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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/26/2013)
The jazz-rock fusion scene, around since the 1970s, seems to have found a new generation of fans among the audience that goes in for jam bands, as we pointed out a couple of weeks ago in our review of the excellent new recording by the Long Island band Tauk. Released at about the same time was one by Florida guitarist Aaron Lebos, which explores some of the same musical territory, with impressive musicianship and elaborate, often musically complex compositions. Aaron Lebos' CD is called Reality.
Aaron Lebos is an academically trained player who received his bachelor's in jazz performance at the University of Miami and his masters at Florida International University. He has worked extensively as a sideman with a number of diverse musicians on the South Florida scene, such as jazz vocalist Nicole Henry. Reality is Lebos' third CD, after releasing two previous albums in 2010, which were more straight-jazz-oriented -- indeed his self-titled debut release featured mainly jazz standards. Now Lebos is out with Reality featuring a different group, with music the Lebos describes as being closest to his musical heart. It's an eclectic mix of some familiar jazz-rock fusion ingredients along with some occasional quieter moments. There are retro keyboard sounds and bits and pieces of fusion and art-rock from the past, including some nods to British guitar maven Allan Holdsworth, the art rock band Gentle Giant, and there is one piece with a reggaeton beat. His band on the CD includes three other like-minded South Floridians, Jim Gasior on keyboards, Eric England on bass and Rodolfo Zuniga on drums, all are excellent players who easily tackle the musically challenging compositions that Lebos created. Though Lebos is listed as composer, the whole band is given credit for the arrangements. The group is self-contained on the CD with so added players.
There are some facets of the album that evoke the fusion of the past, including those retro keyboards and some riffs and guitar sounds that show that Lebos has been listening to the music of the 1970s and Eighties. But there are enough new ideas and more contemporary influence to make it a fairly fresh-sounding recording, with strong musicianship and interesting compositional ideas. Indeed, Lebos resists the idea of calling his music "fusion."
Opening is a piece called Brain Booster, which is energetic and driving, if a bit show-offy with its tricky rhythm, and extended guitar solo by Lebos. <<>> Still, it has its moments, which it lets up on the accelerator for nice retro-sounding synth solo by Gasior. <<>>
A track called 9 to 5 is apparently named after the shifting meter, first in a nine-beat pattern, with a switch to five. It's one of the quirkier tracks but just the sort of thing that will give pleasure to the die-hard fusion fan. <<>>
More laid-back is Hippy Car Getaway which I think is one of the stronger tracks on the CD in terms of its interesting variety of influences. <<>>
Another of the album's more worthwhile pieces is HOnga which has a bit of a rock beat, but also some interesting interaction between the influences, along with an extended synthesizer solo. <<>>
The track with the quasi reggaeton beat is Don Zuniga, presumably named after the band's drummer. It's one of the more stylistic eclectic, taking some sharp musical turns at times. It occasionally reminded me of old Gentle Giant. <<>>
Bassist Eric England is featured on the piece called Yuenglish, which otherwise can hints at of some of Allan Holdsworth's music. <<>>
Lebos names the CD's mellowest piece after his young niece, Emmalise. After some of the album's more musically challenging tracks, it's a nice contrast. <<>>
The CD ends with its lengthiest piece Psychic DJ Strikes. It rather epitomizes the stylistic mix on this album with musical complexity and yet seemingly effortless playing by the band. <<>>
Reality, the new CD by Florida guitarist Aaron Lebos and his band is an impressive release that spotlights jazz-rock fusion that is in the classic mold with the emphasis on strong playing and with intricate, musically complex compositions. All the elements are there and Lebos and his group prove their mettle both ways. This is not music that you'll go around humming, but it's a treat for fans of fusion from the 1970s and Eighties, before it all went downhill with so-called "smooth jazz." Despite all the musical twists and turns on the CD, the tricky rhythms and harmonic shifts, Reality is quite listenable and not as abstruse as the content would suggest.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. This is a mostly electric album, and the sound reflects that. But the audio is generally clean, and the dynamic range, while not at audiophile level, is not too badly compressed.
With some jam band audiences seeming to be drawn to some serious fusion these days, perhaps an window can open on reviving more substantial electric instrumental music like this. Aaron Lebos can be a great way to start for the young jam band fan, and the album provides satisfying nourishment for the long-running fusion aficionado.
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