George Graham reviews Aaron Lebos Reality's "141 Layers of Ikigai"
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The Graham Album Review #2010

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Aaron Lebos Reality: 141 Layers of Ikigai
by George Graham

(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/15/2020)

It has been over 45 years since jazz-rock fusion began to achieve some popular success, with bands like Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the groups headed by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Then most of the main players in the movement had as a common denominator being part of Miles Davis’ bands in the late 1960s. But fusion persists to this day in different variations, in a spectrum from rock to funk, world music influence to closer to mainstream jazz. This week we have a new recording by a guitarist whose music fits into the rockier side of the fusion scene, Aaron Lebos and his band Reality, whose new release is called 141 Layers of Ikigai.

Aaron Lebos is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, based guitarist who has been working on the Miami-area music scene since the early 2010s. He is a graduate of University of Miami’s music program, and got his masters in jazz performance at Florida International University. He has worked as a sideman with various South Florida performers including vocalist Nicole Henry. He released an album of mainly jazz standards before launching his fusion band Reality in 2012. We featured his album called Reality on this review series in 2013. Since then, he has released three other recordings, and now is out with 141 Layers of Ikigai, which continues his string of high quality fusion with very good playing and interesting, musically substantial compositions.

Unlike some of his previous recordings, the personnel varies from track to track on the new album. His most frequent colleague is keyboard man Jason Matthews. Drummers include Armando Lopez, David Chiverton and Rodolfo Zuniga, who played on the 2013 Reality album. The bassists are Andres Ferret and Eric England, each of whom plays on half of the album’s eight tracks. Lebos composed the music, but he gives his band-mates credit in the arranging. Lebos himself plays an especially wide range of electric guitar sounds from mellow to metal. Sometimes, he does a series of shorter solos with each having a different kind of guitar sound. He tends to keep his guitar solos from getting too long, but also provides opportunities for his musical colleagues to take the spotlight on the album.

As on his previous releases, Lebos’ compositions tend to follow the fusion model of having less emphasis on memorable melodic lines, and more on the improvisation aspect. But rather than the music being a succession of long solos, the compositions are structured with multiple sections, with textural, rhythmic or sonic contrasts between the parts.

Opening is a piece called Phoenix which Lebos writes is dedicated to his now two-year-old son. It’s typical of the quality of the work on the album, with the contrast between the tricky 7-beat funk rhythm and the rocky “B” section. <<>>

More laid-back is a piece called Viking Funeral which also alternates between quite contrasting sections, for which Lebos uses appropriately disparate guitar sounds. <<>>

The album’s longest track is called Gold Rush which also goes through a bunch of interesting changes from funk to atmospheric. <<>> Eric England get a chance for an extended bass solo. <<>>

On the other hand, the following piece, Middle of the Road is the shortest but also goes through at least as many interesting musical and sonic changes. <<>>

For me one of the most absorbing tracks is called Always with Me, which boasts especially interesting arranging with some nice sonic textures, with at times what seems almost like a country drum line, until it veers off into a fascinating tangle of interlocking rhythms. <<>>

Probably the track closest to rock in sound, in terms of Lebos’ guitar work, is Blood Money, but it also can spin around and get into a part reminiscent of the gnarly chord changes of the late British art rock guitarist Allan Holdsworth. <<>>

Speaking of art rock, the album closes with a piece called 141 which certainly qualifies as being part of the genre, with its edgy complicated sound. <<>>

“Ikigai” is a Japanese expression meaning, roughly, the reason to live. 141 Layers of Ikigai, the latest album by South Florida guitarist Aaron Lebos and his somewhat variable band Reality is a thoroughly worthwhile recording of contemporary jazz-rock fusion that combines tasteful playing, and excellent, musically substantial compositions, marked by outstanding arrangements. Lebos tries to keep things interesting by changing direction a lot in the context of the tracks, rather than being focused on long solos. Lebos also endeavors to dispel musical boredom with his changing guitar sounds. About my only complaint is that sometimes, he seems to be playing with different sounds just for the sake of showing off those sounds. Some of his guitar textures are more appealing than others.

We’ll give the album close to an “A” for sound quality. The album was recorded over several months in different studios, but it came together well. Lebos’ guitar sonics are well-captured. And the drum sound is particularly crisp. Dynamic range is decent by today’s unfortunate standards.

The last couple of years have seen a fairly steady stream of worthwhile jazz-rock fusion recordings, proving that the genre is alive and well. Aaron Lebos’ Reality’s 141 Layers of Ikigai is a stellar example.

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