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Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion by Kevin Fellezs (review)

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 2, 2013
pp. 158-159 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0047

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Kevin Fellezs has written a fine account of musical mixing in the 1970s, drawing on published interviews from the time, biographies, recordings, liner notes, and articles and reviews in the jazz, rock, and mainstream press. Depending on how you count them, Birds of Fire has three or four introductions, and they are all valuable. After a short chapter that summarizes the general themes of the book, Fellezs offers a consideration of the scholarly literature on genre and mixture (chapter 1), a discussion of the specific discourses of rock, jazz, and funk leading up to the 1970s (chapter 2), and a more focused investigation of the fusion concept in jazz (chapter 3). These opening chapters take readers on a surefooted walkabout through the salient issues surrounding fusion: technology, race, legitimation, appropriation, and commerce, among others. Especially interesting was a mini–case study of Gary Burton and Larry Coryell that highlights matters of youth and style in pre-Bitches Brew fusion.

Fellezs argues against the idea of fusion as a synthesis of existing genres, preferring to dialectics the idea of the “broken middle,” where opposing entities do not smoothly combine, but instead offer only brokenness, contradiction, and instability. There is creativity here, he contends, and the opportunity to “liberate one from dogma and convention” (9). (Readers of the Foucauldian persuasion will have some questions about this idea of liberation from the social modes of being enabled by genres, especially if genres are understood not only to limit and constrain agents, but also to act upon subjects by virtue of their own action or capability for action.)

The four case studies—on Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, and Herbie Hancock—are excellent, and each showcases Fellezs’s strengths in cultural analysis, particularly in the area of race and ethnicity. In addition to his nuanced readings of how race (and, to a lesser extent, gender) mediated discourse about genre in the 1970s, I appreciated Fellezs’s skill at creating fresh portraits of jazz-related characters doing the kinds of things we rarely read about: a black, jazz-affiliated drummer (Williams) digging the Beatles; a white folk singer (Mitchell) blacking up and, as a result, captivating and collaborating with an aging jazz great (Charles Mingus); a celebrated and successful jazz pianist (Hancock) humbly admitting his deficiencies in learning funk and R&B styles.

The broken middle is premised on a concept of genre that stresses stability, cohesion, and homogeneity. Another approach holds that genres, like all entities, are assemblages of heterogeneous elements that never guarantee stability or persistence. In this approach, all musical actors are thought to engage in practices of partial belonging and ambivalent collaboration, so it is (paradoxically) the stability of genre formations that needs to be explained, rather than the transgression or destabilization of the same. This approach would also raise questions about the kinds of collectivities that genres express — are they only social, or do they rely upon the participation of nonhuman entities, as well? Fellezs rightly points out that there is a tension between the formation of new social collectivities promised by new genres and the role of the innovative human agent, and we might also point to a tension about the differences between existing through genres, between genres, or outside of genres. These uncertainties are present in many discussions of genre, and they are also present here.

I like the fact that Fellezs pulls fusion out of a jazz-centered frame and allows it to float equally between jazz, rock, and funk (with some folk thrown in, too), even though chapter 3 tips the scale a bit toward jazz. In other words, the author shows that fusion was not just about adding things to jazz, but also involved a swerve for rock and funk; Fellezs writes about these encounters as a scholar and fan of all sides. Paired with Steven Pond’s “Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Recording (Michigan, 2008), Birds of Fire could almost become the basis for a single, tightly focussed undergraduate course on fusion, and it certainly belongs on graduate reading lists in pop, jazz, and American music studies.

Copyright © 2013 Mid-America American Studies Association
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