It may be the dirtiest word in modern music.
No, not disco. That went from revulsion to ironically hip to really hip in less than a decade.
Not prog. Yeah, it’s still an easy, knee-jerk target. But its defenders are legion, and its practitioners, new and old, continue to thrive.
Not jam. There are jam festivals, jam publications, jam music pretty much fuels the download concert recordings sites. Heck, there are jam band cruises.
Those have all been revived, renewed, revitalized and rehabilitated. But one, with roots in the same ‘60s-‘70s era that spawned those, remains largely a pariah. The offending word is… steel yourself:
It was also known, variably, as jazz-funk and jazz-rock, terms said almost with as much disdain.
“Fusion,” insists Joe Bonamassa, "is not a bad word."
Yup, that Joe Bonamassa. The one who since emerging as a pre-teen guitar prodigy in the late ‘80s (he opened for B.B. King as an 8-year-old) has been a star in the blues-rock scene, a guitarists’ guitarist and composer both on his prized solo albums, leading the band Black Country Communion (with drum scion Jason Bonham and former Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes) and collaborating with blues-rock singer Beth Hart. Along the way he’s earned respect from and formed bonds with some of the top names in the field, including Eric Clapton, who made a guest appearance on Bonamassa’s 2009 Live at the Royal Albert Hall concert video, which has become a popular staple on PBS and other television outlets.
This week, though, he’s marking the release of We Want Groove, the decidedly, defiantly fusiony debut album by Rock Candy Funk Party, a project in which he teams with four other musicians with some impressive credits:
Drummer Tal Bergman, who first convened this Party, has played with such stars as Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan and Rod Stewart, for whom he also served as associate producer of the huge hit It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook. Guitarist Ron DeJesus has a long and varied list of credits, including the Emotions, Tito Puente and Hugh Masakela, in addition to leading the band Planet Funk. Bassist Mike Merritt is seen regularly by millions as a mainstay in the Conan Basic Cable Band since 1993, as well as serving as an original member of the late Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band. And Brazilian keyboardist Renato Neto led the jazz band Straight Jacket, not to mention working with Sheila E., Diane Reeves and, from 2002 to 2011, as a member of Prince and the New Generation.
Together they are determined to launch a second, if belated, fusion wave.
Go easy on Bonamassa, though. He missed the first fusion wave, having been born just as it faded. This is the music which sprung from several experiments, most notably Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and furthered at first by musicians who played on those seminal sessions: John McLaughlin with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea with Return to Forever, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report in particular. Soon Jeff Beck found it a rich vein for a few albums, and from the jazz side we had variations from Deodato (adding a Brazilian current), Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (incorporating some New Orleans rhythms), the Crusaders and many others.
Still, it found its way into Bonamassa's consciousness and he became a fan. In private.
“It’s a kind of music I’ve always kept at home,” he says, acknowledging that many of his fans don’t really “get it.” “I always listened to [Mahavishnu Orchestra’s] Birds of Fire, I love the Billy Cobham record with Tommy Bolin on guitar [Spectrum]. I like stuff like Stuff, the group with drummer Steve Gadd, a criminally underrated band. We based our groove-based sound around that.”
And these guys are doing a great job with it, emphasizing the solid appeal and side-stepping the more indulgent excesses that undermined so much of the original wave. Both the album and in a record-release concert at the small Baked Potato club in Studio City, where the band formed, showcase a sound heavy on the funk and rock groundings, but with plenty of room for these sterling musicians to utilize their considerable chops. But never does musicianship come at the expense of musicality. The result is music that at times echoes both Beck’s ‘70s albums and, oh, the soul-funk of Average White Band or Tower of Power, while Neto’s keyboards in particular add elements of fellow Brazilian Deodato and, in the more subdued passages, the atmospheric side of Weather Report.
Bonamassa notes that in that heyday, these bands were highly popular, playing for huge crowds.
“Those guys were big rock stars,” he says. “Return to Forever, Al DiMeola the guitar player was a superstar.”
A little different than RCFP, which has done just a handful of shows since Bonamassa joined what had been an ongoing, Bergman-led jam session a couple of years ago, all at the Studio City club the Baked Potato.
“Which holds a whopping 80 people,” he says. “Sad that this kind of music doesn’t seem to have a huge place for it anymore. But doesn’t make it wrong to bring it back and update it.”
Not wrong at all, not in these capable hands. And update it they have. Arguably, fusion was its own worst enemy, the cause of its own demise as it frequently became bloated, more about showing off, more about chops than about any kind of real creativity or, dare we say, soul. It’s something Bonamassa has fought in the blues as well, having sat through way too many shows of “two verses talking about the woman who left you and then 20 minutes of soloing.”
This band was not about to follow those models. As the band evolved from mostly covers (funk-filled extended versions of nuggets ranging from the Spenser Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” to Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots” to organist Jimmy Smith’s soul-jazz classic “Root Down” — videos of RCFP doing all these and more in performance can be found on YouTube) to original material, the members put the focus on, well, focused writing and playing.
The future of RCFP? That’s a little less focused. At the Baked Potato show, Bonamassa joked with the audience that they should buy CDs and t-shirts to support this band because “none of us have other jobs.” The fact is, just getting together to make the album and do the occasional show is a challenge with all their other gigs. Bonamassa, for example, had this conversation while on his way to a studio to make a second album with Beth Hart, who after years of solid work is gaining new buzz for her showstopper version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” with Jeff Beck at the Kennedy Center Honors in tribute to Buddy Guy.
But the band is open to opportunities, should any materialize. There does seem to be a little momentum building for fusion’s renewal, at least from the end of the classic acts. Return to Forever did a very successful reunion tour not long ago and Billy Cobham is currently doing shows celebrating the 40th anniversary of Spectrum. RCFP could certainly be a draw at various jazz festivals, particularly in Europe and Japan where Bonamassa is a star. And there’s another genre that on one end overlaps here and could provide a lot of young, open ears to this music.
“I saw a jam band review site, they got the record and did a positive review,” he says. “First time anything I was involved with has been reviewed in the jam world!”
Fusion and jam? Uh-oh.