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Strange Jazz Universe: Spave Me-Now!
by George Graham
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/17/2021)
As I have noted in these reviews, the jazz-rock fusion scene has lots of different gradations in the combinations of influences. So there is rather wide range of sounds and styles, and also in the degree to which the groups emulate the pioneering artists of the 1970s.
This week we have an interesting project by a group called Strange Jazz Universe, with their recording called Space Me-Now! It’s a mix of some funk, early fusion sounds, retro soul influence, and with vocals on most of the tracks.
Strange Jazz Universe is headed by Southern California drummer Ron Bruner, Sr. Ron Bruner Jr. and his brother Stephen are both in bands, with son Stephen better known as the bass player and pop artist Thundercat. Ron Sr. has played with a rather wide range of artists from the straight-ahead jazz of Gary Bartz to the fusion of Stanley Clarke to the soul of the Supremes and the Temptations. This group, Strange Jazz Universe has bits of those different musical ingredients, including some references to the kind of spacey soul that was around in the 1970s. Though the personnel varies from track to track, the most prominent figure in the group is vocalist Katja Koren, who appears on four of the five rather lengthy tracks that make up this somewhat abbreviated album of about a half hour’s length. The material has a rather electric sound, with fuzzed up saxophones, and some rocky guitar work. Ms. Koren’s vocals can bring in an air of the 1970s with her soul influence and hints of the disco scene. But there are also some more left-field moments, showing that this is not strictly a retro pop album as such.
Opening is a piece called Leave the Rest to the Past. Drummer Bruner provides some electronic percussion, which sounds sequenced. The vintage-sounding electric piano works well with the rather spacey sound, which shows the group’s retro bona fides. <<>> Richard Emery is heard on the guitar. <<>>
Probably the track that is closest to pop is titled Everything Is, with a particularly strong performance by Ms. Koren. <<>> Still the tune has space for a jazzy sax solo by Keith McKelly. <<>>
A piece called All Sing Along, is a curious mixture of 1970s-style lyrics about music as empowering, with the combination of a danceable beat and a spacey arrangement. <<>> The main featured soloist is bassist Ben Shepherd. <<>>
There is one instrumental track, End of the Day. Bruner plays his drums more in the jazz style, with a more complex rhythmic approach. It also recalls the early 1970s in the period when jazz was starting to get electric and atmospheric. Dave McMurray plays an odd-sounding electronically modified sax, also reminiscent of the Seventies. <<>>
The album ends with This Is My Truth, which shows more rock influence. It’s another of the stronger tracks. <<>> The guitar solo this time is from Jamie Kime. <<>>
Space Me-Now!, the new release by the project called Strange Jazz Universe, headed by drummer Ron Bruner, Sr., is a distinctive mix of fusion, rock and soul influences with a healthy helping of 1970s ingredients from the vocal style to the texture of electric instrumentation to the rhythmic approach. The group also draws from some pre-fusion electric jazz. The result is an interesting and entertaining album that is often danceable and occasionally spacey. It’s a short record, only 31 minutes from five rather lengthy tunes.
Sonically, the album is not very clean. The distorted sound of the saxophones at times was probably meant as an effect, but I find it irritating, and the overall mix has a heavily compressed, in-your-face sound. But especially in the background, it’s still quite listenable.
Strange Jazz Universe is a rather good name for this group. It’s quirky, imaginative and retro, and manages to create a mixture that works well, and is admirably distinctive.
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