Jazz Fusion + R&B = Prince


The musician Prince often acknowledged the R&B influence on his music. In interview after interview, he spoke of listening to artists such as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone and how they helped shape his own music. In fact, Sly and the Family Stone’s bassist, Larry Graham, eventually played in Prince’s band and the two became very close friends.

There are other influences. too, including pop and rock. But I’ve always been fascinated another aspect of Prince’s music: a sense of musical adventure that comes from the world of jazz.

I used to be puzzled by this because Prince didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, despite having a jazz pianist as a father. He knew about jazz and could play a little, but it wasn’t his main focus. He had to catch up by learning about jazz later in life. (As much as I love Prince, I cringed when I heard him mistakenly refer to the “Mixolodian Mode” (sic) during a TV interview. It’s nothing against Prince per se, but it seemed like he was pretending to know more about jazz than he actually knew.)

But Prince did love the sound of jazz and most of all, the sense of musical freedom and possibility it could bring to his music. So where did he get this from? Prince himself tells us how he was inspired:

“Well, I don’t think people learn technique any more. There are no great jazz-fusion bands. I grew up seeing Weather Report, and I don’t see anything remotely like that now. There’s nothing to copy from, because you can’t go and see a band like Weather Report. Al Di Meola, the guitar player, he’d just stand there in the center of the stage, soloing, until everyone gives him a standing ovation. Those were the memories that I grew up with and that made me want to play.”

So there we have it: jazz-fusion.

Jazz-fusion was a mixture of rock, jazz, and a bit of latin music that flourished during the 1970’s, when Prince was coming of age as a musician. I remember seeing Weather Report myself and can verify that they were thrilling! Great compositions, extended solos, analog synth colors, and virtuosic arrangements made for an all-instrumental sound that can be clearly heard in Prince’s music. The same goes for the group Return to Forever, which featured the guitarist Al Di Meola whom Prince mentioned in the above quote. They came straight out of jazz but tailored their music to the young audiences of the 70’s. It makes sense that an eager young musician like Prince would have thrived in this environment!

Where can we hear this influence in Prince’s music? In jazzy piano solos. With jazz horn arrangements courtesy of reedman Eric Leeds. During experimental string writing from jazz legend Clare Fischer. Also in jazz-influenced guitar solos played by Prince and his band members. Above all, it can be heard in the feeling of “anything goes” that permeates all of Prince’s music. Even at his most commercial, you never know what you’ll hear in a Prince song!!!

You can really hear the jazz-fusion influence in this video of Prince and his band performing “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” (The song starts at 15:24 in the clip.) This is one of Prince’s un-commercial masterpieces, and you’ll immediately hear the funky smooth-jazz groove. The jazz-fusion kicks in at 17:06. Check out the fast, unison ensemble lines and then Prince’s excellent jazz keyboard solo. And there’s even a jazz flute solo reminiscent of Return to Forever’s Light As A Feather album!

You can watch the performance HERE. I hope you enjoy this video, and use Prince as an example of how you can bring a similar sense of adventure to your own music!

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