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(Cherrytown 006 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/27/2011)
Jazz-rock fusion hit its peak in popularity in the 1970s and into the 1980s when the genre's innovators were most active. Since then, many of the key creative forces such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin have gone back to acoustic music for much of the time. But fusion continues to attract a dedicated following among long-time fans, and the jam band scene has helped to cultivate another generation of enthusiasts.
During fusion's heyday, there was a notable scene that developed in Europe, with groups like Passport, Solution, Brand X and Gong. This week we have a new recording by a contemporary German fusion band called Jazz Pistols, whose new release is called Superstring.
In instrumentation, Jazz Pistols are a basic power trio, with guitar, bass and drums, and they avoid much of any overdubbing on their CD, to present their music as they would perform it live. Their members have solid reputations in their home country and to some extent internationally. On guitar is Stefan Ivan Schäfer, on bass is Christoph Victor Kaiser, who attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship, and on drums is Thomas Lui Ludwig, who has performed in bands with Jeff Beck, Chaka Khan and Joss Stone. The trio has been together since 1995, and Superstring is their fifth album. But now there is an effort at distribution in the US
The group is a tight-knit trio who are all tasteful players, but who avoid the showy playing and long solos that sometimes marked 1970s fusion. They are co-equals in their music's emphasis, and while guitarist Schäfer wrote all the original music, the arrangements allow each member to be highlighted, in both solo opportunities and also in the way the compositions unfold. And while Schäfer and bassist Kaiser each use some tech enhancements such as some guitar synthesizer and some synthesizer sounds triggered by the bass, they very such strive to create music on the CD that would be as an audience would hear it in performance. And while the playing is not super flashy, their original music emphasizes tricky rhythmic changes and odd time signatures that highlight their ensemble playing. They also do two covers of fusion tunes from different styles of composers: Weather Report and Béla Fleck, both of which they put their own spin on. Their original music tends to be riff-based, and is not very strong on memorable melodic lines. Sometimes it seems as if tunes were strung together from not-very-closely related musical ideas, moving from one section to another in a different time signature and texture, but their music generally stays interesting and flows reasonably well and often has some moments that can really catch one's ear.
Opening is perhaps the CD's most memorable piece, in terms of its guitars riffs and sonic textures, the title track Superstring, named after the theory of particle physics. Schäfer uses his guitar synthesizer for the main riff, while the meter constantly shifts among 7, 5, 6 and 4-beat rhythms. <<>> Schäfer does get an opportunity to get in an old-fashioned cranked-up and fast guitar solo. <<>>
Jazz Pistols are not afraid to reveal where their influence comes from in their helpful and friendly CD booklet notes. The track called Chick San, they admit, is reminiscent of a Chick Corea piece, though it does take other directions. The track is very much like a live performance by the unadulterated trio. <<>>
Another clever admission of outside influence comes on the track called Bern's Rotation. The piece reminded them of Leonard Bernstein's America from West Side Story. The band figured the composer would be turning in his grave at this tune, and hence the name Bern's Rotation. It's another of the CD's highlights. <<>>
The first of the covers is Jaco Pastorius' Three Views of a Secret, which was recorded by Weather Report. It comes off as about the closest on the CD to a straight jazz tune, though Schäfer can sometimes hint at Jimi Hendrix in his playing. <<>>
Composer Schäfer seems to be into high-end physics. In addition to the title Superstring, there is also a track called SMBH, which the liner notes say stands for "super massive black hole." The track has some memorable moments, but it's one of the compositions that seems to be a composite of separate pieces. One is sometimes reminded of the work of British fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth on this one.<<>>
The other cover Jazz Pistols do is of Sex in a Pan by Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. It may be an unkind ethnic stereotype, but these Germans don't seem to be able to get very funky on this tune which had such a great groove in the Flecktones' original version. <<>> But Jazz Pistols do manage go in a different direction on the guitar solo. <<>>
Perhaps the best example of a piece consisting of seemingly unrelated parts spliced together is a track simply called New One. Each of the players is featured a solo part on what seems like a different tune in different tempos. Still it has its moments with each of the solos having something worthwhile to offer. <<>>
The CD ends with Rubikon a short reflective solo guitar piece by Schäfer. <<>>
Superstring the new 5th release by the 15-year-old German trio Jazz Pistols is a worthwhile CD that keeps the classic jazz-rock fusion tradition going with some first rate playing and interesting compositions. The sound is very much that of a live band performing in real time, and give a degree of energy and coherence to this band that others on the fusion scene might not have had with more produced-sounding recordings. And although all the members are highlighted, the CD manages to avoid very extended solos, instead, the compositions and arrangements make frequent shifts in sound or time-signature or sonic texture. As mentioned, the CD booklet notes are quite informative about the thinking that went into the various compositions.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." Though the recording shows signs of being jacked up in volume though compression, the dynamic range is not bad for this kind of electric music. The instrumental sounds are quite clean, with kudos for the natural-sounding drums.
There's not as much jazz-rock fusion in this style as there used to be, but Jazz Pistols are doing a thoroughly commendable job keeping it going in Germany. And now with their new CD seeking wider distribution in the US, American fusion fans will have greater opportunity to hear this excellent trio.
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