George Graham reviews Aaron Kingsley Durant's "Point of Reference"
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The Graham Album Review #2014

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Kingsley Durant: Point of Reference
by George Graham

(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/12/2020)

Jazz-rock fusion guitar albums had their heyday in the 1970s and 80s, but the genre remains active, with some worthwhile recent releases by such players as Aaron Lebos and Andrew Synowiec whom we recently featured in this review series. Most of the guitarists who have done such albums tend to be musicians who often do studio work or otherwise have a parallel career in music, since it has been a long time since an instrumental guitar fusion album climbed very far up the charts.

This week, we have a first-rate recording from a Boston area guitarist, who is not exactly ubiquitous on the music scene, and has released just one previous album. His name is Kingsley Durant, and his new release is called Point of Reference. His infrequency of releases is due to the fact that Durant’s main gig is as a mathematician.

Kingsley Durant comes from a musical family, the oldest of five brothers, four of whom play music, and his bio says that everyone on his mother’s side of the family is musical, with several in classical music. So growing up, Durant learned piano, trumpet, French horn, as well as guitar. He sang in choirs and studied music theory. Outside of classical music, he had an uncle with an extensive 1960s rock record collection, which served as a major inspiration. By his late teens, he was listening to jazz from Miles Davis, Weather Report and others.

As much as he was inspired by the music, he saw that his professional church organist grandfather ended up with little in retirement savings, and decided that pursuing his music would likely not be very lucrative. So he turned his attention to another of his interests, mathematics. After graduating from Boston University, he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics education and taught math in every context from middle school to college. He turned his attention to writing large-scale student math tests. But through that, he continued to play music when he could, sometimes in pit orchestras, and sometimes with his students.

Some sixteen years ago, Durant released an album that was primarily acoustic. Now he is out with Point of Reference kind of classic mellow electric fusion recording, easy going, but tasteful and musically substantial. He is joined by Boston area players keyboard man Steve Hunt, who worked with the late English guitar innovator Allan Holdsworth, and bassist Baron Brown, who has been a member of Steve Smith’s Vital Information band. On drums is Vinnie Sabatino. The producer is one of Kingsley Durant’s brothers, Jon Durant.

The album definitely has a sound inspired by some of the laid-back fusion of the 1970s and 1980s, from people like Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Robben Ford, when the latter was playing fusion. Durant’s compositions are melodic, the grooves are easy-going and the playing is understated. This is not an album of guitar pyrotechnics; nor it is an record of lightweight so-called smooth jazz. The material and playing are classy throughout. There is a kind of retro sound, especially from the appearance of vintage style keyboards like electric pianos and analog-sounding synthesizers.

Opening the generous 56-minute album is a piece called Stanky, with the kind of laid-back funky groove that permeates the recording. <<>>

With a 1970s influenced sound, in terms of the structure and rhythm, is a piece called Come Upstairs. Again the playing is tastefully understated. <<>>

One of the more appealing tracks with a funk groove is called Bay of Funky. It has all the right ingredients. Durant’s compositions tend to have more distinctive and hummable melodies than most instrumental fusion on the scene. <<>>

There are a couple of ballady compositions on the album. One is called First to Go and like the rest of Point of Reference gets the balance between melodic appeal and musical substance just right. <<>>

Another interesting track for its combination of influences is Bloomfield, with a kind of slinky beat, along with the vintage Wurltizer electric piano. But it has an almost plaintive melodic line. <<>>

Also in the laid-back category is a piece called Ancestral Shadows, featuring some acoustic piano. It’s also very nicely done. <<>>

About as close as this album comes to the West Coast fusion of 40 years ago by Larry Carlton or Lee Ritenour, is the track called Tell Me Some Good News. When you do this kind of thing, sometimes it’s a little hard to avoid the cliches, but like the rest of the album, it’s done with class. <<>>

The album ends with another of its ballads, a somewhat atmospheric piece called Never the Twain, which serves as kind of musical valedictory with its almost processional beat. <<>>

Point of Reference, the new release by mathematics educator and some-time guitarist Kingsley Durant is one of the most appealing guitar fusion albums to appear in quite a while. The compositions are impressive with tuneful melodies, easy-going grooves and very tasteful playing throughout. Unlike many such guitar centered instrumental fusion albums, it’s not flashy, and thought the players are first rate, there are no prominent displays of virtuosity. Ensemble playing is central to the sound, though there are opportunities for both Durant and keyboard man Steve Hunt to solo. But they don’t get carried away, and don’t seem as if they are trying to prove something.

Our grade for audio quality is an “A.” The mix has admirable clarity, the instruments are just where they need to be, and reverb and ambiance effects are skillfully used to give a near three-dimensional quality to the sound, especially on a good sound system or good headphones, another thing that is a reminder of the good old days.

I supposed you could call Kingsley Durant’s new album retro, with its classic fusion sound, but the guitarist and his band have taken the best elements of the fusion scene of the Seventies and Eighties and skipped the parts that would make it sound dated. The result is an album for great listening either for mood music or to sit and appreciate the quality of the content and musicianship.

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