by Perry Meisel
Newport's flirtation with fusion over the last few years finally got out of hand last weekend at Saratoga, where the festival presented a two-day marathon bill that saw crossover and mainstream luminaries staring at each other over abysses of taste and talent no one there could afford to acknowledge, least of all the wide-eyed collegiate crowd, whose indiscriminate enthusiasm leveled all possibility of distinguishing the jewels from the junk.
Although the Festival's putative intention was to splice classic forms to more contemporary ones, the result was to juxtapose the vital and the manufactured. Junk is a strong word, but when lame bump music gets billed back-to-back with the likes of Betty Carter, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Art Blakey, Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Griffin, Carmen McRae, B. B. King, and a host of heavies - including George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Freddie Hubbard - at the festival's concluding jam, the effect is downright embarrassing.
Though I gave the crossover acts as much sympathetic attention as I could muster, this was my third go-around with Grover Washington and Lonnie Liston Smith, and it left me plain exasperated - me the guy who used to apologize for this stuff when fusion got its long-distance wind about three years ago. Not that I ever made claims for the particular entries on the Newport/Saratoga bill, although I'm certain now that I'd grossly underestimated just how oppressive Washington's music in particular can be.
Washington's set on Saturday afternoon epitomized the saxophone as the trash ax of the late '70s, an odd repetition of the role the guitar had in the late '60s. Like the technical facility of supposed guitar geniuses like Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck, Grover's pyrotechnics quickly reduce to thematic facility. The mindless scale runs put his technique into some question, too, despite stories that Grover can really play when pressed. Like the leaner and brasher but also less convincing tenorist Ronnie Laws, who recapitulated Washington's set when his turn came on Sunday, Grover simulates the ecstatic breathlessness of uninterrupted invention (given the funk context, it's ironic that there are to few spaces in his soloing), but his overripeness is just a masquerade for the recycling of a handful of tonic notes that come off fat and bursting, like those water-inflated hams that you buy in cans.
Although Lonnie Liston Smith and his Cosmic Echoes seemed, by contrast, to prefer the choice to the cluttered, the apparent difference didn't so much save him as a transform him into the festival's Roger Williams sound-alike (with Dave Brubeck to contend with, this was a curious triumph). Particularly infuriating in performance and on disc alike are his "carefully placed" melody notes, sounded miles apart as though each one dripped with bardic wisdom. If Smith's slow-motion sunglass routine (unwittingly?) parodied Ray Charles (imagine, jazz musicians doing shticks!), the Echoes' costumes parodied the Sun Ra model, falsely borrowing sensibility via the visual hype and attempting to gorge a phony (though not in principle impossible) alliance between the backbeat and the cosmos.
While the fusioneers tended to handle pop melody like schlockmeisters, Carmen McRae's set at sundown on Saturday courted pop's resources instead, flaunting the wisdom of the compleat jazz balladeer in the face of the nervy youngsters. If Washington's redundant tonic scales actually impoverished the harmonic possibilities of an ostentatiously melodic song like Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," McRae managed just the opposite with Joel's "New York State of Mind." Like a jazz singer - or any jazz soloist - should, McRae hunted down all available nuances in Joel's brazen harmonies, making the song even richer than it believed itself to be.
McRae's counterpart on Sunday was Betty Carter, who pushed the contrast with crossover even further along by teasing out the unsuspected complications of her songs in an especially hazardous way. Carter's scat adventures found her choosing her licks not so much against the groove as against particular strands in her trio's accompaniment. The effect was uncanny - it made me suddenly aware of how infinitely separable and potentially contradictory the harmonic and rhythmic systems at work in a single tune can be. Though this may be old news to avant-gardists (who tended to start rather than finish their work at this deconstructive moment), its exploitation in a mainstream context ups the odds - and heightens the thrills - by pressuring what is still a straight-ahead groove with the constant threat of its own incoherence. Hence the gambling Carter maintains a precarious lyrical argument despite her fractured, decentered awareness, questioning not just the square, European 4/4, but also the complacent security of the swinging 4/4, that prebop jazz invented to take its place.
Not that the early stomping grooves lack the power of irony - far from it, as the (so-billed) Battle of the Saxes attested. The weekend's real coup, the sax jam joined up Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Illinois Jacquet, and expatriate Johnny Griffin in a rare display of classical tenor wisdom. Prone to a historically produced hazard of the post-Coltrane medium that has entirely overwhelmed the fusioneers, Griffin relied on "sheets of sound" (rarely more than scales in the two younger players' misreading) instead of lyrical phases when in a pinch, especially over a blistering tempo. (I should add that I'd never heard Griffin play like this before, on record, he's infinitely more inventive). Though the virtuoso Griffin boasted the most modern tone of the three - tight, hard, and comparatively uniform - he showed the least emotional range because of it.
But if Griffin composes acrostics out of his head, Davis and Jacquet compose poems on their feet, producing not just logical but also whole affective sequences in a chorus's time. And if Griffin is a fledgling technocrat, Davis and Jacquet can sweep from sentimental to savage in a moment, the slurred chest phrase giving way to the hard rip straight from the belly. The weeping almost brings to mind Coleman Hawkins, while the chortling suggets the rawer, bloozier strand of '30s saxophone that we associate with Ben Webster and that comes down to us today as Texas tenor. This is only to note the obvious - that from the beginning Davis and Jacquet possessed a double vocabulary that could mediate between a swinging 4/4 and what would later become the backbeat. Fusion, in other words, already happened among the old territory tenormen years ago, a neglected historical fact that makes the supposedly new crossover groove not only belated but also aggressively ignorant about sources it seems bent on denying.
A (perennially) smiling and dapper B.B. King rehearsed an even more programmatic version of achieved crossover in a set that rivaled the Battle of the Saxes in both energy and intelligence. With the Muddy Waters/Johnny Winter set on Saturday a profoundly disappointing attempt to showcase fusion sources with enduring vitality (I'm talking about Winter's disintegration, not Muddy's), it was King who became the weekend's exemplar of all time-honored moves absent from the fusioneers' strangely rigid conception.
But the history lesson was delivered best early in the concluding Jam Session on Sunday evening, when Art Blakey and Roy Haynes played solos together. The classic straight-ahead swingster, Blakey rode his cymbal hard, while Haynes, even heavier on the touch and more sympathetic to the back-beat, thumped out what you might call a boogaloo. The amazing result was that the seemingly contradictory grooves coalesced in a surprising transparency, neither one incommensurate with the other at all.
The knockout of the jam, though, was George Benson, who rarely allows himself to really play more than once a year now, usually at the Newport jam. Benson happily comped for just about everybody, stroking sweet and aggressive chords by turns behind a feisty Hubbard and a magisterial Dizzy; when his solo turns came, he obliged by showing off the dazzling inventiveness that Warner Bros. claims would lose money if released on record today.
Benson concluded the jam, and the festival, with the inevitable rendition of "Masquerade" and other hits, a trip for those who'd never heard him do them live before, but an unfortunate and distressing way to finish off the weekend. Though Benson's singing is more impressive than some jazz critics will admit, it's not, after all, satisfying the way a real popster's singing is, not satisfying in just the same way that Grover isn't when you compare him to the (apparently more primitive) King Curtis. What accounts for crossover's failure as a genre next to outright blues, r&b, and rock and roll is its failure to be true to the pop models it's received in exchange for the older jazz ones. It betrays pop in the name of exalting it. Resolutely opposed by now to both the harmonic excursions of a Carter and a McRae and the genuinely funky rhythmic cosmopolitanism of Davis and Jacquet, the fusioneers have already relinquished their jazz credentials even as they fail to gain pop passport in return. Crossover artists, alas, seem permanently divided between the desire to follow out its honky-tonk implications - which it reads as a relapses into working-class styles that it must avoid at all costs - and the desire to establish themselves as sophisticated gentlemen. No wonder I reached for the Ramones when I got home.
Originally published in The Village Voice, July 16, 1979