There Comes a Time

On Twitter I goofed off and crowd-sourced a “top 10 fusion tracks” list.

Only six ending up being perfect, meaning tracks that are strong musically and have popular outreach beyond dedicated music fans. (The idea that this is “popular” music is important, for this was the move from clubs to stadiums, and the records really sold much better than almost all previous acoustic jazz.)


Instrumental. Hot jazz improv. Nerdy and aspirational. Even 8th beats. Electric instruments. One artist, one tune.

First six in chronological order:

1. “Red Clay.” Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock build burning solos over the big beat of Lenny White. A perfect “intervallic” pop melody and a CTI best-seller: Hubbard’s career wasn’t the same after. The chaotic fanfare intro is most “pure fusion” element but it’s still 1969, they are just getting going. Another track from the same era and related personnel is Joe Henderson’s “Power to the People,” which might be even greater than “Red Clay,” but it’s just not as popular.

2. “Spain.” 1972. While from the earliest and least-fusion version of Return to Forever, this tune circles the planet. Iconic, etc. Chick Corea stole opening fanfare and was sued. Airto’s beat is a mixture of clave and rock; when Lenny White took over, the rock would be heavier but the clave would still be there.

3. “Chameleon.” 1973. Long, almost a funk jam, but the tune is perfect and still a hook, and Hancock and Bennie Maupin play awesome solos. Track speeds up unbelievably, Hancock regrets that now. A best-seller far and wide.

4. “Some Skunk Funk.” 1975. Among civilians, this is the least known of the top six. Still, when we say FUSION, we mean the Brecker Brothers and SOME SKUNK FUNK. Absolutely! It was really Randy’s band — he wrote the tune and plays great on it — but Michael will forever be the hero. (I never heard the original studio version until working on this post, I grew up on the faster live performance on Heavy Metal Bebop. Both have their charms: maybe a better overall feel in the studio, but more going-for-it insanity from Michael live.)

5. “Birdland.” 1977. My personal favorite Weather Report music lies between the spacey sounds with Miroslav Vitous and coiled virtuosity of Jaco Pastorius, usually powered by the very funky Alphonso Johnson on bass. But you can’t deny the epic Joe Zawinul composition that most humans know and like. Wayne Shorter plays the blues for about eight bars, and Jaco makes the most of a few fills. The whole album Heavy Weather really is wonderful: down with the haters!

6. “Phase Dance.” 1978. Pat Metheny rode the fusion wave into the longest and most consistent run of the big acts. Of course, I love Rejoicing with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins more myself, but this list isn’t about that. This list is about the pure joy “Phase Dance” has given to millions of humans over the years.

After the first six, it’s less obvious. Thanks in part to Maynard Ferguson, several generations of high school marching bands learned “Chameleon” and “Birdland.” But now we are in a different area, where guitarists and drummers know the music from trying to play along in their basements. These themes are not so familiar to civilians.

Selections 7 and 8 are “Birds of Fire” and “Stratus.” John McLaughlin! Billy Cobham! Mahavishnu! More dated than the top six, also busier, crazier, and the true heart of the snarling fusion beast. Odd-meters! GUITAR. DRUMS. Other selections may do just as well as “Birds of Fire” and “Stratus.”

Selections 9 and 10 are shared by Tony Williams and Miles Davis. Going back to the acoustic music of the 60s, Tony was ahead of everybody; he liked the Beatles and Brazilian music. Some say “Eighty One” on E.S.P. is the first fusion track.

Tony found a British Invasion guitarist for his Lifetime, and Miles poached McLaughlin for In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Miles gets the credit for the fusion revolution but Tony was there first. (Tony was mad about it, that’s why he plays so simply on In a Silent Way. Tony also wanted to call the style “Jazz-rock” instead of “fusion.”)

I personally never listened to either In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew much, they are too jammy for me — I like hit melodies best — but one can’t consider fusion without Miles Davis, the man who gave the style his imprimatur with both the audiences and the musicians. Pick a track from either — or pick excellent “Right Off” from Jack Johnson (which has no larger cultural footprint) or the later ’81 “Jean Pierre” which has entered the common practice rep. However, having made my list, I think the era really is ’69-’78. (Some would mention the earlier Filles de Kilimanjaro here as well.)

For Tony, the specialists (ok, it was just one specialist I trust, Vinnie Sperrazza, and a few people I don’t know on Twitter) gave me “Fred,” with another key fusion musician, Allan Holdsworth, who also wrote the track. It’s great, right in there (1975), and if you go to YouTube you can see 135 commenters losing their minds over the GUITAR and the DRUMS.

There were big hits that were not nerdy or aspirational, like “Breezin” and “Mr. Magic,” other things by Donald Byrd, Jeff Lorber, Stanley Clarke, Bob James, etc., and one can certainly stretch to Spyro Gyra and the Yellowjackets in one direction and Herbie Mann, the Crusaders, and Gary Burton in the other.

But I like my list, it feels right. Indeed, this is the definitive listing. No other list is necessary. (LOL!)

Related DTM: 10 gateway tracks to modern jazz.