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Lyle Workman: Uncommon Measures
by George Graham
(Blue Canoe Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/3/2021)
Back in the day when art rock was at its peak of popularity, the combination of rock with quasi classical influence could often get bombastic, with big productions, often with orchestral arrangements, and tours with huge, elaborate stage setups. The rise of punk and new wave in the 1970s was meant to be the opposite of that, and big-production progressive rock was never quite the same. Though prog rock persists to this day, with the rise of synthesizers which can make nearly orchestral sounds, the large-scale symphonic productions have largely faded from the scene.
This week, we have a throwback to the days of big orchestral productions with some flashy guitar work and elaboratel compositions. It’s by guitarist, keyboard player and composer Lyle Workman, and the all-instrumental recording is called Uncommon Measures. It goes all out with a 63-piece orchestra recorded in London’s famous Abbey Road Studios, and some hot fusion and rock guitar shredding. It’s an impressive recording that reflects Workman’s experience as a film composer.
A Southern California native, 63-year-old Lyle Workman has largely spent his career as a sideman and touring musician. He made his recording debut in 1986 as a member of the band Bourgeois Tagg. Over the yeas, we has worked with Todd Rundgren, Frank Black, Sheryl Crow, Sting, Ziggy Marley, and Norah Jones among others.
His work as a studio musician eventually led to soundtrack sessions, and then was recruited as a film composer, by among others director Judd Apatow, with Workman composing the music for “The 40-Year Old Virgin.”
Over the years, Workman has released a couple of solo albums, but his successful career as a musician and composer for hire did not leave him much time to pursue solo projects. He gradually accumulated ideas in his home studio, and over a four year period fleshed them out, eventually bringing in some first call players like drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Matt Chamberlain, and worked with orchestra arranger John Ashton Thomas, another veteran of the film world, who created the scores for “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel.” Thomas wrote arrangements around Workman’s sometimes improvised pieces, and gathered a full 63-piece orchestra to record at Abbey Road Studio.
The result is an album that is not shy about showing off its scale, with the orchestra being quite prominent, in the context of Workman’s sometimes slightly gnarly compositions. Sometimes they can be reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s edgy virtuosity with some occasional more melodic moments. The playing and arranging are impressive but memorable melodies tend to be few and far between. Still, it’s all very well done and though there are plenty of guitar solos in the course of the album, they mostly rise above the exhibitionism that was so often a characteristic of old art rock.
Opening is a lengthy piece called North Star which has all the ingredients: a complicated tune, opportunities for solos, including by electric violinist Charlie Bisharat, and the very cinematic orchestral score. The piece jumps around enough in mood that it evokes an a chase scene in some imaginary action film. <<>>
More contemplative sounding at least at its start is the following composition, All The Colors of the World. <<>> But the action winds up to a near frenzy for Workman’s guitar acrobatics. <<>>
More toward classic jazz-rock fusion is Noble Savage which keeps things at an energetic pace with the kind of quirky turns and abrupt jogs that can remind one of Frank Zappa’s instrumental music. <<>>
The album’s lengthiest piece at over 10 minutes is called Arc of Life whose title is descriptive as the piece winds its way through a number of phases. <<>>
Years ago, Lyle Workman played in a fusion session led by drummer Tony Williams, with Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke. The track Imaginary World is straight out fusion reminiscent at times of the Brecker Brother Band. Indeed, there are trumpet and sax solos by Jamie Havorka and Ron Dzuibla, respectively. <<>>
There are two nicely laid-back pieces that take advantage of the orchestra in essentially a duo with Workman’s guitar. Labyrinth of Love is a short piece with acoustic guitar. <<>>
And the album closes with Our Friendship with Workman’s very electric rock guitar floating above the sumptuous orchestral setting. <<>>
Guitarist, keyboard man and composer Lyle Workman, in the midst of a busy career as a sideman and film composer, has stepped out with a solo album that brings back the old-fashioned big-production art rock concept with elaborate, complex compositions with the constant presence of the full orchestra. The result is largely successful in making engaging, interesting music. Something this big can’t help being a bit show-offy, but the music tends to be more focused than some from back in the art-rock days. The playing is first rate, and the string arrangements are really excellent. Much of the music has a cinematic quality with both Workman and his orchestral arranger John John Ashton Thomas having had extensive Hollywood soundtrack experience.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The blending of the London-made recording of the orchestra with the LA studio sessions works very well. There is good clarity and warmth, though the recording falls short in capturing the dynamic range of the arrangements.
Uncommon Measures by Lyle Workman is something of a rare bird these days, in a world of electronic pop. But fans who remember the heyday of progressive rock will find this album quite enjoyable, as will those who enjoy movie soundtracks for their own sake.
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