Bill Bruford: Five G

I have been told by reliable sources that bassist Jeff Berlin wasn't always happy with the way he was mixed when he appeared on Bruford's albums. He felt he was mixed too low. Whether true or whether he was right or not, that certainly is not the case on "Five G." He is the piece's chief protagonist. His funky and involving bassline introduces and carries the show from beginning to end. At times he is doubled by guitarist Holdsworth, who turns in yet another impressive fusion guitar display. The tune is full of theme changes and super chops, most often presented by Holdsworth and Berlin. In those days Bruford, who is a great drummer but never seems to draw attention to himself, presided over one of the most interesting fusion groups that just happened to be disguised as a progressive rock band.

October 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: (square root) q.e.d.

square root q.e.d.

The title of the cut refers to the Latin "quod erat demonstrandum," which means basically that the evidence in a mathematical proof or philosophical argument has been demonstrated to be true or proven. Or, to put it more simply, the proof is in the pudding. Understanding why one would request the square-root of the proof is a question for John Forbes Nash or Russell Crowe. Take your pick.

In this case you would have to disprove the theorem that this is Weather Report with a guest guitarist. Even further you would have to disprove that Bruford borrowed a bit from the spirit of "Birdland." This is not an accusation of pilfering in any way. I see it more as homage. The piece is an in-depth investigation into the layers of music. This is something Weather Report lived. Bruford's band offers its own proof that they are highly capable musicians who could dissect music and rearrange its DNA. There is no pretense that this is the progressive rock that was much expected from Bruford at this time. This is investigative journalism. I suggest it is some of Bruford's most interesting work.

Reviewer's Fun Fact: The only other artist I remember who used mathematical formulas in his song titles was free jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. In fact, he used all sorts of symbols and drawings that seemed disconnected from his material. When I was jazz disc jockey, I had more trouble conveying the titles of his tunes than I did understanding his music – which wasn't easy either!

October 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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Bill Bruford: Land's End

"Land's End" is an interesting piece. It is very much Weather Report meets the progressive sounds of rock group Focus. Keyboardist Stewart has Joe Zawinul down! Berlin also seems to be channeling the live spirit of his contemporary Jaco Pastorius. The grandeur and sweep of the piece is also reminiscent of the material Focus would tackle from time to time. John Clark captures that guitar energy supplied to Focus by Jan Akkerman. Once the rhythms start kicking in, courtesy of Mr. Bruford, the jazz-fusion elements fully take over. Well, for a while anyway, until a straight rocker emerges that leads to an anthem-rock ending that is pure Focus. Have I made myself clear? Weather Report meets Focus. Yeah. That's right. That's the ticket.

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Joe Frazier

I am not going to review any of the songs on this album that contain Jeff Berlin's vocals. God bless the guy. He is one of the greatest jazz bassists alive today. But his voice on the opening cut sounds like a bad imitation of Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon. (Chronologically, this makes no sense as Duran Duran wouldn't hit it big for a year or two after this recording took place. So perhaps Le Bon was doing a good impression of Berlin.)

Percussionist Bruford's previous release, One of a Kind, had been a pure fusion affair. And it was very good. Gradually Going Tornado, however, was more progressive rock and aimed toward a pop audience. Guitarist Allan Holdsworth had been replaced with "the unknown" John Clark. He is a good player who sounds a bit like Holdsworth. But it is not good enough to sound a bit like him for this music. All in all, there is less interesting material on the album. But there are a couple of cuts of note. One of them is "Joe Frazier."

"Joe Frazier" is a showcase for the bassist Berlin. From his corner it was relayed that Berlin had been unhappy that in other recordings with Bruford his sound had been too low in the mix. He couldn't say that about this performance. He spends most of his time dancing in the middle of the ring. He is joined there by sparring mate Dave Stewart. It is a thrust and parry worthy of any jazz-rock bout. Clark makes his strongest effort on the tune as well. Bruford seems to be the referee, making sure the players don't clinch. Toss in some funky trick punches and a very good bass solo, and you have the full 15 rounds.

Reviewer's Fun Fact: During and after heavyweight Joe Frazier's boxing career he led a musical group called Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Frazier was the lead vocalist. He was a much worse singer than Jeff Berlin. But who was going to tell him?

October 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: One of a Kind - Part Two

In reviewing "Hell's Bells" from One of a Kind, I suggested the group, at least on this record, was half progressive rock and half fusion. As I listen to the music more to write further reviews, I am changing my mind a bit. It is now 60-40 in favor of fusion. I may change my view again tomorrow. But I write the words when I feel them.

Thirty years after it was recorded, the thing that really stands out on "One of a Kind - Part Two" is just how contemporary this music still sounds. If I listened to it without any information, I would have no trouble telling you the music could have been recorded last week. Bruford's shuffling drums back some ambient noise, synth and the engrossing guitar efforts of Allan Holdsworth. One of the problems with early synthesizers is that they have a tendency to sound really outdated years later. What was so thrilling then can seem almost toy-like today. None of that is apparent with Stewart's workout here. In between, the great Jeff Berlin can be heard advancing bass technique. Some well-placed Bruford pounding and Holdsworth volleys catch our attention. The tune steadily gains complexity and energy, leading to an abrupt climax.

There is a lot of fine musicianship going on here. As a longstanding fusion fan, I regret not having paid more attention to Bruford at the time. That was a big mistake that lessened the quality of my life.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: One of a Kind - Part One

"One of a Kind - Part One" serves as prelude to "One of a Kind - Part Two." It's a countdown in a way, full of rhythms of which some are provided melodically by Bruford on vibes. (I am guessing it is he and not keyboardist Stewart.) As countdowns go, this is successful. The jazzy and slightly Spanish opening section gives way to a mid-'70s Zappa-like section. (Think Ruth Underwood.) Then Holdsworth starts ripping away. The pleasing theme, now slightly Far Eastern and ascending, perfectly leads into the funk transition that becomes "Part Two." The ship jettisons its fuel tanks as it achieves orbit. To experience earth from orbit, see my review of "One of a Kind - Part Two."

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Bruford: Hell's Bells

Bill Bruford has one of the most impressive résumés of any drummer alive. He was the original drummer for rock supergroup Yes. He was an integral part of the progressive rock band King Crimson, and toured with another hugely popular band, Genesis. In recent years Bruford's efforts, especially with his group Earthworks, have trended toward the jazz of his background. But even in his early career, a jazz sensibility was never far from the center of the rock music he was performing. This made a group such as Yes sound even more distinctive. The band's music was never fusion, but its drummer played it that way.

The musicians heard here on Bruford's second solo outing were known collectively as simply Bruford. Most musicians hate it when you categorize their music. But we listeners have to do it in order to communicate with one another. This was a fusion band that progressive rockers would call a progressive rock band out of pride and fusion guys would call a progressive rock band out of snobbishness. The band was really a 50-50 jazz-rock/progressive rock proposition.

"Hell's Bells" is an up-tempo fusion number with a pop hook. A heavy backbeat supports layers of synthesized keyboards. A dastardly low-register Holdsworth plays his guitar as if inside a bottle of maple syrup. Bruford double-times the affair. Berlin's throbbing bass is a constant. This isn't the deep fusion of Mahavishnu or Weather Report. It was a more fun version meant to connect with the commoner in us all.

October 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tom Teasley: Good Foot Dervish

A word of warning here: do not listen to this song in the presence of any furniture whose main feature is a sturdy, flat surface (coffee tables, kitchen tables, etc.) as you will feel a strong desire to leap onto said platform and wave around random body parts. Teasley and bassist James King set up a muscular groove (providing yet another example of my long-held thesis that congas are the mostest funnest instruments on the planet) over which the horns are allowed to run rampant. Imagine the Tower of Power making a trip to the Middle East. Just don't do that while you're bustin' your coffee-table legs.

October 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ari Hoenig: Moment's Notice

Jazz standards in 4/4 time rearranged into odd time signatures have a fairly strong "crash and burn" tendency. If a tune was not intended to be in an odd meter (and there are many great ones that are), forcing a tune into 5/4 or 9/8 usually confuses the essence of the tune, and sometimes the musicians themselves – often producing sub-par improvisations along the way. "Moment's Notice," the opening track on Bert's Playground, is a major exception.

The Trane melody is cleverly rearranged into 7/8 here, and flows so naturally that Hoenig has beaten the odds and reinvented a jazz classic. Without doubt, the sophisticated playing also ensures that the arrangement works. Special guest Chris Potter, who is more than used to odd meters from his work with Dave Holland, is in fine form throughout, twisting and turning right along with the dropping of the beat. Rising star Jonathan Kreisberg also shines with a smart solo that dips into some heavy quoting territory. As expected, Hoenig's aggressive interaction with a light touch always remains driven by melody. This group, usually with a different saxophonist, can be found playing at Smalls every Monday night in NYC.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: La Guernica

"La Guernica" appears to have much to offer. In terms of live components, it features fine musicians Billy Cobham, Mark Soskin, Randy Jackson, Alvin Batiste and 3 guitarists, a horn and a string section. This is quite some undertaking. In its scope it measures up to and in some ways sounds like the larger version of Chick Corea's Return to Forever band that was operating concurrently. There is some heavy drumming, some good Batiste and an overall feeling of forward motion. But, alas, the piece is more form than substance. Too bad. Steve Khan is a superb guitarist. The liner notes say he plays acoustic guitar. If you can discern acoustic guitar in this piece, your hearing trumps mine. I detect some interesting chords on electric that sound a lot like Khan. But is it him? How can I tell guitarist Singleton from guitarist Mouton? It is all just too much. Cobham, Batiste, Soskin and Jackson all sound good together. But it is as if their best parts, and the best part of the tune, are really just stuck in the middle of a ramped-up Spanish groove of extraneous horns and strings that we have all heard a thousand times.

I don't want my ingrained disappointment in Cobham's new directions at that time to paint such a bleak picture. Amazing how it still bothers me 30 years later. But music is a very personal thing. The fact is any tune featuring musicians of this caliber is worth hearing. This is music above the normal standards. You just have to relax some of your other standards to appreciate it. I am happy to say that Cobham seems to have rediscovered his groove in recent years.

October 07, 2008 · 2 comments

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Billy Cobham: 'Anteres' the Star

Billy Cobham didn't leave all of his composing skills behind him on his two all-time best albums Spectrum and Crosswinds. His 1977 album Magic is an unfocused work to be sure. But there are a few pieces that do indeed capture the magic.

"'Anteres' the Star" sounds like some futuristic game-show theme. But it is a game show I would watch. Bassist Randy Jackson does a little bass intro similar to something you may hear on one of those old Chuck Mangione jazz-pop numbers. This does not bode well. Luckily the tune then diverges from the expected. The opening melody is good fun, really. But we get to the meat of the matter when the band finally kicks in. Cobham's drumming is compelling as always, and Jackson, Mark Soskin, Pete Mauna and the famous percussionists the Escovedos all have the groove down. But the star of the show is Alvin Batiste. He uses his clarinet to dice and chop Cobham's melody in a way that would make Ron Popeil proud. This section of the song is straight-ahead jazz and reminiscent of some of the aforementioned Crosswinds. It is good music. The game show theme returns as the credits roll.

TV Trivia: The very able bassist on this cut is the same Randy Jackson who would later become famous as one of the celebrity judges on American Idol. A show, by the way, I am proud to say I have never watched a minute of.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: Leaward Winds

Guitarist Pete Maunu turns in an impressive performance on this semi-fusion anthem. His notes are long, sustained forays. While Maunu's guitar is quintessentially fusion-sounding, pianist Soskin spends most of the tune in a more standard jazz mode. The cat can play. There is not much of Billy Cobham here aside from his perfect timekeeping. The short tune has a pleasing if slight melody, and is performed well.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billy Cobham: On a Magic Carpet Ride

"On a Magic Carpet Ride" shares one quality with another cut on the album, "'Anteres' the Star." The opening moments of both tunes sound like game-show themes. I can hear the announcer now: "Are you ready to win?!" But this piece is more substantial than "Anteres." Cobham does some heavy-duty bashing and double and triple timing. Guitarist Maunu catches fire as the tune moves along at breakneck speed. Kuhn plays impressive piano. Jackson works his bass overtime. Everyone has a foot on the accelerator. The tune combines good melody and jazz-rock power.

Many fusion fans were losing patience with Cobham during this period. It was good to hear that he could still bring it, even if he was bringing it less and less. Too bad about most of the rest of the tunes on the album. Ah, well…

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Narada Michael Walden: Saint and the Rascal

Narada Michael Walden's relationship with guitarist Jeff Beck is an important part of jazz-rock history. As drummer and composer, Walden was in part responsible for Beck's popularity in the genre. His contributions to Beck's famously popular Wired album are still admired to this day. Beck's leaning on former Mahavishnu Orchestra members Walden and Jan Hammer to produce material for him to play was no accident. He wanted to take that style of music and somehow find a way to make it more accessible. Walden knew how to help. Later he would go on to an award-filled producing career doing the same for many other artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Starship and on and on.

"Saint and the Rascal" isn't quite up to the standards of Walden's material heard on Wired. But it is an effective piece nonetheless. The melody has an ominous attitude that Beck grasps tightly. But much like Walden's work during this time, at some point the music is going to get a bit cute and funky. Though Walden, Lee and Sancious seem to thrive in such territory, Beck is less successful in that milieu. Luckily this section is short-lived. Beck returns with the main refrain. The band speeds up the proceedings tenfold to rock us out.

Garden of Love Light was a transitional album for Walden. He was making the move from jazz-rock fusion to soul, R&B and pop. This would prove to be the greatest decision he probably ever made in his life. But the album itself was half pop and half fusion. This put a listener like me into purgatory.

October 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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Narada Michael Walden: The Sun Is Dancing

Narada Michael Walden, known as Michael Walden before aligning with the guru Sri Chinmoy, came to public attention through his remarkable stint with John McLaughlin's second Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was a different type of drummer than Billy Cobham, the legendary stick man he replaced. No one had Cobham's power. Walden would be the first to tell you that. But Walden had his own type of power and clean speed that awed drummers as well. Even today, 30 or so years since Walden was an active everyday musician, drummers such as Dennis Chambers see him as a legendary figure on the kit.

"The Sun is Dancing" is dedicated to John McLaughlin. Its opening strains are similar in concept to some of the music on the second Mahavishnu Orchestra's Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Its rotating arpeggios and climbing synthesizer runs create an offering toward the sky. And much like that Mahavishnu album, there are dramatic theme changes. The band goes funk-city for some extended measures. Gomez plays clipped minor-9th chords to register his funkiness. Walden and bassist Lee jump in a pocket as David Sancious, another important but underappreciated fusion player, begins some spaced-out noodling. Sancious then adds some gospel organ. A few more nods to jazz-funk, R&B, gospel and the blues permeate the long ending, culminating in a return to the opening melody. You put all that stuff together and you get a damned good fusion performance.

October 07, 2008 · 1 comment

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