This is the sixth year of the Burning Ambulance Podcast. This is episode 71, and I decided at the beginning of this year that it was time to change things up a little. So for all ten episodes that I’m going to be presenting this season, we’re going to have a single subject, and that subject is fusion. As part of that conversation, I’m talking to legendary drummer Lenny White.
Lenny White played on one of the most important albums in the history of fusion, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. In the clip that you’re gonna hear when I finish talking, right before the interview begins, he’s on the left hand side, with Jack DeJohnette on the right. And you want to hear something insane? That was his first ever recording session! He was recommended to Miles Davis by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. White was in McLean’s band at the time.
Within a year, he had also played on Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy, and Joe Henderson’s At The Lighthouse. In just the first half of the Seventies, he was on Eddie Henderson’s Realization, on two albums by a Latin jazz-rock band called Azteca, and For Those Who Chant by trumpeter Luis Gasca, a record that also had Henderson, and Carlos Santana, and a bunch of other people from across the jazz and rock spectrum.
In about 1972, he joined Chick Corea’s band Return To Forever and made four albums with them — Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior. He also played on solo albums by Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola, and made records under his own name that were like a perfect storm of jazz and rock players working together. His 1977 album Big City has Herbie Hancock, Neal Schon of Journey, and Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire on it. But despite being at the heart of the fusion movement at the time that it happened, he doesn’t actually like the term. He prefers to call what he does jazz-rock, and when you listen to what he was actually playing, that distinction is very clear and makes perfect sense.
A lot of people think the use of electric instruments, particularly synths and other keyboards, is a key dividing line between fusion and the jazz that came before. But for me, it’s about the beat, it’s about the drummers. Lenny White is one of maybe five drummers who really shaped an entire genre in their image — the others are Billy Cobham, who’s been on this podcast before, and Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Alphonse Mouzon. These guys played with Miles, they played with Weather Report, they played with Herbie Hancock, they led their own groups, they were the guys who established the sound of fusion by finding a way to combine the aggressiveness and drive of rock with the subtlety and suppleness of swing, and in Lenny White’s case in particular, he brings a tremendous Latin feel to the music as well.
The Latin element is really important, because Latin musicians were stretching out just as much as their jazz and rock peers in the crucial years between 1969 and 1975. Listen to the Fania All-Stars’ Latin-Soul-Rock album, which featured guest appearances from Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer, less than a month before they would leave the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Listen to what Eddie Palmieri — who’s also been on this podcast — was doing on albums like Superimposition, Vamonos Pa’l Monte, and Live At Sing Sing. Listen to Santana’s run of albums from Caravanserai through Borboletta. A lot of this stuff is hardcore jazz fusion set to a Latin beat, and in terms of complexity and intensity you can put it right next to King Crimson, Yes, and all the other prog-rock acts of the time. And funk was going through a radical evolution, too — listen to how complex the songwriting and arranging is on albums by Parliament, Earth, Wind and Fire, Slave, and the Isley Brothers — and these guys all knew it. They all knew each other, they all knew what they were doing, individually and collectively. There were no borders. There were no limits. Lenny White has a hilarious story in this interview about hanging out with some of the guys from Yes.
I really enjoyed getting the chance to talk to Lenny White. He’s had an incredible career, and he was there at the beginning of a musical revolution. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Music in this episode:
Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew” (Bitches Brew)
Luis Gasca, “Street Dude” (For Those Who Chant)
Lenny White, “Rapid Transit” (Big City)
Return To Forever, “Sofistifunk” (No Mystery)