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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

DeLaurenti Schools Us All

Posted by on June 29 at 9:47 AM

Re: yesterday’s debate about the aesthetics of film, jazz, and fusion, Stranger columnist Christopher DeLaurenti weighs in. Pay heed!

Batty Indeed!
Cinema is almost never an "intoxicating concentration of all creative possibilities (musical, theatrical, poetical, visual)."

Music & Foley usually slumber in the background. A few films make exceptional use of music and sound fx (Patton, Belle du Jour, The Wild Bunch*) but even films with tony soundtracks ("2001," "Platoon") get ruined after you've heard the original music. Attentive ears discover that directors and movie sound mixers are the spawn of the devil, cutting and compressing musical details into nothingness and again subsuming (usually mediocre) sights to sound.

Dialogue, both production sound and looped, is another matter altogether. Next time you watch a film listen closely to the words - do they sound as
if they could emanate from the room and/or camera angle depicted in the scene?

There seems to be some confusion between Fusion and its elder step-sibling, Jazz-Rock.

Jazz-Rock retains the extended solos, adventurous harmonic progressions, and blues roots of Jazz, but incorporates unusual instruments, much louder
and consistent volume levels (including amplification far and above acoustic music), electronics (especially 'psychedelic' effects) all framed within a loud, bashing yet ever-changing rhythm section. Primitive studio techniques (excessive reverberation, jump-cuts, obviously overdubbed parts and "punched-in" solos) also appear and remain aurally discernible.

Fusion tamed those elements, often dumbing down harmonic pathways to either create room for an incessantly funky (and sometimes endless) vamp (as in the Headhunters' "God Make Me Funky") or to mercilessly trim space alloted for solos into just a few measures to be "radio ready." Songs based on standard tunes like "I Got Rhythm" all but disappeared, devolving into riff tunes or exploding into extended (sometimes bloated) forms or blossoming into short, ultra-arranged pocket symphonies. Acoustic instruments, tweaked at the mixing desk, marched in lock step with squads of synths, electric basses, and Fender Rhodes electric pianos.

Fusion also benefitted from more advanced production techniques - compare mid-period Mahavishnu Orchestra LPs or Ponty's late 70s record "Cosmic Messenger" with the hissy, gritty jazz-rock classic "Out-Bloody-Rageous" from the soft machine's "Third" (1970) or Tony Williams's ferocious "Via the Spectrum Road" from "Emergency! (1969)" - by deploying seamless overdubbing, sophisticated compression, and relentless editing.

Is Fusion Jazz? No. Fusion fused the elements of jazz (blues-based improvisation) with then-contemporary studio techniques, electronic
instruments, effects units (e.g. the Mu-Tron Phasor pedal), the dynamic levels (and sometimes sales numbers) of rock, and occasional detours into
non-Western musics.

ps The Wild Bunch gets an asterisk: if you don't know the music of Aaron Copland (Rodeo, Billy the Kid, etc.) then you'll likely miss the music's anti-hero irony.