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Jazz-Rock Fusion

In the early '70s rock spectrum, another strange musical mutation was gathering force and would soon make a tremendous impact on rock guitar style and technique: the sound of jazz-rock. The real pioneer of early jazz-rock though was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who began using static rock rhythms in his recordings and allowing his musicians to stretch out with rock inflected solos. The two ground-breaking Davis' fusion recordings were 1969's "In A Silent Way" and 1970's "Bitches' Brew", both of which introduced the music world to the English guitarist John McLaughlin.

McLaughlin possessed an uncanny melodic sense, as well as an amazing technical dexterity. During 1969-70, guitar flash McLaughlin cut two albums of near-violent improvisation with the short-lived Tony Williams lifetime. But playing, as a sideman was not enough- so late in 1971, McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On 1972's "Inner Mounting Flame", McLaughlin wrote almost the entire book of jazz-rock guitar on the spot. On the opening track Meeting of the Spirits, he attacks his solo spot with blazingly fast modal phrases, distorted string bends and screaming feedback on Gibson Les Paul. As if that were not enough he replaced the feat- even topping on it- on the following year's "Birds of Fire", a brilliant instrumental recording that features his manic leads played on a Gibson Doubleneck, while adding complicated chordial arpeggios on the electric 12-string. Later McLaughlin would abandon the electric guitar altogether to create another brain blowing achievement with his all-acoustic Indian fusion band Shakti. Though Larry Coryell, Jerry Hahn and John Abercrombie were all valid contributors to the birth of jazz-rock guitar, but few would dispute that McLaughlin is the real father of this explosive instrumental genre, as well as one of the great electric virtuosos of the last thirty years.

In 1975, British-Rock Legend Jeff Beck made his own foray into jazz-rock on his all-instrumental "Blow by Blow" album and scored a significant hit. Far from McLaughlin's wild improvisational melees and highbrow technique, Beck's fusion was more controlled and oriented toward rock and funk. Beck actually had no training in jazz and on this album relied on his great ability to mould his blues-based playing to any style he might choose. Nonetheless "Blow by Blow" was a major success in the advancement of jazz-rock and established this former hard-rock hero as the best guitarist of the mid '70s. He won several polls ironically under the "jazz" category much to the ire of the straight-ahead jazz performers. Effortlessly Beck followed it up the next year with "Wired", another great album that was heavier than "Blow by Blow" and also featured the wild synthesizer work of the ex-Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer. By the beginning of 1977, Jeff Beck was tops in jazz-rock guitar.

Yet one album came out in 1977 that would bring about changes among the ranks of the technical virtuosos. Al Di Meola's "Elegant Gypsy". Di Meola emerged from Chick Corea's powerhouse fusion band Return to Forever after two solid but not quite successful albums "Where I have Known You Before" and "Romantic Warrior". Blending heavy rock, Flamenco and Italian Classical music with South American Rhythms, the 23-year old guitarist catapulted onto the guitar scene. Largely because of his incredibly fast picking and strong compositions he was able to attract the attention of even a novice listener.

While fast fusion guitar had been in style since McLaughlin first made news a half-decade earlier, Di Meola's fluid, on-the-beat style, which was as fast as a flamenco player's but electrified, made jaws drop from coast to coast. In addition to gaining notoriety for the sheer speed of his playing, Di Meola popularized a technique he called mutola. To achieve the mutola effect, he damped his guitar strings with the palm of his picking hand to create a popping tone not unlike the sound of a percussionist's woodblock. While this technique was not wholly original- country jazz great Hank Garland had used it in Just for Tonight from the "Unforgettable Guitar of Hank Garland"- mutola was still new to jazz-rock and soon became another Di Meola trademark. Even more impressive was his acoustic guitar-duet with flamenco master Paco De Lucia on "Mediterranean Sundance". Within this track the two guitarists traded volley after volley of blindingly fast, Spanish-styled solos over chord changes identical to those found in De Lucia's composition called Rumba, from his 1975 album "Paco De Lucia En Vivo Desde El Teatro Real". The flamenco-fusion concept was bought to its zenith by the 1980-3 union of McLaughlin, De Lucia and Di Meola that yielded to fine albums and several sold out tours. Back on electric Di Meola furthered his stranglehold on late '70s speed guitar with hi equally ingenious 1978 record "Casino" and until the mid '80s was often considered the fastest guitarist alive.

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