WHEN MILES Davis launched his groundbreaking fusion of jazz and rock with the "Bitches Brew" album in 1969, one of the key musicians who made the fusion possible was British guitarist John McLaughlin. McLaughlin had the harmonic imagination of a seasoned jazz guitarist, but his tone was nothing like the airy hollow-body guitar sound of Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery; instead, his solid-body sound had the metallic bite and forceful attack of rock 'n' roll.
Davis's electric guitarists -- most notably McLaughlin and John Scofield -- have always maintained this balance between jazz notes and rock tone while other so-called fusion players have forgotten all about true improvisation. As a result, McLaughlin and Scofield have kept alive the flickering original dream of jazz-rock fusion: music with the freedom of jazz and the in-your-face power of rock 'n' roll.
Miles Davis "Amandla" (Columbia). Like its predecessors "Tutu" and "Siesta," this is as much a Marcus Miller album as a Miles Davis album, for Miller wrote six of the eight tracks, produced seven of them and played bass, keyboards, reeds and guitar. The album is decidated to Gil Evans, Davis's only other equal collaborator, and if Miller lacks Evans's harmonic sophistication, he does far more with rhythm than Evans ever did.
This is the most successful Miller/Davis project yet, because there's more room for Davis's tender, personal solo voice on the trumpet to express itself and because Miller has learned to do more with less. The final track is a tribute to the late bassist Jaco Pastorius, and the best tracks recall Weather Report's expert balance of jazz and rock.
Miles Davis "Aura" (Columbia). If "Amandla" represents the funk side of Davis's jazz-rock fusion, "Aura" brings forward the jazz side for the first time in years. Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg created this suite for Davis when the American jazzman came to Copenhagen to accept the Sonning Music Prize in 1984. They recorded the piece together there and then with a Danish jazz orchestra but it has just recently been released.
Mikkelborg used the European serial technique of composition to compose a theme based on the letters of Davis's name, but he used this catalytic device quite freely to create a moody soundscape that stimulated the two main soloists -- Davis and McLaughlin -- to some of their best work in years. There's a Scandinavian restraint that takes some getting used to, but the trumpet and guitar solos have a questing, personal quality that's irresistible.
The John McLaughlin Trio "Live at the Royal Festival Hall" (JMT/Polygram). McLaughlin is featured in a predominantly acoustic setting with his new trio on this live album recorded last November in London. Electric bassist Kai Eckhardt and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu sympathetically support the quiet, meditative mood of the leader's playing here. McLaughlin has publicly embraced Eastern religion in the past, and there's an undeniable spiritual quality to the music here. McLaughlin does turn to guitar synthesizer on "Mother Tongues" (one of his two open-ended 14-minute-plus excursions) but even that piece has a sense of patient discovery rather than reckless attack.
John Scofield "Time on My Hands" (Blue Note). Scofield has leaned toward the rock/funk side of the fusion equation on his recent albums, and with the help of the extraordinary drummer Dennis Chambers, he pumped new life into that sound. On this album, Scofield leans back in the other direction. The inspired rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette provides a supple, restless, even melodic bottom that encourages Scofield to play with more of a skipping rather than stomping gait. The guitarist responds by giving free rein to the bountiful harmonic imagination that has always enlivened even his funkiest recordings.
Haden has always brought the best out of Pat Metheny, and the bassist does the same with Scofield here; the guitar solos provide both eye-opening surprises and pure melodic pleasure. The biggest surprise on the album is little-known saxophonist Joe Lovano, who not only holds his own in this stellar company but actually dominates a few selections.
Bill Cosby and Friends "Where You Lay Your Head" (Verve). Scofield also appears on four of the five tracks on this album, which has to rank as the most unexpected jazz project of the year. Cosby has often made space for jazz musicians on his TV show and it's not surprising that he might host an album of jazz stars. What's astonishing, though, is that he passed over the obvious legends (the Dizzy Gillespies and Oscar Petersons) and the new mainstream (the Marsalis family) to pick musicians largely unknown outside the jazz community. Better yet, Cosby showed exquisite taste in his picks: Scofield, DeJohnette, saxophinists David Murray and Odean Pope, pianist Don Pullen and guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Cosby and his TV music director Stu Gardner co-wrote the five tunes and Cosby plays percussion on three of them, but they give their changing pool of musicians free hand to improvise on the sturdy themes and the players make the most of the opportunity.
Mike Stern "Jigsaw" (Atlantic Jazz). Stern was the guitarist that Scofield replaced in Davis's band, and Davis's old saxophonist Bob Berg and Scofield's old drummer Dennis Chambers are on hand to give this a very familiar feel. Stern is even more rock-oriented than Scofield or McLaughlin, and this album sometimes feels like "Joe Satriani Plays the Miles Davis Songbook." In fact, Stern wrote all seven pieces and they provide some meaty changes for his band to go to work on. Stern doesn't quite have the improvisatory imagination of McLaughlin and Scofield, but he's a good player and this is a worthy -- if unextraordinary -- addition to the post-Davis jazz-rock field.
John Abercrombie "Animato" (ECM). This American guitarist has never played with Davis, but he has played with Evans and DeJohnette and was obviously influenced by McLaughlin's pioneering jazz-rock. Unfortunately, this trio outing is not one of Abercrombie's better albums. Synthesizer player Vince Mendoza composed six of the eight tracks and most of them are so dreamily atmospheric as they ooze from one chord to another that Abercrombie and drummer Jon Christensen have little chance but to noodle around at the edges.