standard for electric bassists with this album, as well as his work with Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report. The lead off track is a Charlie Parker/Miles Davis number that is a duet with congas!!!
More Jaco…Weather Report was a highly influential fusion band and the Jaco years seem to be their zenith. Joe Zawinul seems to have run the show, however. Heavy Weather is the classic and the whole album is strong. They were just really different than a lot of the fusion at the time. The music is really organic…everyone seems to be doing their own thing and contributing to the whole at the same time. Their album Night Passage is great, too. This is not everyone’s cup of tea because it doesn’t always blow you away with chops. I just like the nebulous vibe that a lot of their songs have and Jaco is an animal like usual.
Billy Cobham’s Spectrum is a good album to get for the rocker who wants to dabble in jazz/fusion. A lot of these songs are rocking and funky, especially the classics Quadrant 4 and Red Baron. Tommy Bolin really sounds like Jeff Beck on some of these tunes. He used an echoplex on Quadrant 4 to get that spacey sound at the end of the solo. He also uses that on an Alphonse Mouzon tune called Nitroglycerin.
Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters album is a classic. It’s super funky and has some sophisticated layering. You are never going to go wrong if you have a great groove at the core of your music. I love the blown bottle groove on Watermelon Man and Chameleon is about as good as it gets for funk music.
One of the all-time best fusion albums is Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow. George Martin produced this and Wired, which is another classic. The best cut is Stevie Wonder’s ballad ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers. I use to get chills listening to that. Jeff Beck is a great mix of melodic rock with some jazzy sensibilities. The drumming on this album is fantastic, too. Also, check out Led Boots on Wired. Narada Michael Walden blows the roof off the dump on that one.
The Brecker Brothers were a funky fusiony group headed by Michael Brecker on sax and Randy Brecker on trumpet. Michael just passed away recently, which is a huge loss to the music community. Heavy Metal Bebop is their live album, which has a lot of great songs like Some Skunk Funk and Sponge. Both of these guys had their horns hooked up to wah pedals, ala Miles Davis, which makes for some crazy sounds.
Stanley Clarke was already a force when he played with Return to Forever, but he also made a name for himself as a solo artist. His first few albums are all a lot of fun, but I like a record called Live(1976-1977). It’s almost like a greatest hits collection with School Days being the central piece. Ray Gomez is on guitar and the whole band really jams hard.
I’ve already mentioned the debut Pat Metheny album, so I’ll make a plug for Bright Size Life. Pat has said this album was almost a reaction to the fusion that was out at the time…fusion that Metheny thought had become a cliche. What gets fused here is almost jazz with a pop song sensibility. Jaco plays great and a lot of these songs have become modern jazz standards.
I loved Jerry Goodman’s electric violin sound so much that I eventually discovered Jean-Luc Ponty. He had a number of good albums from the the mid 70′s to early 80′s. Enigmatic Ocean is probably the one to get, due to Allan Holdsworth’s contribution. Darly Streumer is really good with Ponty on this album, too. I just love the fusion of classical, pentatonic/modal, and jazz playing that is Ponty’s style.
Speaking of Allan Holdsworth, a good album to check out his style is Metal Fatigue. The guy is just from another universe. His songs have the strangest time feels and harmonies. His solo playing is so saxophone like, but it’s definitely not bebop. I saw this guy in the mid 90′s and he seems like such a humble, but tortured artist.
My favorite modern fusion band is Tribal Tech. Scott Henderson and Gary Willis are the key figures and they are both phenomenal musicians. They are heavily influenced by Weather Report, but they can really mix it up with a more rocking/funky side. Their last few albums have been about collective improv and they’re really interesting. Illicit is really good, but I think I’ll recommend Face First. I like the title track and Salt Lick quite a bit, but The Precipice is a master class on dynamics.
And last but not least, Rhino Records has a 2 volume Jazz Fusion set that’s really cool. Both of them are good and have a lot of tracks that I’d never heard before. My favorite is a Narada Michael Walden tune with Ray Gomez on guitar.