When the fusion of jazz and rock first burst upon the national consciousness with Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" in 1970, it seemed to promise a brave new musical world where the aggressive, metallic textures of rock 'n' roll guitar would be set loose within the greater rhythmic and harmonic flexibility of jazz.
Looking back, that promise now seems like a cruel joke. Instead of the best of both worlds, fusion music has most often given us the worst: the self-indulgence of free-jazz solos and the monotony of dance music. One need only listen to the noodling, numbing efforts of such fusion guitarists as Al Di Meola, George Benson, Larry Carlton, Bernard Wright, Steve Morse, Lee Ritenour and Hiram Bullock.
It would be convenient to write off fusion as a good idea that just doesn't work, but a handful of musicians keeps creating evidence that it can. Most prominent among these exceptions are guitarists Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin and John Scofield. They have raised the hopes not only of listeners but also of younger guitarists such as David Torn, Bill Frisell, Vernon Reid and Steve Tibbetts, who are now making their own successful fusion records.
Pat Metheny Group: 'Still Life (Talking)'
Metheny is tremendously popular because his music is filled with so much melody and emotion. Nonetheless, it remains far more substantial than that of Benson or Di Meola, because Metheny seeks out challenges rather than formulas. He was already an established star when he began collaborating with avant-garde masters Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden and with South American percussionists Nana Vasconcelos and Pedro Aznar.
The new album by the Pat Metheny Group, "Still Life (Talking)" (Geffen, GHS 24145), does not represent the band's most adventurous work, but it is Metheny's most accessible record since 1980's "American Garage." With its expansive melodies, Latin rhythms and synthesizer sound, it's bound to become a best seller.
When Argentina's brilliant prodigy Aznar joined the Metheny Group in 1983, he injected two important new elements into its sound: scat vocals and Third World percussion. Even though Aznar left the band last year, his contributions dominate "Still Life (Talking)." It took three people to replace him -- percussionist Armando Marcal and singers David Blamires and Mark Ledford -- but these newcomers are merely talented whereas Aznar was something very special indeed.
The scat vocals on the new album tend to be a bit too polished and predictable. More than once, Metheny's furious Latin-flavored guitar attack and the building cross-rhythms of Marcal and trap drummer Paul Wertico create a real tension in the music, only to have it go slack when the vocals come in.
Nonetheless, Metheny's melodic themes and variations are as memorable as ever, from the Horace Silver-like bop figure of "(It's Just Talk)" to the Brazilian romanticism of "So It May Secretly Begin." Whether sculpting organlike sounds on his guitar synthesizer or stringing together pinpoint eighth notes, Metheny has never sounded so relaxed and self-assured.
While most of the album is pleasurable, one number stands out far above the rest. "Last Train Home" is built around a luscious guitar synthesizer melody set against Lyle Mays' stark piano chords. As the rhythm builds patiently but relentlessly, the wordless tune communicates an irrepressible yearning for home as well as any Ray Charles vocal could.
Zakir Hussain: 'Making Music'
Like Metheny, England's McLaughlin has kept his guitar playing fresh by exploring diverse musical interests. McLaughlin, who performs at Blues Alley Thursday through Sunday, has played searing electric guitar with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, straight-ahead bop in the film " 'Round Midnight" and meditative Indian music with his group Shakti.
That latter interest has now paid remarkable musical dividends in Zakir Hussain's new album, "Making Music" (ECM,831 544-1). Hussain, the young Indian percussionist, is joined by the older Indian flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and McLaughlin. The result is not traditional Indian music but a transformation of the intoxicating textures and cyclical structures of India by the linear momentum and forceful individuality of northern Europe.
Hussain uses the tunable floor drums of South Asia to create highly melodic percussion patterns that almost sound as if they are bubbling up from under water. Chaurasia's coolly controlled, almost classical melodies are set against Garbarek's rougher, more impatient attack. McLaughlin's acoustic guitar, with its patient rhythms and spreading harmonies, creates the common ground that holds this album together.
David Torn: 'Cloud About Mercury'
This year's most impressive newcomer on the fusion scene is guitarist David Torn, whose second solo album, "Cloud About Mercury" (ECM, 831 108-1), has scored high on the jazz charts despite its ambitious, challenging nature. Torn's rhythm section of bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Bill Bruford comes intact from King Crimson, and Torn himself sounds like a cross between that rock quartet's guitarists.
He has mastered both the highly disciplined, tightly coiled patterns of Robert Fripp and the barnyard sound effects of Adrian Belew, but he uses them to create jazz explorations rather than rock statements. As his album's title and cover art imply, there's a sci-fi quality to this music, not only because of Torn's exotic fretboard effects but also because the compositions sound as if they're exploring alien landscapes, setting off unexpected radio waves, explosions and whistles in a very dense atmosphere.