Jazz-Rock Fusion Explained

Art and the External World

Art never occurs in a vacuum. It’s always affected by the external world. Music in general, and Jazz in particular, has always been influenced by:

  • Changes in technology
    • The creation of new recording methods (LP record, CD, MP3, Streaming, etc.);
    • The creation of new instruments;
    • The popularisation of existing instruments.
  • The emergence of new music genres
    • Jazz has always adopted and integrated new genres of music that were popular at the time.
      • Jazz itself arose from some combination of blues, ragtime, minstrel dance songs, marching bands and classical music.
      • Classical Music and Jazz merged to create Third Stream
      • 50’s RnB and Jazz merged to create Hard-Bop
      • Afro-Cuban music and Jazz combined to create Latin Jazz

Jazz-Rock Fusion

And so it was with Fusion or Jazz-Rock.

  • New technology
    • The creation of post-production editing;
    • The rise of electric instruments (the electric guitar was invented in 1931, and was adopted by Jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian so they could play single note solos over a Big Band. But the instrument became increasingly popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, with the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, RnB and Chicago Blues. The electric keyboard and electric bass were also getting used more often).
  • New music genres
    • The rise of Rock and Funk music in the 1960’s.

Jazz-Rock Fusion embraced both these trends.

Rock + Funk + Jazz = Fusion

Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950’s and Rock in the 1960’s proved hugely successful and popular and threatened Jazz. The most talented musicians and the best improvisers, like Clapton and Hendrix, were now going into Rock, rather than Jazz. Jazz was losing its audience, so it had to respond.


There was also the rise of Funk. Soul music originated in the 1950’s with people like Ray Charles who took gospel music and put secular lyrics to it. This was integrated into Jazz with the Hard-Bop genre. In the 1960’s, Soul became more intense and aggressive and developed into Funk, with people like James Brown.

Jazz-Rock Fusion

Rhythmically simple:
straight 8ths & 4/4 time with little syncopation
Rhythmically complex:
each instrument is allocated its own rhythm which together create a tight polyrhythmic groove
Harmonically simple:

often using power chords or triads
Harmonically complex:
with denser, more chromatic and more complex harmonies. It often used modal or even atonal sounds but could also sit on a single chord for the whole song
Open form:
where the band would only move to a next section when the soloist finishes solo
Open form:
where the band would only move to a next section when cued by the vocalist

Fusion, which began in the late 1960’s, adopted elements from both Rock and Funk. It took the sparse, ambient feel of Modal Jazz, the Funk groove, and the Rock solo, and combined them all together over a straight 8ths rhythm.


Modal Jazz Ambience + Funk Groove + Rock Solo + Straight Rhythm = Fusion


Below are some features which differentiate Traditional Jazz from Jazz-Rock Fusion.


Traditional JazzFusion Jazz
Swing RhythmStraight Rhythm with Funk beat
Walking BassBass Ostinatos, Pedal points
Piano ‘compingVamps (piano & guitar)
Rhythm section supports soloistRhythm Section > Soloist
Acoustic instrumentsElectric instruments & effects
Linear solosRock-like solos
Small bandsLarge bands – multiple rhythm sections
Head-Solo-Head form Open form
Functional (Tonal)Elements of free collective improvisation
Recording a live performancePost-production editing
Complex harmony (extensions, alterations)Deceivingly simple harmony

In addition to the above, the following are some other feature of Jazz-Rock Fusion:


The most important part of Funk, and as a result Fusion, is the groove – that is, the repeating rhythmic pattern created by the band. It requires all the instruments to play a simple rhythm on repeat. In a sense, it’s the opposite of ‘comping, where you want to vary your rhythm. To create a groove, everyone has to repeat the same thing over and over again. So the bass plays an ostinato rhythm. And the piano and guitar play vamps or riffs. In Fusion rhythm is more important than harmony or melody


Having a strong rhythmic groove allows the melody and the harmony to be freer. The rhythmic pattern provides structure to the song and acts as a kind of base or foundation which allows you to explore more exotic harmonies and melodies. A steady beat or groove is enough to keep an audience engaged even while you explore atonal harmonies and chromatic melodies. Fusion is all about the groove.


Fusion was largely created by Miles Davis. But it didn’t just appear overnight. It developed gradually out of Post-bop. Post-bop was melodically, rhythmically, and harmonically complex. It used non-functional chord progressions and incorporated elements of Free Jazz. By the late 1960’s, Miles was getting dissatisfied with the complexity of Post-bop and wanted a return to simplicity. And at this time he became especially interested in the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. So Miles made a number of changes to his band. He:

  • Adopted electric instruments – including electric keyboards, guitars and basses;
  • Added more instruments – so that he had two rhythm sections including two pianos, two basses, two drummers, and a few percussionists;
  • Simplified the chord progressions or harmony – playing songs with simple triads (Mademoiselle Mabry) or songs with few or no chords at all (Miles Runs the Voodoo Down).

Miles made the rhythm section just as important as the soloist. It’s the groove that’s important now, not the brilliant solo. The solo is secondary to the groove. This also made his songs dense (through the use of many rhythm instruments) but light (because there were few chords and sparse playing).


Using these ideas he created the two classic Fusion albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. These albums have elements of free jazz, elements of ambient music, they use electric instruments and funky beats, and they use extensive post-production editing. For example, the album In a Silent Way was recorded in a session that was over 2 hours long but was cut down to 27 minutes and then expanded to 38 minutes by repeat some parts. And you’ll notice that the songs on these albums are generally quite long. They are almost like Prog Rock meets Jazz. A combination of Pink Floyd and Miles. The albums also had some Indian influences – with drones and open forms. You can think of these albums, and a lot of Fusion actually, as almost like a long jam session – with everyone just playing the same thing over and over again and improvising.

Have a Listen To

These Miles Davis albums inspired the whole Fusion genre. Jazz-Rock Fusion was so different to Traditional Jazz that many people accused it of not being ‘real’ Jazz. But this then leads us to the question of ‘What is Jazz?’ which is far too complex a question to cover here. Have a listen to the following Fusion bands and decide for yourself:

  • Miles Davis (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew)
  • Return to Forever (Chick Corea)
  • Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin) – used irregular meter and slash chords extensively
  • Weather Report (Wayne Shorter) – embraced new electric instruments like the synth
  • Headhunters (Herbie Hancock)
  • Keith Jarrett
  • Pat Metheny