The Synthesizers of Classic Jazz Fusion

Something special happened to music in the early 1970s. Thanks to bands and artists in the previous decade pushing boundaries and often obliterating them altogether, a number of musicians across different genres all arrived at the same idea: progression.

Suddenly labels didn’t mean so much anymore—jazz, rock, and funk all borrowed from each other. Artists were free to experiment with melody and time as well as electricity—jazz particularly benefited from the strides made by Miles Davis and his wah-wah pedal. The result was jazz fusion, a fertile and unique time in the long history of the genre.

One instrument that fit perfectly in this new fusion style was the synthesizer. With its previously unheard tones and timbres, and sheer and original electric power, it was quickly adopted by forward-thinking jazz keyboardists looking to expand their sonic arsenal.

Let’s celebrate the synthesizers of the classic jazz fusion era, paying tribute to the players who made them sing and the songs that immortalized them.

Joe Zawinul and Weather Report - “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat” (1978)

Joe Zawinul and Weather Report - “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat” (1978)

It doesn’t get better than Joe Zawinul. The Austrian keyboardist—a veteran of bands of both Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis—pioneered the use of synthesizers in jazz in his own group, Weather Report. But to say that he just “played” synths is to do him a disservice. As Tom Oberheim said of Zawinul in Keyboard Magazine in 1977, “He knows what he's doing from a semi-mystical point of view.”

On Weather Report's 1978 album Mr. Gone, Zawinul continued his use of dual ARP 2600s an instrument he had been employing since 1971. In fact, he often played one (his right-handed keyboard) with the notes inverted. He was also known to chain them together with CV to get six-oscillator chords out of the monophonic instruments.

Along with his Oberheim 4 Voice and 8 Voice, Zawinul also played a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 on Mr. Gone. The newly-released polyphonic synth was a new favorite and Zawinul soon made it his main instrument. “It’s a great ensemble instrument,” he said in DownBeat Magazine at the time of the album’s release. “The touch feels good, a lot of resistance. And the sounds are amazingly accurate. The trumpet sounds exactly like brass—on this album it’s like I have a big, swinging orchestra.”

All of this and more comes together in “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat,” the album's opening track. It’s a rhythmic and melodic tour de force, one that mixes jazz, funk, and what would soon come to be called "world music".

Jan Hammer - “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun” (1975)

Jan Hammer - “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun” (1975)

Jan Hammer might best be known to synth heads of a certain age as the guy who did the theme to Miami Vice, but his resume goes back much further than the neon ‘80s. He first gained fame as a member of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra where he developed his signature style: synths that sounded like electric guitars. After leaving the Orchestra but long before he and his Fairlight CMI hit ‘80s pay dirt, he released The First Seven Days, a phenomenal synth and piano-focused album centered around the Biblical Genesis myth.

Opener “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun” is typical of the album. Oozing out of the gate with a low synth—possibly Hammer’s Oberheim SEM-1 Expander Module run through a ring modulator, one of Hammer’s favorite effects—it soon develops into a gorgeous Mellotron passage. The second half of the song introduces a Moog Minimoog, an instrument that Hammer liked for its versatility. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take the piano where I wanted to go,” he told Synthtopia in 2004. “I kept searching for this. I used to run my keyboards through electronic boxes, like a ring modulator, trying to get a unique sound. When I got my hands on a Minimoog, I thought, I know what to do with this! The sound can remind you of a clarinet, a flute, or a sitar. It’s the fact that it bends and flows.”

That bend and flow is in full flight on “Darkness/Earth In Search Of A Sun,” with Hammer doubling up the straight Minimoog with a distorted, electric guitar-like double. It sounds so convincing that the album sleeve actually states, "For those concerned: there is no guitar on this album.” Other equipment used on the album includes a Freeman String Symphonizer and an Oberheim DS2 Digital Sequencer.

Herbie Hancock - “Palm Grease” (1974)

Herbie Hancock - “Palm Grease” (1974)

When it comes to jazz and synthesizers, few artists come to mind as readily as Herbie Hancock—his ‘70s output is particularly synthified, with plenty of juicy fusion records exploring the funkier side of jazz. Thrust from 1974 is a great example of this period: recorded with the band The Headhunters, it’s got synths for days.

In the early ‘70s, when synths weren’t nearly as plentiful as they are now, you were either a Moog guy or an ARP guy. Herbie was definitely on Team ARP, with the synth sounds here coming exclusively from Alan R. Pearlman’s instruments. The album features an ARP Odyssey, Soloist, 2600 and String Ensemble. (OK, that last one is actually a rebadged Solina String Ensemble but for an American musician like Herbie, it’s what was available.)

Album opener “Palm Grease” is a rollicking jazz funk extravaganza with plenty of ARP synth action on display including that String Ensemble coming in at the end. Funky. Herbie would venture out beyond the ARP sound and go on to add more synths throughout the ‘70s, but for this album, he was strictly ARP. (For more on Herbie’s synths, check out link this deep dive article.

Ramsey Lewis - “Sun Goddess” (1974)

Ramsey Lewis - “Sun Goddess” (1974)

Another ARP jazzman was Ramsey Lewis. Plowing the fertile fields where funk and jazz intertwined, Ramsey Lewis’ 1974 album Sun Goddess is something of a jazz funk masterpiece. Full of sweet soul (the title track), stinky funk (“Tambura”), and blues-inflected instrumentals (“Hot Dawgit”), the album crossed over to the mainstream thanks in part to contributions from R&B superstars Earth, Wind and Fire.

Along with Philip Bailey’s gorgeous vocals, “Sun Goddess” also gets buttered up with a heaping helping of swirly strings from an ARP String Ensemble. Before the late ‘70s, when polyphonic synthesizers took over the industry, if you wanted to play synth chords you pretty much needed a string machine. ARP’s US release of the ARP Odyssey.

Chick Corea and Return to Forever - “Medieval Overture” (1976)

Chick Corea and Return to Forever - “Medieval Overture” (1976)

Another heavyweight keyboardist from the classic jazz fusion era is Chick Corea. Like Joe Zawinul, he got his start playing with Miles Davis. He really hit his stride with his band, Return To Forever, which blended elements of funk and prog in with the jazz.

Where Herbie Hancock was an ARP man, Corea was mainly aligned with Robert Moog’s creations. On Romantic Warrior, his band’s best-selling 1976 album, Corea surrounded himself with a stack of Moogs, including a Micromoog, Minimoog, Polymoog, and Moog 15 Modular. He wasn’t a Moog purist though, and also made use of an ARP Odyssey in the album’s creation.

Opening track “Medieval Overture” blends Corea’s synths with his Fender Rhodes electric piano—the latter run through delays like a restrained Terry Riley. Elsewhere he trades melodies with guitarist Al Di Meola. It’s a real melodic journey and an amazing example of Corea’s prowess with synthesizers and keyboards of all kinds.

Jeff Lorber Fusion - “Galaxian” (1981)

Jeff Lorber Fusion - “Galaxian” (1981)

The name Jeff Lorber may not be as respected as some of the others on this list, but his group—Jeff Lorber Fusion—should be known for more than just introducing Kenny G to the world. Their 1981 album Galaxian is a case in point: The title track is funky and energetic with plenty of synthesizer action—and not to mention a rather avant-garde introduction that’ll take you straight to the local arcades.

Lorber made use of a number of synthesizers on the album, including the usual Moog Minimoog. Unsurprisingly for the year, he also employed a Sequential Circuits synth, but surprisingly it wasn’t a Prophet-5 but a Prophet-10. The dual manual version wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as the five-voice model but it found a place in Lorber’s studio.

Other instruments included a Moog Modular and an Oberheim 4 Voice. The Oberheim SEM polysynths were particularly popular with jazz keyboardists—from Herbie Hancock to Lyle Mays, there was something about the 4 and 8 Voice machines that kept jazz keyboardists coming back—even after the OB-series had been released.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Lorber used an Oberheim 8 Voice, but it was in fact a 4 Voice. Many thanks to Jeff Lorber for reading and offering this correction himself.

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