GROVER WASHINGTON JR. – Mister Magic (1975)

Review by: Syd Spence

Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I’ve always loved the idea of jazz fusion. Take the blistering Coltrane style sax solo, slap it over a thick diamond hard funk groove, and you’d be nearing audio perfection. Yet, barring a few Miles Davis albums, I’ve been perennially disappointed by it and I think I’ve figured out why. See most of the Jazz Fusion artists are old bop pros, far from their experimental youth. They reach the ‘70s and go, “the kids are diggin this funk stuff, with its simple rhythms and electric bass. Hey, why don’t we combine smooth jazz melodies with these popular rhythms. Then we will make so much dough we can start buying smack again.” Essentially, a lot of jazz fusion like Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, etc sounds to my ears like proto Kenny G. It’s a little more academic (with it’s weird time signatures), but in the end it’s generally easy listening, and lacking that Coltrane edge. It’s like the Jazz equivalent of AOR, it’s not quite adult contemporary but it’s getting there. 

Anyways, that leaves us to this album, Mr. Magic, which exudes literally all those qualities. Its melodies are smooth, the instrumentation is tight, the arrangements are a little quirky (to a non jazz ear). But the whole thing is so damn safe that it’s just ready made for a some adventurous elevator. 

Case in point, the star of the show, the 12 minute long centerpiece, “Earth Tones.” The track starts with the band creating a tremendous near psychedelic ambience with it’s mix of electric piano, animal sounds and bass noodling. And then horns and drums, bass come in and it sounds great, just thick and awesome, but then your mind focuses on the melody and … it’s just, well it sounds like music used for scene changes in a ‘70s made for tv movie. Then they mess with the time signature and Grover comes in does some jazz soloing business and it sounds great again, and then it’s time for another scene change in The Young and the Restless. And this happens throughout the 12 minutes, cool jazz funkery, periodicly being interupted by that all too friendly melody. And this is the most adventurous and interesting track of the bunch, completely ruined by such a conventional melody. 

The rest of the album varies’ from smooth jazz meets hollywood strings to limp funk tunes. The best of which is probably Black Frost. It’s pretty much a straight funk tune that’s just missing that James Brown spark. It’s not bad, but not really something you need either. 

Overall, I don’t like jazz fusion but if you do, you’d probably love this record. Just go in expecting that cool smooth academic jazz fusion like the Weather Report. Me, I’ll continue fantasizing about John Coltrane joining Parliament.