It's generally regarded as the dirty little secret, the memento best kept hidden beneath the bed and never discussed.
Fusion -- the accepted whittled-down descriptive for the term jazz-rock-fusion -- has been a controversial element of popular music and jazz alike since it first started rearing its head in the later 1960s. "True" jazz fans found it abhorrent, a "dumbing down" of the harmonically dense and improvisationally challenging music they so adored. "Rock" fans, at least some of them, found it too busy, a distraction from the supposedly street-level, authentic song format of pop and rock 'n' roll.
The marriage of the two forms, then, might be understood to have pleased neither jazz nor rock fans in its desire to bridge the gap between the two idioms. To make matters worse, by the mid-70s, the once bold and groundbreaking sound was beginning to devolve into "smooth jazz" and "lite jazz," as it largely stopped looking to rock for its influence, instead embracing pop and dance music tropes. The result of most of this was a watered-down form of muzak -- jazz for people who don't really like jazz.
It seemed that things would stay this way. The success of people like Kenny G didn't help matters for anyone believing that jazz and popular music might still forge a lasting and meaningful union. And many jazz radio stations had, by the mid-'90s, turned their back on vibrant, challenging new artists and begun to incorporate some of this smooth jazz into their playlists.
And yet, a whole new generation of musicians weaned on prime fusion (for general parameters, let's begin the prime period with Miles Davis' 1969 album "In A Silent Way" and conclude it with the last great Weather Report album, 1980's "Night Passage") had never swallowed the notion that this music was anything less than a necessary, eternally vibrant development in 20th century music, one still rich with possibility in the 21st century. For them, listening to Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead, Wayne Shorter and Santana, Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin, or John Coltrane and Parliament Funkadelic -- none of this seemed at all incongruous.
And so, gradually over the past decade, we've seen a new fusion movement emerge, one that acknowledges its debt to the past, while insisting that this form can and should exist in the eternal here and now. Helped along, perhaps, by the concurrent explosion of the jam-band scene, fusion has quietly become an accepted genre within the modern rubric. One might find a dude in an Umphrey's McGee shirt taking in a show by the reformed fusion supergroup Return To Forever, and not give the guy a second glance. Phish-heads might be as likely to crank Jean-Luc Ponty in the pre-show parking lot as they would indulge in "Lawn Boy" or "Rift."
One of the most striking examples of the visceral power and graceful strength evident in the best of this new fusion comes in the form of drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. A serious jazz player, Blackman Santana has also embraced rock, funk and jam stylings through her work with Lenny Kravitz, Buckethead and Bill Laswell, among many others. In 2010, she joined Santana for her first tour with the band; by that year's end, she and leader Carlos Santana were married.
All of this cross-pollinating musical activity made Blackman Santana pretty tough to ignore, but it was her own work as a bandleader that really sealed the deal. The "Another Lifetime" album found her paying tribute to the man many (present company included) hold to be the finest jazz drummer in history, the late Tony Williams. Williams is revered for his work with Miles Davis in the Second Great Quintet, but sadly, a much smaller group of people has acknowledged the equally impactful work he did after leaving Davis and forming Lifetime. With albums like "Emergency" and "Turn It Over," Lifetime -- Williams, guitarist John McLaughlin, organist Larry Young and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce -- brought the refinement and sophistication of jazz to bear on dense, heavy, high-decibel rock music. Lifetime paved the way for '70s bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, influenced artists as far flung as Jeff Beck and Herbie Hancock, and sadly, had almost as much trouble getting gigs as it did earning critical respect.
To put it plainly, Lifetime frightened people, principally because the music was incredibly demanding and at least a decade ahead of its time.
Blackman Santana, however, understood what she was hearing. The "Another Lifetime" project eventually led to the formation of "Spectrum Road," a new supergroup featuring Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid, Cream/Lifetime bassist Bruce, and Medeski Martin & Wood keyboardist John Medeski, and dedicated to the music Williams pioneered with Lifetime. Like "Another Lifetime," this new album is a mind-blower, a hybrid of delicacy and ferocity, and an ample showcase for Blackman Santana's ability to channel Williams' influence through her own decidedly individualized playing.
Recent releases from the likes of young artists like the Jazz Punks, the Mads Tolling Quartet, Turtle Island Quartet and Vital Information, as well as new efforts from older players like the refurbished Return To Forever, Stanley Clarke, Jeff Beck and Santana, suggest fusion is healthy, strong, vibrant and no longer a dirty word.
Blackman Santana posits this music's power in the real-time interplay between the musicians. "You want the music to grow and breathe, and you want to invite creativity from all the musicians," she writes on her web site. "As you're going along, you can change the color, the feel, the mood in different ways, or go off the chart and open it up to something new ... Improvisation like that is art in its highest form". Indeed it is.
Visit www.cindyblackmansantana.com for more information on "Another Lifetime" and "Spectrum Road."