Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday 80s Flashback for October 22, 2010

[Jazz/Fusion] -- We're going in a slightly different direction with the Friday 80s Flashback this week. I want to take a look at how the 80s represent a pivotal decade not only for pop and rock music, but also for jazz. Remember, before rock n' roll gained popularity and took over the airwaves, jazz was considered popular music -- it was the "pop" music of three decades, the 20s through the 40s. During that time, a wide variety of genres and subgenres were spawned as jazz grew and evolved, often incorporating (or fusing) elements from other forms of entertainment together within a jazz structure. This was very evident in the 60s and 70s as elements of rock were combined with jazz improvisations to develop the genre known as jazz-rock fusion (or "jazz fusion" or just "fusion" for short). Rock rhythms, electric instruments, and loud amplification went from being snubbed by jazz traditionalists to forging a whole new musical idiom for jazz's greatest innovators. Now, we know that new technology and changing tastes in the 80s made stars of folks who could barely play instruments (think of Trio and Duran Duran), but what did it do for folks who were considered exceptional musicians?

Read and hear more after the jump.

Flashback #1
: What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Chicago? I mean the musical group, not the city where they formed in 1967. If you were a child of the 80s, Chicago likely makes you think of power ballads, soft rock, slow dances, and karaoke. While the Grammy-nominated Chicago 17 (1984) had all of those elements in full display, "Hard Habit to Break" also had a slight nod to the band's horn-driven, eclectic roots. In fact, the horn section's contribution to this tune, which rose to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, is the warmest, most organic moment on the whole album, as well as the rest of the band's career. As cheesy as this song might sound today, lyrically it is lovelorn, hand-wringing genius

Flashback #2
: Philadelphia-born keyboardist Jeff Lorber started playing piano in R&B groups, but developed a love of jazz while attending Berklee College of Music. Remember I mentioned this week's theme is Jazz/Fusion? Well, when Lorber launched his solo career in the early 80s, he took his R&B roots and married them to a heavily synthesized, funk-influenced direction. In 1984, his second solo album's title track, "In the Heat of the Night," proved to be quite popular -- in Japan (where it was even reissued 20 years after its initial release). Now, I'm not going to blame Jeff Lorber for the whole genre of smooth jazz, but records like this certainly drove the evolution, or devolution, of jazz fusion in this direction. Point of information: Many of Lorber's songs appear on The Weather Channel's compilation albums, The Weather Channel Presents: The Best of Smooth Jazz and The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz II. The flashbacks may not always be good, but they are always entertaining. Case in point:

Flashback #3
: Herbie Hancock is a true renaissance man of jazz. He started as a classically trained pianist. He was a member of Miles Davis' "second great quintet" (per Grove Music Online in an article accessed 2/19/2007). And he won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year for his tribute album River: The Joni Letters (2007). Now, between the Miles Davis gig and that Grammy nomination, Hancock was known as one of the first jazz musicians to truly embrace synthesizers and incorporate elements of funk. And he did it right. In 1983, he showed everyone just how far fusion could go with "Rockit." This track broke open the boundaries of what was possible in jazz fusion, and it might very well be the first popular single to feature scratching and other turntablist techniques. On a side note, to this day, the video remains one of the creepiest things I have ever seen on MTV. Still, I love this song.

Remember: Three shall be the recounting of Flashbacks, and the number of Flashbacks shall be three. If you didn't like this week's selections, there's always next week!

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