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(Tone Center 40352 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/3/2004)
The contemporary music scene has bred many styles since the creative musical explosion of the 1960s. Many were flashes in the pan, popular novelties that were best forgotten, like disco. Some were worthwhile musical endeavors that attracted small but devoted audience but more or less played themselves out creatively as the artists moved on to other things. And some have become merely fodder for the small-time nostalgia circuit. But it seems that almost every one of those styles has its long-time adherents.
This week, we have a CD in a style that is, I suppose, in the middle category, a musical genre which was the center of a lot of creative activity in its day, but which has largely disappeared from the public eye, as some of its pioneering artist have moved on to different approaches. I'm referring to jazz-rock fusion, a style which arose in the 1970s from groups launched mainly by veterans of Miles Davis' bands. And that's not to be confused by the so-called "smooth jazz" of today what finds its way onto elevators everywhere. I'm talking about the very electric music of people like the Mahavishu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Chick Corea's Return to Forever. And many of these artists have been moving more into acoustic music in the decades since. Our CD this week is very much in the electric fusion mode and it is interesting in concept. It's called A Guitar Supreme: Giants Steps in Fusion Guitars, and it features performances by eight different fusion guitarists with a common rhythm section, all doing compositions either written by or associated with jazz saxophone great John Coltrane.
The CD was produced by one of the guitarists who appears, Jeff Richman, a Los Angeles-based player who has worked as both a sideman and leader with various groups. And he enlisted a kind of Who's Who of the rock-oriented side of fusion including Texas guitar phenom Eric Johnson; Robben Ford known for his work with the L.A. Express and his own blues and fusion recordings; Steve Lukather, of the 80s band Toto; plus pickers with more solidly jazz credentials like Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and Frank Gambale, of the Chick Corea Elektric Band.
The rhythm section, by the way, is stellar. It includes Weather Report veteran Alphonso Johnson on bass; Tom Brechtline who has also played in Chick Corea's bands on drums, and Larry Goldings, one of the mainstream jazz world's current bright lights on organ. Producer Jeff Richman provides rhythm guitar, and he is also credited with writing the arrangements to the tunes, thus providing the framework for the guest guitarists rather than allowing them to shape the direction of the tunes.
John Coltrane was, of course, one of the most influential figures in jazz. In his musical career between 1955 and his death in 1967 at ago 40, Coltrane's musical sophistication and technical prowess was remarkable. He also helped to define new directions in jazz. His keening wail on sax was instantly recognizable. In a way, it's a sound that could be hinted at by an electric guitar, though with the complexity of Coltrane's compositions, few rock guitarists have tried, and even fewer have been successful. And jazz purists might also look askance at rocking up the Coltrane literature. But Jeff Richmond decided to give it a try, and the results are generally worthwhile. It certainly does bring back the classic jazz-rock fusion sounds with energetic, very plugged-in guitars, and a tight rhythm section.
This all-instrumental album spans a fairly wide range of music for which Coltrane was known, including mostly originals, plus the old classic My Favorite Things which became a staple of Coltrane's.
From someone who knows Coltrane's music, this CD is a slightly mixed blessing. It's nice to hear some able guitarists taking up the music of such a significant figure in jazz. But for me some of the arrangements by Richman don't work as well as others and tend to hold back the guitarists, who sometimes don't seem to catch fire until their improvised solo comes along. Also, Richman consciously made an effort to take a different direction on each of the tunes, rather than hew to the Coltrane approach. So in an effort to find different ways of presenting the tunes, he sometimes does not make the best choices. But nevertheless, the recording is an engaging one with some excellent guitar work by all involved, and the rhythm section shining throughout. It's a bit of a godsend to fans of fusion and hot rock guitar who might have been feeling a little musically hungry lately.
The 12-track CD begins with guitarist Eric Johnson doing Resolution from Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Though Johnson is more of a rock player than a jazz or fusion fretmeister, the track is a definite highlight. Johnson's great tone and flawless technique is brought to a new level by the Coltrane piece. <<>>
The CD's producer Jeff Richman is the soloist on an arrangement of Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue which was also recorded by Coltrane. Richman's orientation toward rock guitar is evident his approach on the track. Still, the energy level sustains it. <<>>
Also with a distinctive rock feel is guitarist Greg Howe's performance on Coltrane's masterpiece Giant Steps. Howe throws in a bit of Hendrix influence in this creative arrangement. <<>>
There are some genuine jazz guitarists who appear on this CD. Mike Stern is one of them, and his more fluid, laconic style on My Favorite Things is a contrast to the stream of high-speed notes that the rockers tend toward playing. <<>>
Frank Gambale of the Chick Corea Elektric Band is featured in the Coltrane ballad Naima. Richman's arrangement seems rather stiff at times, but once Gambale gets into his solo, the track catches fire. <<>>
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather brings his decidedly more rock-oriented approach to Crescent. Richman's arrangement also leans in that direction, so it fits Lukather's style well, though for me, it's not the standout track on the CD. <<>>
The piece featuring Robben Ford, Village Blues is given a bluesy, funky approach which is right up Ford's alley, And while it does not sound very much like Coltrane, it's one of the CD's strongest tracks. <<>>
The album ends with the piece featuring one of the pioneers of jazz-rock guitar Larry Coryell, who was plugging in with jazz the mid-1960s. It's a lesser-known Coltrane composition called Satellite, which bears a resemblance to Giant Steps. With Coryell's long experience in straight-ahead jazz as well as an appreciation of Coltrane, he puts in probably the best performance on the CD combining technical ability with taste and understanding of the material. The rhythm section, especially organist Larry Goldings, also distinguishes themselves. <<>>
A Guitar Supreme: Giant Steps in Fusion Guitar, produced by and featuring Jeff Richman, is an interesting and mostly worthwhile venture. As much as John Coltrane has influenced jazz and fusion players over the years, there have been relatively few fusion-oriented recordings of Coltrane's music. This CD combines the two, in the distinctive context of a series of different guest lead guitarists and gives us a nice taste of what I suppose could now be called "classic-style" guitar-oriented jazz-rock fusion in the 21st Century. The cross-section of guitarists chosen for the project is a good one, running from rock players to those steeped in straight-ahead jazz, and the rhythm section is stellar. Obviously, some tracks work better than others, and I get the feeling that Richman's arrangements, trying as they did to feature different styles from track to track, were somewhat restricting to the guest guitarists. But hearing all these impressive guitarists together on one CD with the same rhythm section makes A Guitar Supreme one that long-time fusion fans will not want to pass up.
Sonically, we'll give the CD one of our rare grade "A"s. The mix and clarity are very good, and volume compression was not over-used, giving a decent dynamic range.
This kind of jazz-rock fusion had its genesis and peak in popularity back in the 1970s, but creative activity in style still continues. A Guitar Supreme is an excellent example, and it's also likely to become a must-have CD for a lot of guitar fans and students of the instrumernt.
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