Forget lame jokes about how Prog Rock was once the ‘musical love that dare not speak its name’, it is Jazz Fusion that is perhaps the genre of music that most excites the greatest disdain of non-aficionados.
Attempting to ‘fuse’ the instrumental free-thinkingness of Jazz with elements of Rock music, with a premium on high musical values, it’s a musical hybrid that, at its worst, can empty a crowded room in seconds, clear a dance floor or cause radio listeners to turn off in their droves. The BBC TV comedy sketch series The Fast Show had a long-running recurring skit that lampooned the genre (and indeed ‘Modern Jazz’) furiously, ostensibly the same joke week in week out, with a cigarette-smoking, chin-stroking ‘presenter’ basically interrupting a cacophonous racket with blissed-out interjections of ‘NICE’, and ‘GRREEAAATTT’.
An easy target, of course; those who are not on the Fusion bus find the music inaccessible, the sort of thing that is not so much enjoyed by an exclusive club of other musicians but admired, where bass string gauges are discussed and impossible time signatures acknowledged. Melody is seen to be sacrificed in favour of virtuoso instrumental meandering. It’s the musical equivalent of those individuals who make scale models of St Paul’s Cathedral out of matchsticks: it’s great, but what’s the point? Well, to those of us who do appreciate the form, Fusion is at its best a free-flowing, highly original expression that is more often than not about atmosphere, creative friction and musical exploration that can take a listener through great emotive journeys and flights of imagination, not empty bombast and labyrinthine self-indulgence.
So, this month we bring you a Fusion favourite, the Czech-born keyboard ace Jan Hammer, and his 1976 solo album Oh, Yeah? This was his first project after graduating from fusion giants The Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album features a cornucopia of musical talent: bass player Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith both of whom would go on to play in Lou Reed’s recording and touring band with percussion provided by David Earle Johnson, who would figure on several important future Fusion projects. Completing the lineup is guitarist/ violinist Steve Kindler, who was also a member of The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Jan Hammer would go on to work with Jeff Beck to great critical and commercial acclaim in the late seventies and in the eighties, he would enjoy even greater success with his soundtrack work on the internationally successful Miami Vice TV series. Hammer is still a creative, very active force in music.
Oh, Yeah is an impressive and inspiring example of his instrumental, melodic and compositional gifts that sounds fresh, and showcases Fusion at its most mercurial and engaging.
With thanks to Alan Robinson