Jazzrock, Jazz-Fusion and Smooth Jazz, what’s the difference?

Reading Time: 5 minutesFebruary 23, 2022

Jazzrock, Jazz-Fusion and Smooth Jazz, what’s the difference?

Once in while a discussion takes place on social media where Jazz sub-genres are seemingly randomly interchanged, causing some confusion. Now, there are people who don’t care about – or even like – definitions and (sub)genres … and one could skip the whole sub-genre debate by calling them all “Contemporary Jazz” of course. But for the sake of the argument (and this article) I will not.

Side note: for the banner of this article I picked saxophonists (as former performing saxophonist and “saxophone-lover” I could not resist). Michael Brecker (center) is my all-time favorite saxophonist, David Sanborn was a favorite during my teenage years, and Kenny G (who’s music I do not enjoy) is the most famous Smooth Jazz saxophonist, thus the logical choice to complete the “trio” with.

What I noticed, even on sites like Wikipedia, that Smooth Jazz is nowadays often used as an “umbrella term” by some people that includes Jazzrock and Jazz-Fusion, rather then Smooth Jazz being a sub-genre of it’s own. The consequence is that suddenly great Jazzrock musicians like David Sanborn, or Jazz-Fusion bands like the Yellowjackets are being labelled “Smooth Jazz” alongside real Smooth Jazz musicians like Kenny G.

Each Jazz sub-genre though represents a particular period along the time-line of Jazz history, with it’s own unique features. The average listener might not even hear the difference between those 3 related sub-genres, but perhaps in this article you will?

I will try to clarify the differences, or at least share my view on it, as I have read, have been told … and more important: hear it.

Jazzrock & Jazz-Fusion (late 60s to mid 80s to present) – similarities and differences.

Jazzrock as well as Jazz-Fusion both root from the late 60s (they were synonymous then), when Jazz musicians combined Jazz harmony and improvisation with Rock, Funk, and Rhythm & Blues.

After many decades of using mostly the same traditional “Jazz instruments”, from New Orleans (in the 20s) via Swing and Bebop to Cool Jazz and Hard Bop (in the 50s and early 60s), Jazz musicians had “hit a wall” sound-wise (except in Avant-Guard / Free Jazz).

With Jazzrock traditional Jazz instruments like double bass and piano were replaced by respectively electric bass and electric keyboards/synthesizers, guitarists (and lead instrumentalists) started using more effects then they so far had done in mainstream Jazz. In Jazz-Fusion those traditional Jazz instruments were not replaced per say, but the instruments used in Rock, Funk and Rhythm & Blues were simply added to the “arsenal”.

Due to the implementation of these “new instruments” in Jazz, musicians could continue experimenting and exploring their options sound-wise. Jazz-Fusion would later even develop further then Jazzrock when it came to influences, adding Latin and World (ethnic) Music musical “elements” and sometimes ethnic instruments as well.

Side note: The term Jazzrock can be a little “confusion” when you listen to the Funk, Soul, R&B and Pop influenced Jazzrock from the late 70s, 80s and 90s. Except for their earlier releases, bands like Spiro Gyra and musicians like David Sanborn, dropped Rock as influence and Jazzrock started to sound more “Pop-like”, making the term “Jazzrock” rather confusing since it no longer resembled Rock sound-wise. For this article I have chosen to include Jazzrock examples (at the end of the article) from the earlier period – still Rock influenced – by Sanborn, Spyro Gyra and Tom Scott, so you hear where the name Jazzrock was based on sound-wise.

Some musicians and bands did play both sub-genres, sometimes even on the same album. A great example is Michael Brecker, who played Jazz-Fusion (with Steps / Steps Ahead and the Brecker Brothers), but Jazzrock as well (when working with Steely Dan, Gary Burton, Jason Miles, Spyro Gyra, Bad News Travels Fast, BFD, and many others).

What was very important with Jazzrock & Jazz-Fusion, is that some of the Jazz traditions – like challanging improvisations, harmonies and a desire to innovate, to reinvent oneself – were upheld.

Very simply put: Jazzrock and Jazz-Fusion was in essence still Jazz, it just sounded more modern, more like Rock, Funk/Soul, R&B (and later with Jazz-Fusion also Latin/World). Most musicians who played these sub-genres had a background as Jazz musician.

Even though Texan-born guitarist Larry Coryell and ‘The Free Spirits’ is often credited as being one of the key early architects of jazz fusion music with their album “Out Of Sight And Sound“, it sounds to my ears more like (somewhat psychedelic) rock, similar to that of the Beatles, with a touch of Jazz and Funk.

An truly important early Jazzrock/Jazz-Fusion recording was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, recorded in August 1969. Bitches Brew was in many ways revolutionary. Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology, in Jazz it pioneered the application of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio effects that were an integral part of the music. Selling more than one million copies since it was released, Bitches Brew was viewed by some writers in the 1970s as the album that spurred jazz’s renewed popularity with mainstream audiences that decade.

It is therefore in my opinion a must hear album for all who love Jazzrock / Jazz-Fusion. No music for the faint-hearted (Smooth Jazz lovers) though.

Bitches Brew was a great source of inspiration for me, creating “Pod Race” for our Nu-Jazz project JazzProfilactika.

What made Smooth Jazz (early 80s to present) different?

The instruments used with Smooth Jazz were pretty much the same as with Jazzrock. Except that technological developments had not stopped. More advanced synthesizers, effects and sometimes even samplers/drum machines were used.

The real difference between Smooth Jazz and Jazzrock/Jazz-Fusion though, was that the Jazz traditions of challenging improvisations and Jazz harmonies were no longer upheld with Smooth Jazz. To reach a larger audience, melodies and harmonies became less complex and melodies and solos easier to “catch”. Smooth Jazz artists did no longer aim for the typical Jazz audience and did not longer wish do dazzle their listeners with wicked improvisations. Easy listening, easy going music, that was the goal. So, they shifted the balance – Jazz no longer as heaviest weight – on the scale, towards Pop and other contemporary music genres.

  • The “positive” thing about that was that many more people – who otherwise would never listen to Jazz – could now listen to a Jazz sub-genre they actually liked and understood. Even though Smooth Jazz never made Jazz as popular among the average listener as Swing did during the Swing era, it did boost the popularity of Jazz, a popularity that had declined among average listeners since Bebop and onwards to Avant-Guard and Free Jazz.
  • The “negative” consequence was that real Jazz fans and musicians considered Smooth Jazz as the next step in the “devolution” in Jazz. Many “traditionalists” were already not that fond of Jazzrock / Jazz-Fusion, but at least the musicians playing that had a Jazz background and upheld part of the Jazz traditions.

Very simply put: Smooth Jazz is in essence popular contemporary music (Pop) with a “touch of Jazz“. Musicians playing Smooth Jazz there for also did not need an extensive background in Jazz anymore. Any good “pop musician” could deal with Smooth Jazz, with a little extra effort at most.

What is the difference between these 3 sub-genres sound-wise?

Another difference with Smooth Jazz compared to Jazzrock and Jazz-Fusion is that vibratos, slurs and other “tricks” to express “emotion” with, are more frequently used. Even though effects are used by many instrumentalists in all 3 sub-genres, effects like Wah-Wah, Flanger and Harmonizers were more popular with Jazzrock en Jazz-Fusion musicians, while most Smooth Jazz artists prefer “rich” reverbs and delays.

  • Electric and electronic instruments replaced some acoustic instruments such as Double Bass and Piano.
  • Rock, Funk and Rhythm & Blues influenced Jazz.
  • Moderate complexity of melodies, challenging improvisations and moderate harmonies.
  • Electric and electronic instruments were added (not per say to replace acoustic instruments).
  • More diverse in influences, besides those as with Jazzrock also Latin and World / Ethnic.
  • More complex melodies, challenging improvisations and Jazz harmonies.
Smooth Jazz
  • Electric and electronic instruments were added, sometimes even samplers and drum machines.
  • Mostly pop-based musically, with a “touch of Jazz”.
  • Catchy “easy-going” melodies, rudimental improvisations and harmonies.
David Sanborn – Butterfat
Spyro Gyra – Pygmy Funk
Tom Scott – Get a Grip
Steps – Recordame
Yellowjackes – The Chosen
Chick Corea Electric Band – Ished
Smooth Jazz
Kenny G – Songbird
Dave Koz – Together Again
Art Porter – Inside Myself