Rising to prominence in the 1960s, Jazz Fusion hit peak mainstream popularity in the 1970s, accounting for many of the most famous albums released in that period.
By definition a highly broad and flexible type of jazz, it has continued to be an important sub-genre in the music right through to the present day.
In this article we look back at 10 of the most influential and, arguably, best jazz fusion albums in history.
Jazz fusion is a broad term, and describes a genre that that combines jazz music with elements of other styles of music such as rock, funk and R&B.
It’s widely accepted to have been created in the late 1960’s and it’s origins are perhaps best summed up by legendary jazz fusion guitarist Larry Coryell: “We loved Miles, but we also loved the Rolling Stones.”
Sometimes labelled as Jazz-Rock, this music doesn’t just experiment with style, but also with instrumentation. Alongside more classic electric instruments such as keyboards and bass guitars, you can also hear more unusual sounds and effects coming from keytars, various synthesizers and custom-built percussion.
Picking just ten of the greatest jazz fusion albums and artists is a tricky task, with many more extraordinary musicians out there who could well have been included.
But that was our challenge and, with that in mind, here are ten of our absolute favourite Jazz Fusion albums of all time.
Larry Coryell – The Free Spirits: Out of Sight and Sound (1967)
Texan-born guitarist Larry Coryell is often credited as being one of the key early architects of jazz fusion music.
The evolution of his playing away from more traditional straight-ahead jazz stemmed from a desire to incorporate elements of the rock bands that he loved listening to, into his own music, Coryell once stating that ‘We loved Miles, but we also loved the Rolling Stones’.
Forming the band ‘The Free Spirits’ in New York in 1966, Coryell set about exploring these new sounds, gigging with the band in clubs around the city.
Out of Sight and Sound is the band’s only album, and features plenty of influences from outside of jazz.
Sitar can be heard extensively on the record, alongside freewheeling distorted guitars and complex chord progressions.
Perhaps one for those who are more fans of 60’s psychedelia than straight-ahead jazz, Coryell is a hugely important figure in the birth of jazz fusion.
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew (1969/70)
Inspired in the late 1960’s by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, and fuelled by the desire to always explore new artistic directions, Miles Davis is rightly credited as one of the most important figures in the birth of jazz fusion.
Two albums in particular, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew, released in quick succession offer sonically different examples of early jazz fusion, and demonstrate the melting pot of musicians that Davis worked with.
Many of these musicians would go on to further the jazz fusion idiom, and have hugely successful careers in their own right
In a Silent Way, released in 1969, is widely regarded as Davis’ first full-on jazz fusion album and marks the beginning of his electric period.
Bolstering his regular working band with the addition of Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin the album’s introspective and subtle qualities were captured and produced by Teo Macero, who had a huge influence on the sound and editing of the final record.
This demonstrated a departure from previous records, where Davis’ would excerpt more control over the creative process.
Bitches Brew, released in 1970 and featuring many of the musicians featured on this list (Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin) continued Davis’s experimentation with electric instruments, a key feature of In a Silent Way.
The distorted guitars, heavy-rock influenced arrangements and abrasive in-your-face playing mark Bitches Brew as one of the most important early examples of jazz-rock, and counter-act the understated peaceful qualities of In a Silent Way.
Donald Byrd – Black Byrd (1973)
Donald Byrd was primarily known in the 1950’s and 60’s as a hard bop trumpeter, recording both as a leader and sideman for Blue Note Records. By the late 1960’s he was shifting away from this style and pursuing an interest in African music, funk and R&B.
Byrd’s collaboration with producers Larry and Fonce Mizell, lead to the release of the iconic Black Byrd in 1973, a disc that remains to this day one of Blue Note’s best-selling records.
A joyous blend of funk, jazz and R&B, Byrd’s departure from hard bop success was not initially met kindly by critics, yet stands the test of time as one of his most important albums.
Throughout the 1970’s Byrd continued to explore different avenues of jazz fusion with the Mizell brothers, and formed the successful jazz-funk fusion group ‘The Blackbyrds’ out of students from his teaching cohort at Howard University.
Other seminal jazz-funk fusion records of Byrd’s to seek out include Places and Spaces (1976) and his final outing for Blue Note Caricatures (1977).
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1973)
Like Joe Zawinul, Hancock was another graduate of Miles Davis’ band, joining what came to be known as Davis’s Second Great Quintet in 1963.
Alongside masterworks such as E.S.P and Miles Smiles that Hancock recorded with Davis’s band, he also found the time to record extensively for the Blue Note record label throughout the 1960’s, and can be heard on dozens of records both as a sideman and a leader.
He formed the Headhunters in 1973, and achieved huge success with the release of their first record Head Hunters in the same year, selling over a million copies.
Featuring Hancock extensively on various synthesizers, and fusing elements of funk, groove and R&B, Head Hunters proved to be a departure from Hancock’s previous records, with the focus being on a deep, earthy sound that resonated with the public, appealing to a wider audience than previous jazz records of his had.
Billy Cobham – Spectrum (1973)
Known for his work with both Miles Davis (featuring on Tribute to Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew amongst others) as well as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, many regard Billy Cobham to be the most prolific jazz fusion drummer of all time.
Possessing a flawless technique, and ferocious intensity, Cobham fused the complex rhythms of jazz with the raw aggression and attitude of rock and roll.
A key influence on countless drummers to come (Phil Collins when speaking of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame stated that “Billy Cobham played some of the finest drumming I’ve ever heard”), Cobham’s output as a bandleader is of equal value.
Spectrum, Cobham’s debut record as a leader, drew inspiration from his time spent in both Miles Davis’s band, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Viewed by many drummers as the benchmark for fusion drumming, the record features a contrasting mix of fiery rock grooves and luscious psychedelic passages, alongside more conventional jazz improvising.
John McLaughlin – Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire (1973)
English guitarist and composer John McLaughlin is a pioneering figure in the birth of jazz fusion and once again another alumnus of Miles Davis’s band.
Featured heavily on some of Miles’ most important jazz fusion albums, such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, McLaughlin would eventually leave the band, and in the 1970’s go on to form the hugely influential Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Whilst the records with Davis had primarily drawn influence from heavy rock, the Mahavishnu Orchestra sought to fuse elements of electric jazz and rock, with Eastern and Southeast Asian influences.
Playing technically complex music and using scales from non- western harmony, The Mahavishnu Orchestra gave dynamic and intense live performances, blending genres and musical styles seamlessly.
Birds of Fire, the groups second album, was released in 1973 and features the band in its original line up.
It proved to be a major crossover hit, and is viewed by many as the band’s best record.
Full of energy, distorted guitars and blistering solos, Birds of Fire is a seminal record from a band that sought to push the envelope of fusion even further than it had previously been.
Wayne Shorter – Native Dancer (1974)
Like Herbie Hancock, saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter was a member of Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, as well as being a co-founder of the hugely successful fusion band Weather Report.
During his 15 year stint in Weather Report, Shorter would record several critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader, perhaps most notably Native Dancer, released in 1974.
Native Dancer offered listeners a new direction in jazz fusion.
With less of an emphasis on virtuosic improvisations and complex composition, Shorter’s collaboration with Brazilian composer and vocalist Milton Nascimento evokes images of tropical sunsets and swaying palm trees on a record full of subtle grooves, heavily influenced by traditional Brazilian music.
Shorter fused samba and funk to great success on this record, and it has been cited by current leading musicians such as Esperanza Spalding as a key influence.
Joe Zawinul – Weather Report: Heavy Weather (1977)
Austrian pianist and composer Joe Zawinul enjoyed long stints in both saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and trumpeter Miles Davis’ bands as a sideman, before co-founding the hugely successful jazz fusion group Weather Report with saxophonist and friend Wayne Shorter in 1970.
A pioneer in the use of electronic piano and synthesizers in jazz, Zawinul was keen to incorporate native music from around the world, as well as funk and R&B into their compositions, leading to a constantly evolving band sound.
Perhaps Weather Report’s most successful period came when electric bassist Jaco Pastorius joined the band in 1976.
A talented composer and virtuoso instrumentalist, Pastorius can be heard on the critically acclaimed 1977 album Heavy Weather.
Containing the band’s biggest hit ‘Birdland’, the record won the prestigious Downbeat album of the year award and achieved huge crossover success.
Chick Corea – Return To Forever: Romantic Warrior (1977)
Yet another member of Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960’s, and one of the most famous jazz pianists of his generation, Chick Corea is another hugely important figure in the birth of jazz fusion.
After developing the use of a ring modulator in tandem with his electric piano on the road with Davis’ band, Corea eventually left, first to form a free jazz group alongside bassist Dave Holland, and eventually to form the successful fusion group ‘Return to Forever’.
The band sought to draw upon classical, and Latin American folk music as key influences as well as heavy rock.
Romantic Warrior, Return to Forever’s sixth album recorded at the isolated Caribou Ranch in the remote Colorado countryside is deemed by many to be a jazz fusion classic.
A large scale and ambitious work, conjuring images of an imagined medieval landscape, the album features compositions from all its members and is well worth seeking out.
Pat Metheny – First Circle (1984)
Jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny achieved commercial success in the 1980’s with the incredibly popular Pat Metheny Group, winning 20 Grammy Awards and selling millions of records world-wide.
Often incorporating different styles into his own music, and a keen advocate of experimenting with technology, many of Metheny’s most popular recordings are important and noteworthy examples of jazz fusion.
First Circle, released by the Pat Metheny Group in 1984 saw the band joined by Argentinian percussionist Pedro Aznar, as well as featuring instruments that they had not previously used, such as the sitar, as they sought to expand the groups sonic landscape.
Shifting time signatures fused with joyful compositions and intertwining melodic improvisations.
The album proved to be one of the groups most popular releases, winning the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance.
Thanks for checking out our pick of 10 of the best jazz fusion albums of all time. Of course, there are many more we could have included, but hopefully you’ll agree these deserve some serious listening time!
If you’re looking for more, we’ve published more than 50 articles on all different style and areas of jazz music.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!