Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion

By Shim, Eunmi | Notes, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion


Shim, Eunmi, Notes


UNITED STATES Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion. By Kevin Fellezs. (Refiguring American Music) Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. [xii, 299 p. ISBN 9780822350309 (hardcover), $84.95; ISBN 9780822350477 (paperback), $23.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

A welcome addition to jazz scholarship, Kevin Fellezs's Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion is a well-researched and thought-provoking book on fusion; its title Birds of Fire comes from Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1973 album title (Columbia KC 31996, LP). This book discusses fusion starting from the late 1960s and singles out four representative musicians for extended discussions: Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, and Herbie Hancock. The chapters on each of these musicians do not present a comprehensive overview of their music and careers, but focus instead on a limited span of time in their respective engagements with fusion. For Williams, the focus is on his early fusion, represented by his band Lifetime; for McLaughlin, on his bands Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti; for Mitchell, on her collaborations with jazz musicians in the 1970s; and for Hancock, on his bands Mwandishi and Headhunters. Although these musicians provide four interesting case studies, Fellezs does not explain his rationale for selecting these particular fusion musicians over others.

It is significant that, in exploring fusion as a transgeneric creation that challenged notions of authenticity, legitimacy, and authority, Fellezs takes into account sociopolitical, economic, and musical factors such as social categories and cultural hierarchies embedded in the music. In particular, his examination of the racialized nature of the genres and cultural identity is interesting, and it is refreshing that, in discussing the issue of race in music, he advocates avoiding essentialism by emphasizing hybridity in the genres and by illustrating instances of influence between black and white musicians.

It is clear that Fellezs conducted extensive research on the subject matter, especially in terms of archival documents, but he was not interested in interviewing the musicians on whom he focused. His rationale is that he "did not want retrospective recollections spanning thirty-plus years. There was ample material . . . from the 1970s to aid me in my attempt to capture the musicians and listeners, particularly critics, in the heat of the moment" (p. 12). This, interestingly, points toward a synchronic approach, but the problem is that not all source materials used in his book are contemporaneous; he consulted several sources from the 2000s that include musicians' retrospective recollections. A more fundamental question is whether the synchronic approach would be best suited for a historical subject. (One exception is a 2002 interview with the drummer Steve Smith on smooth jazz, a more contemporary subject [pp. 29-30].) The self-imposed limitation can represent a missed opportunity because interviews with musicians, even if they are conducted decades after "the moment," can provide valuable insight and enrich the understanding of the subject. The lack of interviews in Fellezs's book is one of the differences between it and the two major previous books on fusion, Stuart Nicholson's Jazz-Rock: A History (New York: Schirmer, 1998) and Steven Pond's Head Hunters: the Making of Jazz's First Platinum Album (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005). And, of course, Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman's Jazz-Rock Fusion: the People, the Music (2d ed. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2000) is an interesting collection of interviews with a number of fusion musicians.

Fellezs's introduction provides a conceptual framework in order to explain the wide variety of styles encompassed in fusion. A central idea is "in-between-ness," a term that denotes the fluid status of fusion, "being both inside and outside of genre categories" (p. 5) and articulating "a multiple sense of belonging and nonbelonging" (p. …

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