Fusion has been denigrated ever since its late-'60s birth—usually by people who've heard little of it. The genre often provokes knee-jerk revulsion, accusations of wankery, or, worse, yawns. The early March appearances in Seattle by two fusion legends—keyboardist Herbie Hancock on March 1 and drummer Billy Cobham March 8 through 11—provide an opportunity to inform haters why their brains are clogged with excrement.
The major players of this combustible commingling of freewheeling jazz and Mensa-level rock and funk—Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Jeff Beck, Tony Williams Lifetime, Larry Coryell, etc.—used to sell hundreds of thousands of LPs on major labels and, at their commercial peak during the first half of the '70s, could pack hockey arenas. It was boom times for people who dug complex, mercurial, and transcendentally beautiful music that took you on journeys to places most music never dared. It's music requiring ostentatious imaginations and phenomenal chops to execute. America was operating at peak open-mindedness. Purists despised this flamboyantly exciting stuff, but such traditionalists failed to realize that mixing elements of various genres often fosters innovation. Sadly, as with most radical styles, inspiration waned and even the titans began to sound flaccid.
Detractors denounce fusion as music for eggheads and middle-aged men who get a rush from identifying rhythms in 17/8 time. That's partially true, but it's not the whole story. Some fusion is sexy, albeit not in the manner to which most are accustomed. Feast your ears on Billy Cobham's Spectrum, Miles Davis's On the Corner, Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, Julian Priester's Love, Love, or Weather Report's Sweetnighter, and get ready to get down and dirty.
Fusion has other assets, too. Play Return to Forever's bombastic, Nietzschean Romantic Warrior and feel powerful urges to overthrow small nations. Drop the needle on Herbie Hancock's Sextant and you're ready to traverse the jungles of Jupiter (at least that's what it felt like during my last acid trip). And have you heard the title track to Cobham's Inner Conflicts, the rare late-'70s fusion album that didn't succumb to disco cheesiness or yacht-rock smoothness? It's a polyrhythmic synth odyssey that makes you feel as if you're being devoured by the beast in Alien. And who doesn't want to experience that?
Granted, it would be unrealistic now to expect Hancock and Cobham to rise to the glories of their fusion zeniths 45 years ago. As with Olympic athletes, whom they resemble with their superhuman skills, few fusionists can maintain that level of optimal dexterity and limberness. Nevertheless, Herbie and Billy are rare survivors from that era of insane virtuosity. It would be foolish not to glimpse what they're up to now.
Hancock's wildly diverse career and hunger for advancements both technical and technological mean he's loath to rest on his laurels. Cobham's touring band, Crosswinds Project, plan to resurrect the roiling, Latinate thunder of his 1974 opus, Crosswinds. If we're lucky, this premise will yield the same thrills Cobham's former bandmate John McLaughlin summoned at the Moore Theatre last year with his Mahavishnu Orchestra material.