When I think of jazz fusion, my thoughts usually center around the great Miles Davis and his offspring The Weather Report. To me they were two extremes of the same sound: one tolerable because of his prior association with Cool Jazz and the other an unfortunate off shoot of the prior’s interest in rock. Forever to be associated with lazy damp summers, that muddy sounding fusion of jazz and prog rock lacked all the things that made their respective genres good. Matters improved ever so slightly when jazz turned to R&B with the Quiet Storm. In the end I’d conclude that rock and R&B were best left alone and not mixed up with jazz.
Over the years other fusions with jazz would come and go most notably with various forms of rap (Guru’s Jazamataz) in the early ‘90s to more recently with R&B (Robert Glasper and Flying Lotus). My overall bias has changed very little despite the excellent mashups mentioned above. Before Flying Lotus, the potential of jazz going to other places had few willing to take it there. Enter Meat Beat Manifesto or MBM.
The splicing of jazz and electronic dance music (EDM) remained surprisingly elusive until the late ’90s. Before that the prospect of European club types messing around with that most sacred of Negro music would have been cause for an outcry. Which might explain why it remained a European thing with acts like Jazzmatazz.
Jazzanova would start the spark, but the mixing of jazz and electronica really came into it’s own with MBM’s At the Center in 2005. Before that MBM teased the possibilities of mixing jazz with dance electronica with the Actual Sounds + Voices album in 2000. That album dabbled occasionally in jazz atmospherics setting the stage for At the Center.
Besides having a smile inducing name, MBM first caught my attention in 1990 with the single “Psyche Out”. MBM then seemed more club/dance oriented, but mixed up other styles seemingly on the fly. Jack Dangers the band’s lead vocalist had become an in demand producer, working with a diverse range of artist from Public Enemy to Nine Inch Nails. So it only seemed natural that he would expand MBM musical vocabulary to include jazz. After all, one thing that MBM has been consistently known for was being unpredictable and innovative.
So it was not completely surprising that they would release the first real album that fused club scene electronica with jazz. It was supposed to be part of a collection called the Blue Series. Instead At the Center ended up being a one off standalone experiment.
The album featured various sample including a track called “Want Ads Two” complete with a creepy reading of a newspaper classified section by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. With very little in the way of vocals, the production was a sprawling exercise in freestyle jazz arrangements anchored by solid beats that were at times more than a bit funky.
The range of instruments covered the gamut of traditional jazz staples like clarinets, flutes and various electric pianos while to contrast the buzz of shortwave radios, synthesizers and other electronic gadgets that gave the album it’s rather dark and foreboding tone.
At The Center was an exciting album to listen to. It could accommodate activities ranging from break-dancing to chilling with a glass of Kool Aide. As if to show that they could mix it up with the jazz cats, the ever restless trio had moved on once proving their point, abandoning the flirtation with jazz by 2008’s Autoimmune.