Electric Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu On 'Fusion On Film'

Screening in San Francisco to be hosted by fusion drummer Steve Smith.

The influence of rock 'n' roll on jazz will be examined when "Fusion on Film," a compilation of rare and often raw footage, screens Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the San Francisco Jazz Organization's Spring Season 2000 shows.

Jazz-fusion drummer Steve Smith, 45, will host the screening.

"There's an underground of fusion fans who have collected and traded bootlegged videos of really rare footage of the classic fusion bands," says Smith, who assembled the clips. "And there's not much of this footage in existence."

Because the film documents music from 1969 to the early '70s, before videotape became common, the source material was often difficult to come by.

"It's rough," said Smith, who will introduce each film segment. "It's like copies of copies. It's not like you're going to be seeing Woodstock or something. It's not really theater-quality; it's for guys who are fanatics. 'Hey, come on over to the house and let's listen to some Mahavishnu Orchestra.' "

Fusion emerged in 1969, and the film's first clip couldn't be better: Miles Davis live in Berlin, with drummer Jack DeJohnette, electric keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Wayne Shorter playing music from Bitches Brew (RealAudio excerpt of title track), widely acknowledged as the album that started it all.

Also on tap is the Mahavishnu Orchestra from 1971, with guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird.

"It's very hard to watch, but the playing is unbelievable," Smith says. "And then there's some Return to Forever with Corea, [bassist] Stanley Clarke, [drummer] Lenny White. Again, the sound is incredible. If you're a fanatic or just interested in it, I think you'll like it."

Seminal fusion group the Weather Report also will be represented. "I've got some footage that is very rare, with [drummer] Eric Gravatt and [bassist] Miroslav Vitous. This goes way back. They were very free then in the early '70s, before they honed their unique sound. Then I have some later Weather Report with [bassist] Jaco Pastorius and [percussionist] Alex Acuna — not playing Heavy Weather [from 1977], but right before that, so they're playing some of the older music."

Smith, 45, who lives in Marin County, north of San Francisco, is nothing if not a fusion expert. One "Fusion on Film" segment shows him playing with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in 1976. Smith was 22. The performance was recorded for a music show called "Sound Stage," which originated in Chicago.

As a member of arena rock band Journey in the early '80s, Smith met someone involved in the show and paid him to go into the vaults and make a copy.

"I'm in the loop with a lot of these [jazz] people," Smith said. "I don't have everything that's available, and I'm trying to get more. But I do have a lot of good stuff."

While keeping busy playing with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz and rock, including Mariah Carey and Savage Garden, Smith also has his own projects.

He has two CDs coming out with his fusion group Vital Information, which includes keyboardist Tom Coster, guitarist Frank Gambale and bassist Baron Browne: Show 'Em Where You Live and Live Around the World, 1998–99. He also is putting out a CD, The Light Beyond, with Gambale and guitarist Stuart Hamm, and VTT2, with guitarist Scott Henderson and bassist Victor Wooten.

Smith also is the drummer in guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's band Yo Miles!, which is devoted to the music of Davis' 1969–75 period. The group plans to record its second CD in August. Another Smith project is a book and video for Warner Bros. on the development of the drum throughout the history of jazz and rock.