Before the year 2023 runs out, it’s worth taking a moment to look back – WAY back – to acknowledge a slate of groundbreaking albums that turned 50 this year. 1959 is widely cited as the year that altered jazz, yielding classics like Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. But the same could be said of 1973. While jazz fusion exploded onto the scene in 1969 with Tony Williams’ Lifetime’s Emergency! and Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, 1973 produced not only more ground-breaking music, but some of the most enduring music of the century.
One of those came from guitarist John McLaughlin, a member of the genre-defining bands of Miles Davis and Tony Williams. He formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, and the band’s sophomore album, Birds of Fire (1973), remains one of the finest jazz-rock fusion hybrids ever assembled. McLaughlin retained the timbres of Bitches Brew, but eschewed its free-form jam format and those sounds through a tighter compositional lens. Drummer Billy Cobham (who also appeared on Bitches Brew and Birds of Fire) released his debut album as a leader that same year, Spectrum, the first drummer-led album to reach no. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts and climbed to no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 200.
Donald Byrd, another celebrated trumpeter, also entered the top 40 on the Billboard charts with Black Byrd. The recipe for this funky fantastic layer cake was rooted in production efforts from the Mizell brothers of Motown Records. While critics’ responses were mixed, this blend of soulful jazz and Motown funk resonated deeply with audiences, and upon release it was Blue Note’s best-selling album ever.
Other Miles Davis sidemen also recorded some of fusion’s finest in 1973. After leaving Davis’s group, pianist Chick Corea found fulfillment in his band Circle, an avant garde project with Anthony Braxton. While the music of Circle was exhilarating, he recognized that “my music has gotten too complex for people to relate to,” and aimed to create music “that people will carry home with them after they leave the gig.” Out of Stan Getz’s band, Corea formed Return to Forever, and the band’s sophomore outing, Light as a Feather from 1973, remains a favorite of fans and critics alike. Tunes like “500 Miles High,” “Captain Marvel,” and “You’re Everything” have become jazz standards, but it’s Corea’s a jazz-rock-flamenco-samba odyssey “Spain” that still inspires listeners and musicians today. Fellow keyboardist Herbie Hancock followed a similar path: on the heels of his exploratory Mwandishi band, Hancock sought to appeal to the masses after witnessing the audience reaction at a show by the Pointer Sisters. To get people dancing, he formed a new band and released Head Hunters in 1973, which immediately became the best-selling jazz album ever (at that time). The funky, syncopated bass synth line to “Chameleon” is instantly recognizable, but a deeper dive into that and other tracks reveals much more than singable lines and danceable grooves – it’s a masterclass in ensemble precision and the group’s creative impulse is on full display.
These albums are undeniably classics of the genre and feature some of the most exciting, ground-breaking, and enjoyable music ever put to record. They are worth recognizing in 2023 not only for their classic status, but because they remain relevant influences on today’s music, from jazz to R&B, from pop to hip-hop. As the year begins to wind to a close, take a moment to celebrate fifty years of these incredible albums, and rest assured you can hear these and hundreds of other greats all year round on Jazz 93.5.