Jump to content


Please note: You can easily log in to MPN using your Facebook account!

jazz-rock fusion vs smooth jazz: is there a clear distinction?


Eric VB

Recommended Posts

From Dave Sisk's jazz-rock fusion thread.

 

Smooth jazz came around in the '80s and has its roots in '70s jazz-rock fusion, but is more commercial (pop) to fit the "soft rock" format/market. The controversy isn't so much that this is "lite fusion" as much as it abandons the mainstays of jazz, notably improvisation, for commercial success.

So some of my jazz-rock fusion collection might be considered smooth jazz. Is that so bad, really? Would it be a crime to find a Carpenters album mixed in with a classic rock collection? No, that's just a matter of personal taste. But to hold up Karen Carpenter as an example of classic rock might be questionable. That's the only reason I brought up smooth jazz in this thread about jazz-rock fusion.

Wouldn't mind hearing Phil W's (and others) thoughts on the line between jazz-rock fusion and smooth jazz. It's pretty clear that someone like Return to Forever leans more towards jazz than, say, Yellowjackets, but does that make Yellowjackets fall into the smooth jazz category by default? Or is it because they started releasing in the '80s? A quick google shows many place Yellowjackets in the "jazz" genre, with a "style" of "contemporary jazz, crossover jazz, jazz-pop, smooth jazz" (allofmp3.com).

Link to comment
Share on other sites



  • Replies 41
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Yes, there has been some amazing jazz-rock fusion (Bitches Brew, Weather Report, Mahavishnu etc) whilst most smooth jazz seems utterly annodyne and souless. Although smooth jazz is jazz from the perspective of chord changes/substitutions and the resulting melodies, it seems totally opposed to the very essence of jazz in all other respects.

 

The '80s also has a lot to answer for...

 

Alex

 

P.S. Not that I'm prejudiced... ;)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You haven't listened to the Yellowjackets lately. What they are playing these days can hardly be called smooth jazz anymore.

 

It's very simple...look at the playlist of a smooth jazz radio station. There is no jazz fusion played on those stations.

 

And if you can't imagine the music being played as background music in a cafe, then it is fusion.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jeremy thought exactly like me. Cafe music.

 

To me, smooth jazz is music being performed by excellent musicians in studio for the precise purpose of being ignored.

 

Fusion jazz, like all jazz, is less safe than that. Those musicians are risk-takers, trying to create something new. There is nothing safe about "Bitches Brew."

 

Smooth jazz is designed so the musically illiterate can pretend that they are well informed and hip.

 

To me, it sounds exactly like Dudley Moore's apartment looks in "Foul Play."

"Let's raise the level of this conversation" -- Jeremy Cohen, in the Picasso Thread.

 

Still spendin' that political capital far faster than I can earn it...stretched way out on a limb here and looking for a better interest rate.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Listen to "The Big Wave" by Tribal Tech. It's on the Illicit cd.

 

It shows the difference very clearly...and guaranteed that Tribal Tech would never be played on a radio station with the wave format (a code word for smooth jazz).

 

I always find it amusing when I play this track for people.

 

(If you listen to the sample on Amazon, you won't hear the intro which has the joke in it).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by C. Alexander Claber:

Yes, there has been some amazing jazz-rock fusion (Bitches Brew, Weather Report, Mahavishnu etc) whilst most smooth jazz seems utterly annodyne and souless. Although smooth jazz is jazz from the perspective of chord changes/substitutions and the resulting melodies, it seems totally opposed to the very essence of jazz in all other respects.

 

The '80s also has a lot to answer for...

 

Alex

 

P.S. Not that I'm prejudiced... ;)

+1

 

No comparison between these genres..

 

Fusion has that very hard edge that blows me away--Snooze Jazz has... zzzz :bor:

(just kidding, kinda..)

Steve Force,

Durham, North Carolina

--------

My Professional Websites

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here is my simplistic, back-woods take on it.

 

Smooth Jazz

http://i77.photobucket.com/albums/j65/bottomgottem/433564_kennyg_200x200.jpg

 

Jazz Fusion

http://i77.photobucket.com/albums/j65/bottomgottem/al.jpg

 

DiMeola may not be the best example of jazz/rock/fusion, but I really like that album.

My whole trick is to keep the tune well out in front. If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggle. ~Liberace
Link to comment
Share on other sites

+1 on Al Dimeola's first two albums...Early Al D. IS the best example of jazz-rock fusion.

 

It's a blurry line, but the way I draw the line between jazz-fusion and smooth jazz is by the drummer (or lack of one...) It seems much of the insipient smooth jazz that irks us all is done with really crappy drum loops that feature too much shaker. And the shaker is the cow bell of jazz. Lately I've been hearing more real drummers (or much better drum programming???) on the Time Warner Cable smooth jazz music channel; my ears more often perk up with the "who's that cat?" thing....(yup... the Mrs. and I put it on during dinner 'cause it's nice and soothing dinner music.) Could it be that with their recent commercial succes, smooth jazz artists now have a little more cash in their pocket and so can afford a little higher production? And why is it that Kenny G plays crappy stuff through the whole song, then turns it up right at the fade? (Retorical question; It's interesting that the cat can play his ass off but just chooses not to...still, I would give my eye teeth for his career and just a quarter of his talent and business sense. :)

Things are just the way they are, and they're only going to get worse.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If you recognize the song as an 80s tune being played as an instrumental, with a soprano sax carrying the melody, then it's smooth jazz.

 

I much prefer Stanley Clarke's word for it: fuzak.

"I had to have something, and it wasn't there. I couldn't go down the street and buy it, so I built it."

 

Les Paul

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Read Stuart Nicholson's book, Jazz Rock. He used that title specifically as the fusion word had been appropriated in some quarters by smooth jazz.

 

I don't agree about Al Di Meola. I always felt he was more about speed of technique than musical content.

 

Smooth jazz has its place and I've found time to enjoy some in the past: The Crusaders, maybe Bob James, the Jamaica Funk guy, Grover washington and many others. The problem (and the reason for all the antipathy) is that radio stations latch onto the smooth MOR sounds of smooth jazz and play that at the expense of other styles of electric jazz.

 

In some senses smooth-fusion developed as an extension of an electrified form of the soul jazz played by the Adderley quintet; Ramsey Lewis ands others. Sometimes it's just instrumental 'contermporary' rnb music with a reduced improvisatory quotient.

 

Back in the late 70s, jazz-funk was a popular sound and people like Roy Ayers and others enjoyed a lot of play in clubs. It was into this environment that the awful Kenny G emerged, on 12 inch singles like 'Fusion Juice' with the Jeff Lorber project. Later there was more of an MOR tinge to the products.

 

The difficulty is in defining where the borders come in anything as abstract as musical styles and also in Kenny G and his ilk calling their music Jazz.

 

Part one of my response (more to come)

If you have time, search the web for Pat Metheney's comments about Kenny G. Very accurate.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by Jode:

If you recognize the song as an 80s tune being played as an instrumental, with a soprano sax carrying the melody, then it's smooth jazz.

 

I much prefer Stanley Clarke's word for it: fuzak.

Well, without a doubt, sax seems to be the weapon of choice for smooth jazz.

 

I went through most of my record/tape collection last night; still missing a crate or two of records somewhere. (Where are my Crusaders lp's?!). Quite a bit from the '80s. I started listening to it with the Wikipedia definition of smooth jazz in mind:

 

Smooth jazz is generally described as a genre of music that utilizes instruments (and, at times, improvisation) traditionally associated with jazz and stylistic influences drawn from, among other sources, funk, pop and R&B. Since the late 1980s, it has become highly successful as a radio format; one can tune in to a "smooth jazz"-themed station nearly everywhere in the United States. Despite its apparently large following, there has been something of a backlash against the genre, mostly from jazz purists who consider its recordings bland and overly commercial. ref

 

First up was Four Corners by the Yellowjackets (1987). Some songs were purely smooth jazz, without a doubt; complete abscence of improv with Marc Russo providing sax lead melodies. (Kenny G would have been proud! ;) BTW, Russo is from Tower of Power in case you were wondering why his name sounds familiar.) Some songs did have improv solos, but in keeping with a rock/pop format these solos were often at or near the end of the song and were subservient to the recurring melodies, not unlike the guitar solos in rock songs of old. On side two (mmm... vinyl!) is "Postcards", which features a Jimmy Haslip bass solo. (BTW, Haslip is co-author on 6 of the 10 songs, and sole author on another.)

 

On the drive in to work today I listened to the first side (cassette) of Samurai Samba (Yellowjackets, 1985). (According to the price sticker on the case, I paid $1.99 for it. ;) ) The very first song has a Haslip solo, but again Russo is blowing mostly melodies on the sax. (For those keeping score at home, Haslip only co-authors 3 of the 8 songs this time.)

 

Ok, now for some real fusion to hear the difference. I put on my cassette (!) of Stanley Clarke's School Days (1976). The title track starts off rockin' enough, with Stanley's double-stop vamp and the little melody that pops up here (and later). But what sets this apart from my Yellowjackets recordings is the beautiful extended bass solos Stanley takes (and some wonderful dynamics throughout the song, I might add).

 

However, by the time I get to "The Dancer", am I starting to hear smooth jazz? On a Stanley Clarke recording from the '70s?! Probably the only thing that saves this song from being categorized as smooth jazz is the fact that it doesn't feature sax and isn't on the radio format play list. I'm a huge Stanley fan, but let's face it: "The Dancer" is nothing but sonic wallpaper.

 

Even Wikipedia points out that Pat Metheny -- Kenny G's #1 enemy -- is often classified as smooth jazz. :eek: And this is a guy that recorded with Ornette Coleman. It's definitely a slippery slope once you leave pure jazz and start fusing it with more popular music styles. Just how "jazzy" do you have to be to avoid the smooth jazz label? And that is what this thread is about.

 

Also, I did spin some Jean-Luc Ponty last night: first side (lp) of Fables (1985). The difference between this and the Yellowjackets I was listening to was pretty immediate, too. Most of the songs are vehicles for long Jean-Luc solos, although he likes to set them up with some simpler vamping and stuff in the beginnings. Then again, he's worked with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa, two more that are seated firmly on the fusion side of the fence.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I like the 'background music' definition posted earlier. It comes down to the perceived objective of the musicians in terms of the function of the music.

There's always a continuum: some very complex music like Birdland might sound like smooth jazz to someone from a rock background. Lee Ritenour was the smoothest of the smooth but he also playe don some very left-field recordings by Alphonso Johnson, Alphonse Mouzon and others.

Mind you Eric Gale, Ritenour and their crowd sound positively avany-garde compared to some of the 'wave' orientated fusion stuff out nowadays!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by Phil W:

There's always a continuum

Agreed. I don't think there are any hard and fast lines drawn in the sand. Except maybe whatever puts Steve (forceman) to sleep. ;)

 

When you start talking about perception and rockers, it reminds me that some rockers perceive prog rock as "jazz", too. :rolleyes:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by Phil W:

some very complex music like Birdland might sound like smooth jazz to someone from a rock background. Lee Ritenour was the smoothest of the smooth but he also playe don some very left-field recordings by Alphonso Johnson, Alphonse Mouzon and others.

Mind you Eric Gale, Ritenour and their crowd sound positively avany-garde compared to some of the 'wave' orientated fusion stuff out nowadays!

Good observations and analysis.

 

Along the lines of "Birdland" might be "Take Five". (Hmm ... that catchy melody has shades of "smooth" ... even though it came out in 1959! :D )

 

Ritenour was also a poster boy for the SynthAxe. :o (How come they never made a bass guitar version? ;) )

 

Things like Claude Bolling, "Suite for ____ and Jazz Piano". Those went over particularly well (not surprisingly) with friends of mine from a more classical music background. Yet it always seemed to me the Bolling suites were only considered "jazz" because that's what they sound like to people outside of jazz. It's been a while since I've played it -- have the score at home somewhere -- but I seem to remember it sounding much more like a classical piece with jazz-like embellishments, especially from a jazz point of view.

 

However, I much prefer to listen to the Bolling suites than to hear a classical ensemble try to play a jazz standard. It comes across as being more genuine to let the classical instrumentalist play in his/her normal style. I've heard some very poor Big Band unswing from symphonies!

 

 

We could start another thread called "What is jazz?", but that\'s already been done. ;)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There's been a lot of ragging on the Yellowjackets in this thread. You're talking about recording made ten years ago. Since N.Y. heavyweight jazz saxophonist Bob Mintzer joined the band, they are not playing too much smooth jazz.

 

Metheny (the enemy of Kenny G.) ironically has recorded plenty of stuff that could be called smooth jazz and is heard on smooth jazz stations regularly. Mostly he was p'o'd that Mr. G. added his sax playing to a Louis Armstrong recording...and that his music is placed in the jazz section of stores.

 

Kenny himself never says that he is a jazz player and I actually liked him on the original Jeff Lorber Fusion record and the first two Kenny G. records. His bassist, Vail Johnson, is a very intense player (and a funny guy, too).

 

Kenny lost me when he, a Jewish man, recorded a Christmas album. (Barbra Streisand did that too.) What about a Purim album, or one for Simchat Torah? I do gigs on those holidays and know a lot of appropriate songs that I could teach him.

 

Meanwhile, let's go back to our regularly scheduled bashing of smooth jazz.

 

Oh, yes, and I have played a Weather Report cd for a punk rock teenager who thought that "A Remark You Made" sounded like elevator music. I wonder what elevators he rides in...I don't think he rides in elevators...he uses other means to get high.

 

And of course we all know that some players put out commercial records so that they can make a little money to use on their non-commercial records...and then they get sucked into the money world.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I love jazz, smooth jazz, jazz fusion everthing except New Orleans jazz, but that's just me.

I think it is impossible to draw a line seperating one style from another. All of this music slowly graduates from one end to the other.

Rocky

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb, voting on what to eat for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote."

Benjamin Franklin

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by Phil W:

I don't agree about Al Di Meola. I always felt he was more about speed of technique than musical content.

The same can be said for Steve Morse, but that doesn't change the fact that he penned some astounding music.
My whole trick is to keep the tune well out in front. If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggle. ~Liberace
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I enjoy listening to Al sometimes. There's no doubting his better qualities. I was being deliberately difficult. I agreed with your comment and Elegant Gypsy is a fun record. I just wasn't sure I agreed with Paul K that early Al D. IS the best example of jazz-rock fusion; although it is typical of a lot.

Check out Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's wonderful 'Dance of Fire' too where Al plays beautifully. It's from 1995 and features Aziza on piano and vocals; Al on acoustic; Stanley Clarke alternating with Kai Eckhardt on bass (both are stunning; Omar Hakim on drums and Bill Evans on saxes. The music draws on Aziza's Azerbaijani background.

http://www.muziekwereld.com/rec-az682.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Vaguely more on topic ;)

I posted a link a while back to an online radio station that plays decididly un-smooth fusion such as Tribal Tech et al. This took a little finding as most stations playing fusion play the wave stuff.

 

http://www.fusiongroovin.com/

 

From the site:

 

"Are you sick of radio that insults your intelligence? That crams audience-engineered 3-minute songs and sounds into your ears because eventually, you will like it?

Are you tired of "smooth jazz" that has less to do with jazz and more with putting you to sleep?

 

Did you love the part of the concert where the singer stepped back and the band just grooved?

 

If you can relate to any of this, you have a lot of company"

 

I also have a few fusion stations on pandora.con which work well; offhand I can think of my stations built around Birds of Fire, Weather Report and Sly (the Headhunters version).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Originally posted by Phil W:

I just wasn't sure I agreed with Paul K that early Al D. IS the best example of jazz-rock fusion

[/img]

Well,I guess I am given to hyperbole whenever Anthony Jackson is involved. I just got excited!...

That being said, I can't think of anyone other than Eddie Van Halen who lit a bigger fire under guitar player's butts in that era. (yea, VH was a couple of years later, and not connected to jazz or smooth jazz.) And there were no endless loops of shaker being played on eithers efforts. The shaker is the root of all smooth jazz evil :)

Things are just the way they are, and they're only going to get worse.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many smooth jazz radio stations in the country are also Clear Channel stations. KKSF in SF is a prime example of the watered down pop vocal tunes they're calling smooth jazz. I listen to the smooth jazz channel on cable TV's Music Choice and hear some good music that won't get airplay on smooth jazz radio stations. Like all music styles it comes in "good" and "bad".

 

Wally

I have basses to play, places to be and good music to make!
Link to comment
Share on other sites

An interesting take is from interview I heard years ago by Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra. I can't find a link, but to paraphrase - they have to have a few "radio friendly" cuts per album, otherwise there won't be any more albums. This philosophy is most likely espoused by other contemporary jazz groups including Yellowjackets and may be the source of the confusion.

 

I have four groupings for contemporary jazz in my iTunes playlist - smooth jazz (radio), c-jazz(not-so-radio), fusion (earlier forms of c-jazz), and hard/post bop for the more authentic flair (think Josh Redman). Many groups fall into multiple categories, in fact may albums fall into multiple categories. I know for a fact that guys like Jay and Russ Ferrante (YJ's) talk all the time about how they don't think they're classifiable - yet it's something we naturally do as an audience.

 

I actually wrote a paper on this for music credit while back in college.

"Modern music is people who can't think signing artists who can't write songs to make records for people who can't hear."

-Frank Zappa

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The problem was (in the 90s) that the proliferation of smooth fuzak prevented some great musicians such as Mike Mainieri (sp?) from even getting record contracts. Nowadays, of course, nobody gets contracts and everybody has to follow Mike's lead and release the stuff themselves.

 

I still don't understand why Oz Noy doesn't have a major deal though!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Archived

This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

×
×
  • Create New...