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Buyer’s Guide: Jazz Rock

It can be a minefield for the uninitiated, but persevere and tread carefully and it can blow your mind rather than your cool. Here's Classic Rock's 2005 guide to the genre

Let’s begin with a warning: jazz rock can be terrifying and it isn’t for everyone. But you can take comfort from the fact that it alienates and angers as many ‘proper’ jazz ‘buffs’ as it does rock fans. If you think Dylan going electric was a big deal, you should have heard the hissy fits from the hep cats when Miles Davis went on stage in the mid-60s and started playing along with a bunch of crazy muthas with Afros who fed their instruments through wah-wah pedals.

Jazz rock, or fusion, was the last gasp of jazz, the final surge of energy and creative power before lapsing into the hideous heritage industry that it has become today. Jazz rock is pretty hard to define. For bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra it involved hard rock structures but with complex, improvisational elements.

Rock and jazz have a few ancestors in common – the blues, even ragtime – but it wasn’t until the mid-60s that the two converged in what came to be known as jazz rock/fusion. Bands like The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and The Doors cited jazzers such as John Coltrane as major influences (listen to The Doors’ Light My Fire back to back with Coltrane’s Ole), although jazz fans and musicians tended to regard most rock as inferior.

By 1967, rock had become more creative, and for the first time jazz artists began to take influences from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, The Beatles and Sly & The Family Stone. There were also commercial considerations: jazz had waned as the dominant form of popular music.

It was a two-way street: rock artists like Jeff Beck, Ginger Baker and the late Tommy Bolin wanted to stretch themselves as musicians, and acceptance by the jazz fraternity was like passing the cycling proficiency test. Had he lived, there’s little doubt that Hendrix would have followed the logical course set by his Band Of Gypsies and become a jazz-rock star.

From roughly 1967 until the mid-80s, the intermarriage of jazz and rock produced some of the most stunning, original and mesmerising music of the 20th century (to be fair, it also produced more than its fair share of unlistenable toss). Much of what we know as progressive rock – Yes, ELP, post-Red King Crimson – was essentially jazz rock lite. Today we can still hear the influence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis in bands as diverse as Tool, Mastodon and The Mars Volta.

Don’t fear the jazzer, dive right in.

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