Jazz: Fusion or confusion?

For some critics, the Seventies was the decade in which jazz died. But James Maycock argues that fusion jazz, as popularised by CTI Records, was unfairly criticised and may actually have given the genre the kiss of life.

Creed Taylor was extremely shrewd at marketing jazz to those who were nervous of the genre, particularly after the discordant shrieks made by John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp during their avant-garde experiments of the late 1960s. CTI Records, Creed Taylor's record company, was the perfect product of the early to mid-1970s, an era that distanced itself from the grubbiness of the hippies by embracing waterbeds, Sobrani Cocktail cigarettes, leather sofas and other contemporary symbols of sophistication. The idiosyncratic album covers created an immediate, visual identity for the company. Not only did the records have heavy gate- fold sleeves, but the glossy photo-graphs epitomised the epoch's desire to appear refined, as well as artistically sincere. The subject-matter of the photographs, which often included natural landscapes, was, in retrospect, more suited to the "new age" music of the 1990's than to jazz. Typical photographic imagery included tranquil dawns, African sculpture, and pensive, distant figures, often shot through a coloured lens. The music, too, was polished, and reflected Creed Taylor's determination to fuse jazz with more accessible elements like funk and Latin music, as well as with the pop music of the time.

This obsession with making jazz more palatable to a wary, suspicious public dominated Creed Taylor's career. When Norman Granz left Verve Records in the early 1960s, it was Creed Taylor who radically altered the output of that company which had previously concentrated exclusively on swing and bop. He popularised the language of jazz, combining traditional styles of the music with the contemporary innovations in Latin, Brazilian and soul music. Winning a Grammy award for his work on Stan Getz and Astud Gilberto's "The Girl From Ipanema", was proof of his ability to mix jazz with other musical styles like the bossa nova. Although he produced most of the records, he did hire skilled arrangers like Oliver Nelson, Claus Ogerman, Lalo Schifrin and Don Sebesky. It was these men who cloaked Wes Montgomery's music in strings and placed Jimmy Smith in the context of a big jazz orchestra. Often criticised at the time, this music has now been reappraised.

In 1967, Creed Taylor persuaded A & M Records to let him create his own label, CTI Records. Three years later, he broke away from A & M Records and the profile of CTI Records rose.

After the experimental jazz of the late 1960s, the genre became directionless and was also having to compete with the increasing popularity of rock music. The result of this dilemma was the birth of jazz fusion and the success of Miles Davis's album, Bitches Brew, in 1970, encouraged many other jazz musicians to tackle this new musical style. But, while the music of Miles Davis, Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears could be described as jazz-rock, a genre which horrified jazz critics, the music emanating from CTI Records was closer to jazz-funk and the qualities of Herbie Hancock's seminal album, Headhunters. It was an updated version of the soul-influenced jazz music of the late 1960s, but with the earthiness of those recordings extracted and replaced with a smoother texture. This was often complimented with lush orchestral strings, classical guitars and flutes that gave the music the feeling of a film soundtrack.

Many of the most exceptional jazz musicians of the 1960s found in CTI Records a musical haven where they were no longer subjected to the meagre incomes that they had experienced in the 1960s. The legendary bass player, Ron Carter, performed on virtually every album that CTI Records released and the likes of George Benson and Freddie Hubbard not only recorded their own albums but appeared regularly as guests on other releases.

Bob James and Grover Washington used CTI Records to launch their highly successful careers, as did Eumir Deodato, who won a Grammy award for his version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and, most recently, wrote some arrangements for Bjork's album Post. Yet again, Creed Taylor had astutely placed his musicians in a successfully commercial musical setting. A series of popular concerts also boosted the musicians' stature, many of whom were experiencing fame on an unexpected scale.

At its worst, CTI Records was unashamedly commercial and slightly pretentious, but, at its best, it produced some of the most resilient jazz fusion of that era, skilfully avoiding any relationship with contemporary rock music. Its popularity today manifests itself by being the constant source of samples for many rap, trip-hop and jungle DJs and this explains why 11 digitally remastered and remixed CDs from CTI Records' catalogue have been recently re-released. The 1970s was not a good decade for jazz music and some critics believe it was the one in which jazz died. But CTI Records helped to extend jazz music's life, as well as broaden its appeal and it was, on the whole, unfairly criticised at the time.

CTI highlights

Deodato, Prelude

Patti Austin, Havana Candy

George Benson, Beyond the Blue Horizon

Freddie Hubbard, Straight Life

Jim Hall, Concierto

Milt Jackson, Sunflower

Lalo Schifrin, Black Widow

Stanley Turrentine, Salt Song

Hubert Laws, In the Beginning

Paul Desmond, Skylark

Various artists, Birth of the Groove