Pat Bythe – All That Jazz Part VI

This is going to be a long one…….

For the early students of jazz, there were no books or educational courses. The best a young musician had was listening to the music live, following by recordings. You couldn’t take a live performance home, and recordings could be scarce, or simply out of reach financially. As jazz grew in popularity throughout the decades, more and more recordings made this rapidly changing genre more available and attainable.

My purpose of this series was twofold; to give the reader a high level overview of jazz…..its origins, history and the many forks in the road, and to share the music. There have been countless books, articles, theses, dissertations and documentaries about jazz over the years; there are even university and college courses about jazz. The music answered to, and was a reflection of, the times. Each decade brought change and transformations to the sounds, notes and nuances of jazz…..instrumentally and vocally. Sometimes it was just a small adjustment, other times it became a whole new language.  No other style of music has both tolerated and embraced such freedom and creativity.

Considered the “definitive” history on jazz music, Ken Burns produced a 10-part series calling jazz “the quintessential American art form.” Containing 75 interviews, more than 500 pieces of music, 4,400 still photos and archival film clips, Jazz took six years to complete. The series was not only about the music, but about the people. However, it seemed to stop at the 1970s, glossing over the fusion “era”, how rock and jazz influenced and intertwined with each other, creating something so unique and enormous, it inspires and impacts musicians up to the present time.  I’m going to attempt to address some of that in this piece.

Bitches Brew

The Penguin Guide to Jazz called Bitches Brew “one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form. It is also profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”

In 1970, Miles Davis released his 27th studio album, an album that would redefine the world of jazz…..Bitches Brew. Although many of the songs were released in 1969, the official release date of Bitches Brew is March 30, 1970. Considered the progenitor of jazz rock, Bitches Brew continues to influence musicians well into the 21st century. It was Davis’ first gold album and it won a Grammy for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. That ensemble included some of the fusion’s greatest musicians – guitarist John McLaughlin; drummers Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Lenny White; saxophonist Wayne Shorter; bassists Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks; Larry Young, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on electric piano, and of course Miles Davis on trumpet.

According to a 2020 article in The Guardian celebrating the 50th anniversary of the album, guitarist John McLaughlin described Bitches Brew as “Picasso in sound”. Stanley Nelson, who directed a documentary on Davis calls Bitches Brews “an all-out assault”. Quincy Troupe, Davis’ biographer, refers to the album as “a cultural breakthrough: it sounded like the future.” The new music would be called “fusion”.

Music of the 1970s continued to shift and change like the sands of the desert. The Vietnam War was still on, rock was still “a thing”, the post-civil rights era had begun, jazz musicians were returning from Europe with new sounds, and a number of musicians who had performed on Bitches Brew were branching out, experimenting and forming their own bands. One young musician, John McLaughlin, had only been in New York for 48 hours before Davis scooped him up. Miles had no knowledge of McLaughlin, nor had he heard McLaughlin’s debut album. He was hired solely on the basis that Tony Williams had brought him over from Europe to perform with his new band The Tony Williams Lifetime. Davis got to McLaughlin first and they immediately set to work recording In a Silent Way.  Now in the studio with his hero, “nervous as anything and with sweat running off me”, and with only cryptic instructions from Davis, McLaughlin refers to it as his “baptism by fire”.  

The provocative cover art of Bitches Brew, along with the ear-catching title, certainly appealed to the psychedelic, stoned-out rockers of the 70s. Carlos Santana was so enamoured of the Bitches cover, he used the same German artist, Mati Klarwein, to create the cover for Abraxas. Bitches proved to be a seminal moment in many musicians’ lives, giving birth to three of the greatest fusion bands of the 70s. John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; Chick Corea founded Return to Forever; Weather Report featured Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul.

The “offspring” of Bitches Brew

Weather Report – Like the night star used to guide the ships of old, Bitches Brew became the lodestar of fusion and Weather Report was her firstborn. Co-founded by Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul in December 1970, Weather Report went on to enormous success with the release of two landmark albums: the more rock oriented album Black Market, in 1976, which introduced jazz’s most influential bass player Jaco Pastorius; and Heavy Weather in 1977, Weather Report’s most commercially successful and most popular album to date. Heavy Weather boasted the hit single Birdland, earning Pastorius a production credit while the song became a jazz world standard.

Weather Report – l-r – Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius, Alex Acuna, Wayne Shorter, Manolo Badrena

Shorter and Zawinul had known each other since 1959, performing together in Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. They went their separate ways for a number of years…..Zawinul with Cannonball Adderley and Shorter with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. During the 60s, both men were considered among the best composers in jazz. Both became part of Davis’s albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Shorter and Zawinul, along with Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous, all composers, formed the original core of the original Weather Report. The band never used a guitarist, although initially the position was offered to John McLaughlin.  Performing improvisational jazz with an experimental electronic leaning,  and adding elements of funk, rock, R&B and what Jazzwise Magazine calls “electronic abstractions and pan-global exotica” …this was the essence of Weather Report.

Mahavishnu Orchestra – No moss grew under McLaughlin’s feet. Forming Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, McLaughlin had already been part of Miles Davis’ band, Tony Williams Lifetime, and released three solo albums. Mahavishnu’s first lineup included Billy Cobham, whom McLaughlin had played with on the Bitches Brew track Fieo, keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman (Jean-Luc Ponty was unavailable at the time) and bassist Rick Laird. With a one-week rehearsal under their belt, the newly christened Mahavishnu Orchestra (maha meaning “great” in Sanskrit and vishnu after the Hindu deity “Vishnu”), debuted at the Greenwich Village nightclub, Café Au Go Go, opening for John Lee Hooker. With obvious undertones of Indian classical music, the band’s sound was characterized by “electric rock, funk, and complex time signatures.”  Not long afterwards, the band had a record deal with Columbia Records. The Inner Mounting Flame was released in November, 1971 followed by the band’s statement album in 1973…..Birds of Fire.

After the band’s breakup in Dec. of 1973, there followed two more incarnations…..1974-1976 and 1984-1987. After Mahavishnu, Cobham began a solo career, which still continues to this day. Hammer collaborated with Jeff Beck on the album Wired, released several solo albums with his band, and composed the theme and incidental music for the 1980s TV show Miami Vice. Together Hammer and Goodman recorded the album Like Children. Goodman also recorded three solo albums, and toured with his own band, as well as with the Dixie Dregs. Laird played with Stan Getz and Chick Corea, and released one solo LP, Soft Focus. Laird retired from the music business in 1982 and passed away at the age of 80 in 2021. McLaughlin still performs with his band, The Fourth Dimension, with concerts booked well into 2023.

Return to Forever – Founded in 1972 by keyboardist Chick Corea, the group’s name was also the name of the first tune Corea wrote for the band. The original members were singer/percussionist Flora Purim, Purim’s husband Airto Moreira on drums, Joe Farrell on sax and flute, and a very young Stanley Clarke on bass. The new band made their debut performance at the Village Vanguard nightclub in New York City in November, 1971. Performing primarily Latin-oriented music, their self-titled debut album, was released in 1972, but only in Europe. It featured Corea’s now famous compositions Crystal Silence and Le Fiesta.  The album was followed by Light as a Feather in 1973. Shortly after this, Airto, Clarke, Corea and Tony Williams became the band for Stan Getz’s album Captain Marvel (1972).

Return to Forever – l-r – Stanley Clark, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Lenny White

Leaving their Latin sound behind, by the time the third album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy was recorded in 1973, (Farrell, Purim and Moreira had left) Return to Forever had turned to jazz-rock, similar to Mahavishnu and Weather Report. Always evolving, adding new instruments and new sounds, Return to Forever recorded their last studio album in 1976. Romantic Warrior was to be their “swan song” and bestselling album, eventually reaching gold record status. The group was officially disbanded by Corea in 1977. Corea rounded up the troops for a couple of reunion tours and a live album entitled Forever.

In 1986 he began the Elektric Band, which had huge success, recording six studio albums and touring extensively. Corea passed away in February, 2021.

Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever – the three points of the triangle that unleashed the world of fusion, unveiling a whole new genre of music.

Special note: The Tony Williams Lifetime

Formed as a power trio in 1969, The Tony Williams Lifetime band included jazz drummer Tony Williams, guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Bassist Jack Bruce (Cream) joined for live dates and the second album. The inaugural album Emergency! was released in 1969. Deemed excessively loud with too much rock influence, it was overlooked in the world of jazz. It’s now considered one of the forerunners of fusion. McLaughlin departed and by the time the fourth album, Bum’s Rush was recorded in 1973, the original formation had changed completely.

While McLaughlin was with Lifetime, his composition One Word, was released as a single. It was a piece McLaughlin would later include on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire album, to huge success. In 1975, Lifetime’s new lineup included British jazz fusion guitarist and composer Allan Holdsworth, whose legacy and influence have been cited by guitarists Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Alex Lifeson and so many others. Tony Williams was referred to as the best drummer in the world by more than one critic. His band’s sound was considered the cutting edge of fusion. Lots of distortion, unpredictable drumming and rather eccentric lyrics were the hallmarks of Williams’ project. Unfortunately, Williams passed away quite suddenly at the young age of 51. If Bitches Brew was the mother of fusion, the world lost its granddaddy in Tony Williams.

One Word – Tony Williams Lifetime

Vital Transformation – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy – Return to Forever

Black Market – Weather Report

Proto Cosmos – The New Tony Williams Lifetime

Enigmatic Ocean Part II – Jean-Luc Ponty

Actual Proof  – Herbie Hancock – Thrust

Joyous Lake – Pat Martino

In closing

First – many, many thanks to Paul DeLong for his invaluable help with this particular column. His passion for fusion, as well as his knowledge of its history, has provided a touchstone of sanity and lessened the confusion somewhat….at least for me. Paul has also carefully selected the music choices in today’s column for your listening pleasure.  His fusion band ONE WORD will be performing at The Rex April 10 & 11. To hear this wonderful music live, performed by award-winning artists (Victoria Yeh/violin, Marco Luciani/keys, Steve Lucas/bass, Michael Murray/guitar and of course Paul DeLong/drums), take some time and head to The Rex.

I know there’s so much more; I’ve barely touched on the highlights. Right now I’m having trouble keeping all the players names straight, along with the chronology and who did what with whom, when, and for how long. It was almost incestuous… many musicians performing or recording with more than one band at the same time; coming together and falling apart, new formations and re-formations, time after time.

The following is a quote from Ken Burns which I think sums up the birth, growth and music of jazz beautifully.

“Jazz has offered a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen — it is a curious and unusually objective witness to the 20th Century. It is the story of two world wars and a devastating Depression — the soundtrack that helped Americans get through the worst of times. Jazz is about sex, the way men and women talk to each other, and negotiate the complicated rituals of courtship; a sophisticated and elegant mating call that has all but disappeared from popular music in recent times. It is about drugs and the terrible cost of addiction and the high price of creativity. It is about the growth and explosion of radio and the soul of great American cities — New Orleans (where the music was born), Chicago, Kansas City and New York (where it grew up). It is about immigration and assimilation and feeling dispossessed — and the music that came to the rescue. It is about movement and dance and showing your behind. It’s about entertainment — the frequently dismissed but sacred communion between artist and audience. It’s about solitude and loneliness and the nearly unbearable burden of consciousness. It’s about suffering and celebration — it’s hugely about celebration — and tapping your feet.

Looking back…..

And Jazz is also a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynchings and civil rights. Jazz explores the uniquely American paradox that our greatest art form was created by those who have had the peculiar experience of being unfree in our supposedly free land. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in the unfolding drama and parade we call American history.”

 Nope….it doesn’t look like I’m finished with jazz quite yet.



Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.


“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto.


Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance.

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