This word, fusion, let’s consider it for a moment. I am not referring to the physical process by which certain particles come together to create some new material or altered state.  As readers of this column would know, my interest is not in physics but in music, and it is that fusion I am asking you to reflect upon.

The word is most often used in connection with jazz and has been used in the musical press in reference to a general mixing together of ‘ethnic’ music with jazz or, to bands that tried to marry  a rock sound and attitude with jazz. Think Bitches Brew (Miles Davis), think Weather Report or Shakti (John McLaughlin/Shankar). Fusion-jazz is identified as its own sub-genre by the scriptural writers at All Music Guide who drop all sorts of names ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to the two Dons (Cherry and Ellis) in its description.

All well and good. And love Weather Report or not, jazz fusion has a huge fan base, though one wonders how the performers are surviving when one reads that "jazz" is the least popular (and most unprofitable) category of music in the United States, the land of its birth.  But I digress.

Born into poverty but destined for glory

If we go back to the musical term "fusion" and try to trace its origins we find ourselves in a very downer part of Kolkata: Ward 47’s Chandni Chowk.  There, in 1930, when India was still Burra Sahib country, a child was born into a poor Anglo-Indian family. The boy’s name was John Mayer and he was possessed by a fierce determination to succeed, get out of the slums and above all, make music. Unable to pay for tuition his ability nevertheless shone through. He was given after hours lessons in violin by the Frenchman Philippe Sandre at the Calcutta School of Music before continuing under Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin) in Bombay. It was Mehta who encouraged the young man to apply for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, which Mayer did successfully.

Throughout the 1950s, Mayer studied and in the '60s began composing his own music while holding down the violin chair in first the London Philharmonic and then the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. Mayer’s compositions, which brought together Hindustani musical elements within a Western orchestral setting, were getting noticed by the rarefied circles of critics and music lovers in London’s fast emerging avant garde. The fateful day arrived in 1964 when, as his biography put it:
“EMI producer Dennis Preston asked him if he had available a short jazz-based piece with which to complete an album Preston was working on. Mayer told him he did, even though he had nothing ready – Preston said he wanted to record it the next day, and Mayer stayed up all night writing the piece. He attended the recording the following day, and thought no more about it until six months later when Preston told him that he’d played the piece to Atlantic Records founder and president Ahmet Ertegun in New York, who’d liked what he’d heard and suggested that Mayer write music for an album which would fuse Indian music and jazz. Ertegun’s idea was to combine the quintet of Indian musicians with which Mayer worked, featuring a sitar, tabla, tambura, flute, with Mayer on violin and harpsichord, with a jazz quintet led by Joe Harriott, himself an under-appreciated alto-player who had shown an appreciation of various aspects of world music.”

John Mayer and Joe Herriot

This track is from the debut Mayer-Herriot album called Indo-Jazz Fusions and marks the first verifiable use of the term in the context of music and especially, jazz. Step aside Dizzy and Don, fusion music must be credited to the most unlikely of sources, the poor Anglo-Indian of Calcutta. Herriot and Mayer’s album while not a Top of the Pops charter sold well and their group, which also included Rick Laird, who later played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a true fusion mega-group, was a much in demand combo across Europe for many years.

This interpretation of Raga Multani builds slowly until eventually achieving a genuine jazz swing, that is very infectious.

Prabhanda and Ragamalas
Rohan de Saram

A double-barreled composition by Mayer is beautifully interpreted by Sri Lankan-British cellist Rohan de Saram, another shining light of the South Asian musical diaspora. De Saram, who studied with Pablo Casals, has been called a genius, a rarity and a once in a generation talent. Mayer plays tanbura and Saram’s brother Druvi plays piano, on this short collection that was originally issued as a cassette.

Dream Sequence Parts 4-6
Cosmic Eye

Cosmic Eye released one album in 1972 at the very apogee of prog rock, another genre that embraced out-of-the-ordinary (for the Midlands) ethnic /eastern sounds. Led by Goan guitarist Amancio D’ Silva, the group specialised in wigged-out, stream of consciousness musical meanderings, which from time to time are broken up by crisply delivered packages of neo-blues riffs. At the time this was the height of avant-garde jazz-fusion-rock music. Mayer played the violin with Cosmic Eye and was regularly sought out by prog rockers, like Emerson Lake and Palmer to contribute compositions and orchestrations to their classical-rock records. On this track Mayer’s violin leads an eerie transition from a rock-sounding dream sequence to a more eastern interlude before a sax-led jazz break gets the heat pumped up again.

Calcutta Nagar
See Ning Hui

Calcutta Nagar is a series of short compositions that Mayer composed as a remembered celebration of the city of his birth.  Each miniature composition evokes a section or aspect of the city (Kali Mandir, Hoogley Nadi, Naya Bazaar) and is good demonstration of his eclectic approach to composition and enduring commitment to give voice to both sides of his identity. This clip showcases the young Singaporean pianist See Ning Hui from whom we will be hearing more of in the not too distant future, I’m sure.

John Mayer and His Indo-Jazz Fusions (featuring Tony Coe)
Serenade from Etudes

This track is downright beautiful. John Mayer, playing the hell of the instrument of his initial passion. Tony Coe contributes on sax.