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By the end of the ’60s, the collision of jazz and electricity was inevitable. And not—as popular belief would have it—solely because of Miles Davis and his intrepid sidemen. Sure, there was Bitches Brew, commonly regarded as the premier jazz fusion album. But there was also Nucleus. The British sextet got together in 1969—before anyone had a chance to hear the wheezy-voiced trumpeter’s rock-centric concoction. Which is not to say that Nucleus got there first; it just got there without Miles’ recipe book. Led by trumpet and fluegelhorn player (and soon-to-be jazz biographer) Ian Carr, Nucleus arrived at a populist brand of electric jazz that owed more to hard bop and classical minimalism than to the Hendrixian guitar rage informing the music of Miles and such post-Miles bands as Tony Williams’ Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Return to Forever. Consider “Song for the Bearded Lady,” which opens the circa-’71 two-disc Live in Bremen: Carr, saxophonist-flautist Brian Smith, and oboist Karl Jenkins (who would soon join Soft Machine) float slow, airy melodies gracefully over the rhythm section’s greasy street-funk loops. It sounds a bit dated, sure, but it was years ahead of the curve at the time. And “Dortmund Backtrack,” from Disc 2, flat-out predicts Weather Report’s ultimate destination, dovetailing chicken-scratch soul and snake-charmer brass riffs. But just so we don’t forget that these are British blokes with plenty of facial hair, Nucleus also offers some pipe-smoking, chin-stroking Euro abstraction: On “Snakehips Dream,” Carr & Co. present themselves as free-jazzers, letting it rip (albeit politely and a bit sloppily) with amorphous percussion, skritchy electric guitar, and brittle sax. While the worst of their contemporaries were guilty of buying into the idea of fusion as a genre, the members of Nucleus seemed to be looking ahead to a future with fewer stylistic boundaries.

—Brent Burton