We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Say the word “fusion” next to “jazz” and it conjures the image of a big-haired musician wearing a suit vest (sans T-shirt) and flared pants so tight his “package” would be delivered to an unfortunate audience should he pop a button. The ’70s weren’t kind to the revolution Miles Davis instigated in 1969 with Bitches Brew; despite the example of Davis’ dark voodoo hybrid of jazz, funk, and rock, fusion yielded to fuzak, and Love Boat anthems became the norm. Davis’ ’70s fusion had bite, a rare attribute in a decade of toothless music.
In 1996, technology and live jams are slowly being fused by musicians like saxophonists Steve Williamson and Courtney Pine, who are not content to rehash bebop and are unwilling to indulge in the vapidly commercial. Once, technology and live performance made a poor fit; now, thanks to dance music and hiphop, they go hand in glove—albeit a tight, new glove that hasn’t been broken in enough to give proper space to either live musicians or program-dependent technology. The coupling of jazz and electronics usually turns out either Weather Channel schmaltz or acid jazz, which contains very little acid and no jazz.
Acid jazz is hailed as a unique coupling of hiphop and jazz, but the genre involves merely laying hard-bop riffs and soul-jazz samples over simplistic drum patterns. The beat is far more stilted than the live groove of a breathing band; play Herbie Hancock’s 1973 funk-jazz classic Headhunters next to any acid “jazz” for proof. Truth is, jazzers can easily program hiphop beats and solo over the top—though attempts by Buckshot LeFonque and Jazzmatazz have been total dogs—while studio-centric acid jazzers couldn’t solo on the triangle. And the solo is where a true jazz musician traditionally makes his name.
Cornetist Graham Haynes is a skilled jazz musician who embraces technology to spur his improvisations and augment his arrangements. His is a truly balanced fusion in which neither the technology nor the musicians function auto-nomously. On his new album, Transition, Haynes creates acidic jazz in which the chemistry of the bandstand is ignited by technology’s electrical jolt.
Haynes began his career as a member of Steve Coleman’s
M-Base collective, whose members are famous (or infamous) for cooking up jazz and funk in a stew of strange time signatures. His M-Base experience enabled Haynes to develop his musical mind-set in a supportive setting before striking out on his own. His first two albums, while inchoate, hinted at a defiant talent his third record, The Griots Footsteps, disclosed. That 1994 album marked Haynes as the avatar of Miles Davis. The 26-minute, anodyne drone “Enlightenment” bears the distinct influence of Davis’ interpretation of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” from Circle in the Round. As in Davis’ piece, “Enlightenment”’s buzzing sitars and undulating African percussion offer spiritual succor. The whole record is a mix of dark polyrhythms, crepuscular keyboards, and Haynes’ own serene soloing. It could be considered “world beat” were that genre not so chirpy and insipid.
The Griots Footsteps was a perfect consolidation of the global rhythms Haynes used on his first two records, but Transition is just what its name indicates. He throws hiphop and rock into his world-funk brew, making both the backbeat and the groove intoxicatingly strong. Where Griots invokes the pastoral “Guinnevere,” Transition recalls the sexy cyberfunk of Davis’ classic On the Corner album. Transition has a distinctly urban edge, represented in its title track and the near-jungle techno of “Freestylin’,” as opposed to the more urbane nature of Griots.
Haynes begins the album with its Coltrane-penned namesake, in honor of a fellow explorer of new musical approaches. But other than in “Transition”’s theme, tersely stated by Vernon Reid’s hypomanic guitar, it is barely recognizable as a Coltrane number. “Transition” is steeped in ’90s city swagger, with hard hiphop beats and DJ scratching supporting Reid’s ferocious noodling. Several minutes into the song, Haynes finally comes in, but he sounds passive next to the former Living Colour ax-grinder. In fact, Haynes’ presence as a player is nearly hidden throughout much of Transition. But so was Davis’ through much of his electric period. In the ’70s, Davis’ playing was more understated than ever; he would often drop out of tracks for extended stretches, content to let his expertly picked sidemen interpret his ideas. What Haynes shares with Davis, the man to whom his second record was dedicated, is an innate ability to control the flow, attitude, and focus of a piece without being an extroverted player.
The Indian drone and modern psychedelia that informs such tracks as “Walidiya” and “South Node” are continuations of ideas from Griots Footsteps’ title song and its “R.H. (for Roy Haynes).” The latter song is dedicated to Haynes’ drummer father, whose own eclecticism led him to work with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Davis, as well as his own jazz-rock unit, Hip Ensemble. In 1968, the elder Haynes had a gig with Monk at the Fillmore East, which his young son attended. Despite the presence of a jazz band, the venue retained its psychedelic lighting and fuzzy ambience during the Monk concert. As the younger Haynes watched Monk perform his trademark solipsistic dancing while his band soloed, a projected image of Superman whizzed across the stage; the future cornet player remembers it being entirely reasonable. Perhaps inspired by Monk’s hanging out with Superman, disparate elements converge on Transition, plausibly fitting together to form a cohesive album. An off-kilter, circus-funk workout like “Mars Triangle Jupiter” slides easily into the lyrical bliss of the free-floating ballad “Harmonic Convergence.” Haynes deftly manipulates dynamics without falling prey to coarse, jarring effects. Featuring tremoloed guitar, murky synths, and Haynes’ most confident playing, “Harmonic Convergence” conjures the sound of the ocean floor moving slowly to the surface. The song’s vast spaces and quiet arrangement provide Haynes a completely open canvas. His melodic lines are short and colorful, soft and assured, again bringing Davis to mind.
Over his four albums, Haynes has mastered the modal hypnosis featured on “Harmonic Convergence,” “South Node of the Moon in Pisces,” and “Walidiya.” But he’s still working on getting the upbeat numbers to truly swing. “Transition,” “Freestylin’,” and the loping funk of “Facing the East” are the album’s most forceful tracks, but they are slightly restrained by their acceptance of technology into their free-funk frameworks. No one has, and possibly no one will, match the sinister majesty of the Prince of Darkness’ electric power jams, but give Haynes props for trying. It will be generations before Davis’ jazz-rock is recognized for being the prescient work it is, though a new generation of progressive musicians, post-rockers, and technocrats are listening for Davis’ ghost and interpreting what they hear. Among them, Graham Haynes, a bright Magus, is channeling Davis’ indefatigable spirit—and coming remarkably close to capturing it for his own.CP