Friday, December 12, 2014

Richard Tee "The Bottom Line" (1985)

Light listening and pop grooves with a slice of J-fusion from Tee across the sea, and that's The Bottom Line.

Richard Tee was certainly more respected and noteworthy among the New York jazz and session scene than he was by any popular fanbase. His solo success never took off here in the U.S yet was admired and respected deeply. In fact, until Inside You, the Brooklyn-raised keyboardist hadn't much support for his solo efforts nor a release stateside of his discs, even though they were handled by Bob James' Tappan Zee label in the early 90's.

The Bottom Line is a relative obscurity in Tee's solo catalog and another New York recording only released in Japan under King Records' subsidiary fusion label Electric Bird Records airs on the side of easier listening, pop-centric of Tee's releases to date. With a down-sized band of what would become his regulars John Tropea (electric guitar), Steve Gadd (drums), Marcus Miller (bass) and Ralph McDonald (percussions) with divided support by Will Lee (bass) and Dave Weckl (drums) with vocalists Bill Eaton and Zack Sanders

Unlike his previous Strokin' (1975) and Natural Ingredients (1980), no strings or horns this time around, and no Tee-related puns reflecting the sleeve arts. Scaled back musician support and soloing a la jazz leanings, Tee focused on a mostly pop-direction with some vocal-led pieces that mostly stray from his usual bluesy-gospel and southern influences of past. A different direction that may have been tailored to appeal to Japanese audiences and radio-friendly at that, further reflected by trimmed track lengths, tightly kept around 3 to 4 minutes. 

In a way, The Bottom Line is Richard Tee's first solo album for the target audience (and on CD at this time for that matter).

Though Tee was most proficient for his elegant bluesy soul on piano with signature accompaniment by his unmistakable pioneered phaser Fender Rhodes, there's a satisfying plenty on here along with vocal pieces that ramped up on his solo efforts outside of Stuff, which are still lyrically awkward at times and simplistic, yet upbeat and feel-good even when Bill Eaton takes over on Miss-Understanding

As per tradition, there's a steady mixture of instrumental and vocal numbers on here with Tee's soulful and gospel cadence. Nippon Lights is the disc's real star instrumental, flavored for ethnic Japan, providing rich nightlife imagery with regard to cultural clashes of East and West, with some spikey electric soloing by Tropea. What Can I Say is a companionate instrumental to the former with like distorted guitar fills and obligatory Linn drum claps on each. Though the Linn drum was mostly retired if not defined and confined by the heart of 80's sound, it's accepted use on various tracks works despite its cheese, even on the disc's soulful opener If You Want It which may just have you clapping along.

Faulted by lyrical blunder and staccato flow, which is just something you come to accept when admiring Tee's playing, some tracks fizzle out, seemingly hitting a wall while looped verses rove on on a few tracks including the title The Bottom Line. Soloing lacks in turn for vocals here by Tee himself, handled mostly by Tropea's well-placed guitaring, whose jazz-rock touches still only appetize jazz ears.

The Bottom Line will mostly appeal to Tee fans only, there's no denying that there were some fine ideas here paired with a wealth of variation: prime fusion-styled hooks and melodies that were some his best yet that sadly wound up half-baked. Whether it's Weckl's cymbal taps and lead in on Moving On or the doorbell-like Rhodes melody on the bouncy Spring Is You, nothing has been repeated on any other releases. Album outliars No Real Way is a down-tempo tribute to doo-wop balladry, while a solo piano duel with Gadd's rhythmic support on a speedy take of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. McDonald's percussions are just the right touches on each.

The Bottom Line? A pleasing and catchy effort for enthusiasts that manages to invite repeat listens with its care-free appeal that shines on all Tee's works despite its desparate play to commercial radio.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Nippon Lights, Moving On, Spring Is You
GREAT variation and approaches with regard to fusion, somethings are different while keeping the Tee sound richly intact
INTRODUCING: guitarist John Tropea, whose balance of jazz-rock textures would become a regular Tee member throughout the 80's and beyond
LYRICS are simplistic and often awkward sounding at times as if they were penned by/for Japanese audiences

>>> About The Release
Richard Tee's albums demand price tags of around $30 and up with the exception of Inside You which was his only official U.S. release. It can really only be explained by way of Japan's marketplace where releases don't lose their value as much as CDs anywhere else in the world. On that note...

The Bottom Line was originally released by Electric Bird Records in 1985 on CD and LP. In 2002, re-issue label Roving Spirits was licensed to reprint the album (RKCJ-9001/RKCJ-6011) under its Electric Bird Super Fusion Master Series. The original is a little more difficult to find these days. The re-issue also demands a pretty hefty tag as well from around $35-50 used and higher for a sealed one, as it remains one of the most elusive of Tee's solo albums due to its Japan-only release. We managed to grab a copy of the re-issue direct from an Amazon Japan seller, which was remarkably cheaper than Amazon U.S.

Roving Spirits advertises this as a remaster, whose bassier mixing qualifies in the loudness-war variety

The booklet's rear mimicks the original LP artwork. While missing some of the original musician portraits, inside the book  contains a multi-page reflection of jazz-fusion, the album's production and Tee's biography sadly unintelligable without knowledge of Japanese. 

The booklet credits are mostly bi-lingual, mirrored completely in English on the back of the orange-clad inlay, which is certainly more budget-oriented and different from the original print.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Super Funky Sax "Wazzup?" (1996)

Only for the sax hungry. That's Wazzup.

The third and final in David Matthews' obscure Super Funky Sax series, Wazzup? brings back more funked-up rhythms for this time around in a mostly fairweather set arranged by David Matthews for the pop side of saxophones.

Where 1994's Mo' Better Funk came up short, 1996's Wazzup? sought to improve with only marginal results of more of the same generic, yet catchy Matthews' originals and covers with some impressive players that show off virtuosity on not only the sax but also guitars. Not without improvement, Wazzup? is really for completists of this unknown saga of saxophoning -- or just for people who love saxophones matched with guitars. When you pair the two together, waz not to love?!

Wazzup?, like Mo' Better Funk on the Japan-only Swecca label, is a New York production only released to Japanese audiences (oddly enough), similarly plagued by a somewhat lusterless outcome yet still results in groovy, funkable albeit painfully mediocre arrangements by veteran jazz-funk-orchestra arranger David Matthews whose far greater capabilities aren't on display here.  In fact, he likely poured more soul into other lesser known Japan-only productions like Yamato 2520.

Unlike the original 1980 Super Funky Sax (which is getting a long-overdue reprint this December), Wazzup? carries on with a goofy hip title, tightened but still prone to drawn-out runways for each soloist to display their signatures. Still sounding flat, the rhythm section is too polished and on-track as if each instrument were layered on-top of each other rather than organically played or masterfully mixed.

So what's up err -- Wazzup

The sax players: Kenny Garrett on alto, is back though not in the spotlight as before, Gerald Albright also on alto makes his presence well heard, Tom Scott as smooth as ever, also on alto, and lastly the high registering Chris Hunter also alto, and in Sanborn's wake sounds more spastically tricky and haphazardly scaly than the previous, enough to break away from the inspiring altoist. Though so many altos, each player shows off their own profile well enough not to melt the horns together.

Newcomer Andy Snitzer plays both alto and tenor in a rich style reminiscent of Steve Tavaglione while George Young on tenor, returns for only one solo op, disappointingly, fading to the background on most of these. Roger Rosenberg returns for lonely love for the baritone, to which he speaks well to. 

There's also nicely implemented rock-tinged guitar solos for the sake of balance on more than half the set list by Ira Siegel and Ross Traut -- two members of Matthews' sessions who never really get to flesh out their skills get to here. Rhythm is handled by bassist Mark Egan and drums by Michael White, who mostly go faceless.

Line Drive is an energetic album opener of T.o.P.-style boldness with Scott's alto at the helm, Chris Hunter playing electrifyingly, played out by Traut's rock guitar that begs for more upon fade out. 

Others bode well like a bouncy Groove Alley with Michael White's steady drum, Mark Egan's bass showing through to another crunchy guitar. El Cumbanchero is a take on Marin Rafael Hernandez's original, a speedy latin cover with a trick and slick alto solo by Albright. After Sunset takes the tempo down low with Andy Snitzer in the spotlight, whose balladry on sax turns a little boresome contrast to Wazzup's other fueled efforts. 

The Cat is a Lalo Schifrin cover which attempts to glitz with a drawn-out MIDI organ solo by Jon Werking, ending with Rosenberg's limited solo baritone. Title track Wazzup? is one that has its moments with Snitzer leading the pack for a refreshing plush yet bold tenor sound against a tragically stiff melody.

Music is serviceably dull, yet simplistically upbeat and engaging amounts of energy, still slightly redundant and at times drawn out which was a bigger problem on Mo' Better Funk. Even covers like EW&F's Sing A Song have a recognizable yet flimsy musak quality to it and will never distract from the soloists. 

An enjoyable obscurity that Matthews' third Super Funky Sax is, is really only for Matthews' followers and/or those who just really enjoy saxophones. Can't quite put my fingering on this disc on why it's likably upbeat when not a little robotic, and just why it sounds so stiff -- which is really unusual for David Matthews' productions which typically dazzle in top-notch production values.


NOTABLE TRACKS: El Cumbanchero, Groove Alley, Line Drive
LISTEN FOR Andy Snitzer's robust sound on tenor, Gerald Albright turns out his funky roots here (and away from smooth jazz), Chris Hunter cooks
WINNING SOLOIST goes to Gerald Albright on "El Cumbanchero"
SURPRISINGLY satisfying thick guitar licks and solo time by both Siegel and Traut
STILL not that Super but mostly funky, if a little medicated, sax 

Wazzup? was also re-released and remastered (PCCY-50052) in 2008 on HQCD (Hi-Quality CD), but demands a higher price. We reviewed the 1996 original (PCCY-01072). Both releases can still only be found in Japan.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Digital Double! "Warning", Billy Cobham 1980's GRP "Power Play"


Drummer Billy Cobham's GRP debut is a fairly solid jam session: there’s no nonsense or kitchiness here. If you can imagine, Warning hearkens to Jeff Beck’s rock-edged fusion triad (Blow by Blow, Wired, There And Back -- before the godawful Flash) with a thick of bombast from the rhythm section.

Warning delivers a hard, raw sound as prescribed, as if Cobham and his band were rockin' out. At the same time, Warning sounds as if it could’ve used an uptempo, an added layer of polish, and/or rehearsal through an otherwise fully original material. Warning almost sounds as if it could've been recorded in the late 70’s, which is both good and bad: Good as this kind of fusion is disappearing by way of slicker production values, bad because it's not as clean, fluent or progressive as even Cobham's early-80's Glass Menagerie works.

The disc, which spans eight cuts, features all originals penned by Cobham, with Stratus making yet another reprise, which at least tried to reinvigorate the bedrock Cobham classic, condensed and rocked-up a bit.

More than a few are synthesizer-led pieces which reminds us Cobham has joined the 80's: Red & Yellow Cabriolet a wild west bombast of faux-trumpet synths stand out with bandmates Gerry Etkins, who sticks to synthesizers mainly, often solos on pianos acoustic and Rhodes. Bassist Baron Browne also shines on more than one track with a distinctive, thick bass heard throughout and guitarist Dean Brown fills in with mostly grungy guitars, with a lengthy solo Slow Body Poppin' and his real showcase on Unknown Jeromes.

Mozaik enters with far-east flair and punchy finger bass by Browne, The Dancer's express pace forecasts future jazz with touches of latin percussion by Sa Davis and Etkins exploring the organ as he plays the track out. Go For It! has a celebratory ease and by far the most fluid playthrough for the band with a rock-solid backbone.

Warning’s even tempered set list manages to pull through though like a tranquilized Jeff Beck album. Cobham allows the band to flex a bit on each track even when solos seem compulsory and limited instead of crafted and fleshed-out like Cobham's 70's sessions. He himself finds himself disappearing in the background. At times, the band can’t help sounding tragically lethargic and too sluggish.


NOTABLE TRACKS : Mozaik, Go For It!, The Dancer, Unknown Jeromes
THOUGH Melodically accomplished, sounds too slow, lacks a needed layer of polish

Coming off the heels of 1985’s rough start for Cobham on the Grusin-Rosen label, 1986 plows through with Power Play. This time around, Cobham returns primed with a more focused package and even an old-school, epic 14-minute odyssey that calls right back to his roots as a more progressive fusion drummer.

The gang’s all here as well in a slew of original compositions by Cobham though in slightly different form to reflect a much more electronic set. Gerry Etkins back on synthesizers mainly, Baron Browne scaling back his pronounced basslines, Dean Brown tuning in-and-out of guitar synthesizers and an additional layer of synth by Onaje Allan Gumbs. Right off the bat, Power Play dazzles with much higher polish than the previous recording, where Cobham’s drums are remarkably fit and beautifully crisp, nakedly gimmick-free without effects -- what they should’ve been on Warning.

Power Play trips up when Cobham experiments with dreaded drum sequencing and results in flimsy era sap and redundant loops and crippled development on Zanzibar Breeze and the marginally better calypso-tinged Dessicated Coconuts towards the denouement of the disc. Thankfully, Cobham only has two stints with the drum machines, casting most of his band aside for these two ill-fitting, lame, drawn-out blunders that has the band sitting out.

Power Play becomes an otherwise tempest fusion workout from all sides of the band, beginning with the winning melodic opener Times of My Life, a preview of Power Play’s by-large tighter arranging than before. Energetic and more progressive, Cobham actually has a flurry of superb solos time this time around which dazzle in crystal clear production. His once dated sound on Warning sounds ahead of its time here with every minute detail of his flawless playing are captured in impeccable stellar, crisp sound. Make no mistake, this album still reminds us it’s still 1986 following a future jazz soundscape.

Power Play has more than a few infectious cuts on its increasingly synthesized backbone which never sounds soured even though Brown, Etkins and Gumbs all obscure into the synthy mass. Yet, it attains good balance unlike many other recordings during this time: the ethereal down-tempo groove Light Shines In Your Eyes but no more than the six-part Summit Afrique suite, peppered with lots of solos and flex by the band, an exhibit absent on Warning. Dance of the Blue Man explodes with a tight Jeff Baxter-mixed-Grant Geissman jazz guitar we didn’t hear from Dean Brown’s grungier full-ins on Warning. The Little Ones mystical imagery is laden with dueling keyboard scapes and even a little acoustic guitaring.

Tinseltown compiles dramatic movie-like fanfares with limited use of Linn claps and the more aggressive Radioactive follow manic drum-versus-synthesizer almost (video) game music-like ending with the tamer
tropics of Schmagofatz.

While Power Play isn’t a conventional choice of fusion mastery for many critics who dismiss Cobham’s 80’s career on GRP, it makes the grade of some of the best energy without unnecessary fluff during this period with captivating, engaging set of arrangements that play well on repeat listens in each of the rhythm section’s contributions not seen before, poured into this session. Though not as flexible or progressive-jazz as Cobham’s Glass Menagerie, it's a logical link to the past without living in it.


NOTABLE TRACKS : Times of My Life, The Little Ones, Dance of The Blue Man, Light Shines In Your Eyes, Tinsletown

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ronnie Foster "The Racer" (1986)

Ronnie Foster built most of his success behind the veil of George Benson's CTI sessions. A session keyboardist, Foster had a few solo stints under his belt, mostly of the funk orientation. After a seven year hiatus, Foster joined up with Electric Bird Records (by way of Pro Jazz in the U.S.), a Japan subsidiary of King Records, to produce The Racer. It's another unmistakable era recording that has an 80's sound though remaarkably fresh even when looking back 30 years.

An entirely different recording than anything he's done prior, Foster's The Racer pits the project with an array of sequencers and synthesizers this time around, shelving the organ entirely for the acoustic piano amongst layers of electronics and other synthesizer keys and programs. In a nearly solo stage, Foster stands confidently without much audible musician support here either (reminiscent of a Jean-Luc Ponty recording around this time). 

That's not to say his vocal title cut The Racer couldn't have used more out of the guitar talents rhythmically supported by (Fowler Brothers regular) Mike O'Neill, but even the triple drum threat Ndugu, Harvey Mason and John Moffett's cymbal obscures in the jungle of synthesis. Fill-ins of acoustic pianos are a nice bridge to jazz and forecast the album's fuse of jazz elements mixed electronics.
The Racer doesn't aim to sophisticate with its synthesizer indulgence of breezy, exotic streamline of Foster's soundscape through mountainsides, beaches, cities and other exotic imagery which grooves from start to finish line, with the occasional vocal for the self-title and Love Will Last. Night Life ends with slower, yet simple groove while Squirt may be a little too jovial in contrast to the rest.

Festival Do Brasil fuses danceable rhythms and electrifyingly speedy light pianos, Linne's Theme pays celebratory balladry to the (the 80s!) Linn drum and Impanema Walk shakes with scratchy calypso video game-like groove. Europe invites some welcomed touches of latin percussions by Paulina Da Costa to complete the exotic voyage.

The Racer may not have hit pole position with critics or listeners, falling under the radar of obscurity. Foster's fusion experiment with electronica fares well even though he made this his last and most different solo effort, making it an interesting listen and perfect companionate disc for the road as it segways easily track-to-track. Though musician support on guitars by Phil Upchurch and Mike O'Neil went tragically faceless (as the worst of the 80's had its way), the album is freshingly aged far better than most of its ilk all these years later despite its undeniable underdevelopment by that same simplicity that drives The Racer.

The Racer will be re-released on December 10, 2014 as part of Electric Bird Records Best Selection 1000 in Japan, can still be found (inexpensively) widely on Pro Jazz (U.S.).


Friday, November 14, 2014

Steve Fowler "Captured" (1987)

You might as well just call this Fowler Brothers, Captured.

Not to diminish Steve Fowler, the alto sax and flute playing brother of the Fowler clan of musicians, who composed each track on his debut and one in the mighty musical Fowler family, overcast on Steve's solo release. 

The Fowlers were introduced to America by way of the late, brilliant and universally maniacal musical genius Frank Zappa, who used each and every talent of Fowler in his music since the 1970's, toured with mostly Tom, Bruce and Walt in the 80's. No matter what Fowler you get, you're in for something interesting, certainly doing things their own way, but melodic, listenable fusion with avant-garde touches of class, complexity and progressive edge.

The Fowler Brothers started doing their own thing aside Frank Zappa in the mid-1970s with their group Air Pocket before evolving into The Fowler Brothers. Steve Fowler, along with trombonist Bruce, broke away further and did their own albums in the Fowler style of music, occasionally tricky and progressive melodic jazz-fusion. If you liked the jazzier material of Zappa sans the lewd lyrical talent of the late mad genius and his Mothers, The Fowler Brothers' independent work is right there for ya. Think of it as instrumental Zappa.

Like a Fowler album, they're all here: multi-instrumentalist brothers Walt Fowler, on trumpets and flugelhorns but also electric and acoustic pianos and synthesizers, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Ed Fowler on bass (not to be confused with brother Tom Fowler, the Zappa Fowler bassist). Zappa's captured right here in spirit too from the wonky time signatures, progressive and souring sound of some arrangements to the silly, cryptic track naming convention Bikini Paralysis, H.H. for He Is Abnormal and so on.

Steve plays only the Alto [in the family of] Saxophones, but actually surprises further on this album filling most of his airtime with the flute, which keeps this album from saturating with soloing like the later Breakfast For Dinosaurs (not a bad thing by any means, sorry Albert Wing!). If anything, this album's real shine is Steve's flute harmonies, with his sax mostly captured on the front cover of the album...

Following in the shadow of 1986's Hunter, the arrangements are solid, tight, clean, original and melodic. Each cut begs another listen and it's largely thanks to Steve deploying the Zappa sound through he and his brothers. As with any Fowler Brothers' joint, Steve couldn't get away without a lyrical track They Hang Out with his brother Marvin on vocals, ominous prog-rock (about prostitutes?) with a flutter of flutes amongst Mike O'Neill's riffs.

It's a shame not more people know of the Fowler Brothers' horns, there's really only one group tried and tested by time to be good enough to roll with Zappa for all these years and more. While they may not smoke as hard as how they sounded on Zappa's (Make A Jazz Noise Here) tours but they're just as extraordinary, just a little more tame but not nearly numbed nor dumbed.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Bikini Paralysis, For H.H. He Is Abnormal, They Hang Out
WHILE THEY REALLY COULD HAVE: called it Fowler Brothers' second album, it would've probably been one of the strongest of the bunch.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Crusaders "Healing The Wounds" (1991)

The Crusaders solely shadows the good ol' days.

Joe Sample and his Jazz Crusaders started as friends in a band. In the 1960's, The Jazz Crusaders mirrored idols Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and other ragtime and swing inspirations. They even wrote a song about it in 1980's Soul Shadows -- a band of jazz-funkers who slowly moved away from raw jazz of earlier recordings, before the advent of commercial fusion.

I had the pleasure of seeing the late Sample in concert by himself, expressing his direction to break free of The Crusaders in the late 70's to make Rainbow Seeker, then something intentionally different with Carmel based on his inspirational visit to the California getaway. Sample didn't dismiss nor disparage The Crusaders, instead was content in running his own show on the side and continued to play with them, on-and-off until his death in late 2014. 

After Sample hit it big with The (coveted) Hunter, the band's diverted attention from its captain of fingers coupled with the withering sound in the jazz-funk era a successfully developed solo career, The Crusaders had sort of been lost throughout the 80's, until GRP brought them into the 90's with Healing the Wounds.

Wait, this is The Crusaders?

Sample is by no means tired, in his early 70s, he lights up the stage with speed and finesse but maybe the band has out-lived its scope. While it says Crusaders on the cover, only Joe Sample and Wilton Felder return to supply the heritage Crusade: no Pops Popwell, Wayne Henderson (whose actually doing his own Next Crusade) or even the “fifth” Crusader, Larry Carlton at all. 

Sample, whose about as iconic for his Fender Rhodes as he is on the piano has traded the ol' electric piano for synthesizers. Marcus Miller takes over most composition and basses, with Michael Landau on guitars and even a dubious appearance by Toto's Steve Lukather on Stevie Wonder's Cause We've Ended As Lovers. Landau isn't given much room as Carlton once had, with Felder taking the stage alongside Sample. A lush backing of thick horns are now absent for layers of synth that often sound thin and tinny.

While not without an adaptable outcome, Healing the Wounds is undoubtedly lame, overly-relaxed and under inspired radio fuzak. Sure, it supplies the funk in places, but the soul of The Crusaders ain't here -- and it's no surprise seeing as Sample has employed a like lite-funk sound package on his releases around this time.

The bipolar Running Man sees Sample's spectral temperament on piano as well as Felder's use of conveyed moods by soprano and tenor saxes, while the like penned tailored-for-radio Healing the Wounds is memorable only because it sounds like an supermarket adaptation of Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical. Pessimistism conveys more darker tones with contrast and another successful Sample composed contribution.

Marcus Miller's screamy, sax-fueled Maputo, which had previously been covered by Bob James & David Sanborn, comes off as a contemporary cheese as its best that worked better in the 80's. Slappin' bass sounds at home on Shake Song and a throwback from the old days but a flimsy, gimmicky redundant chorus by Felder's sax. 

The rest slip by as listenable background music even though Sample and his new Crusaders give stellar performances with Sample elegant as ever. But Healing the Wounds doesn't heal -- doesn't reunite Sample with Henderson or anyone but Felder, resulting in what sounds like another Sample solo album instead of a distinctive Crusaders recording. Like a bandage on a sore wound, only a small sample of the sweat and passion of those 70's recordings is present here, and it doesn't bridge as it should have with the soul of the band.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Running Man, Pessimisstism
NO Wayne Henderson, Pops Popwell or even Larry Carlton to remind us of The Crusaders sound, even just after Henderson left in the mid-70s.
MINE AS WELL just be billed as another Joe Sample album (of this era)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

David Benoit "Shadows" (1991)

That's quite a tie, got great hair and you've got a lot of class!

Now long before I began exploring the backlog of GRP’s releases from the 80’s and early 90’s, David Benoit’s name came up more than a few times on local FM jazz circuit. He’s since been graced with said crown of smooth jazz, a somewhat nasty moniker with genre purists that dismisses today’s overproduced, sequenced soft or light commercial radio jazz. But if you look far enough in anyone’s discography, you’ll find some gems in there, and Shadows could be considered one, and a high point of his time at GRP.

Benoit quickly established his sound while at GRP through his signature elegant, graceful grand piano sound against a curtain of strings. The album cover of Benoit in monochrome, sports a luminous paisley tie forecasting insight to the content of the album’s color within. The separate worlds here display your template GRP jams of this time or contemporary pop-jazz on one end and cinematic Grusin-style jazz on the other, which will appeal to those who disparage commercial jazz. That’s probably why Benoit fits in nicely at GRP, whose released a good amount of albums up until his stint on 1991’s Shadows, he’s able, like Dave Grusin, to pull off both with much class, grace and elegance.

Unlike before, Benoit calls in Earth, Wind & Fire’s mighty Marcel East to collaborate on a few of Shadows strongest numbers on keyboards and drum sequencing, enough not to lose the premise of the album. Basically, East’s involvement here punches up what typically makes Benoit’s jazz a little less commercial friendly, throwing in some saxophones, guitars and iconic 90’s synth that gets Shadows on its feet. Benoit’s light piano touches mesh well with dancin’ grooves and horn support on Over The Edge, strings interlope from the get-go on Standing Still, with styles remaining gulfed on the latin-tinged Saudade and Already There, as if they were recorded these on an entirely different album.

Impressively, Shadows calls in more star power with the legendary Freddie Hubbard soloing on a few tracks, most namely his explosive solos on Saudade and Still Standing.

The title Shadows namesake more ominous though drawn-out piece with a soprano saxophone within from Michael Paulo, a trumpet solo from Michael Stewart while vocalist Valerie Pinkston suprises with a soulful vocal on Moments, some background touches on the aforementioned Over The Edge.

Benoit attempts a preface of sorts with various filler interludes that hardly do much without sequential listening, bogging the number of listenable tracks down to the standard 8-10. Any beginner to Benoit’s style ought to start here (especially for a $2 thrift shop find), look to (or past) the tie and embrace surprises that lay beneath those shadows.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Over The Edge, Standing Still, Saudade, Moments 

MUCH WELCOMED vocalist Valerie Pinkston’s touches
STILL some snoozers on here that has plagued Benoit’s discography in the past

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

John Klemmer "Touch" (1975)

Sometimes the recording industry just isn't fair. The music industry as a whole can't reward all the players out there, especially in a world inundated with pop music icons and images to sell music. But even in the jazz field, guys like John Klemmer fall into that netherworld. The kind of sound he played in his heyday of the 1970's fusion boom was more technical, somber and prescribed to mood. Touch was one of those albums that defined his brand as a saxophone player.

You may have seen Klemmer's name in Steely Dan's Royal Scam, playing his signature repeat scaled notes on Caves of Altamira, a track whose theme was perfect for Klemmer's unique, entranced style of sax. John Klemmer kind of fell off the face of the earth by the mid-1980's after a few chained solo efforts -- a saxophone player different from the rest in that he plays a more ethereal, mystical kind of sax instead of, say, Tom Scott, David Sanborn or Wilton Felder funky sax. Klemmer made wonder with the saxophone, unlike many musicians of the time just playing fusion, Klemmer made soundscapes, all with the help of his own style but also the echoplex, or a tape delay effect that helps convey that mystical wonder of trailing of notes.

Touch is a real chill kind of album, you're not going to be funkin' to this like you might a Crusaders' recording or even the aforementioned Tom Scott & The L.A. Express. Perhaps this kind of jazz is more definitively trippy err, mood jazz but more raw than the commercialism fusion brought by way of disco and pop influences. Klemmer's Touch is a storybook with a glimmer of a far-off fantasy world on tracks like Tone Row Weaver and the George Duke (er, “Deorge Guke”) contribution on Waterwheels.

Touch lured a slew of impressive fusion players behind-the-scenes: the pre-GRP Dave Grusin, a still Crusadin' acoustic Larry Carlton, with whom also defined Steely Dan's Royal Scam, though his playing is more serene here, less strung out. You've even got L.A. Express' John Guerin on drums, the always in-demand Harvey Mason, too.

The album's sound throughout is consistent, tranquil but interesting -- with a primer of Fender Rhodes and solos (yes, a real treat for Rhodes fans) on each, Klemmer almost exclusively on tenor sax, some flutes here and there, and vocals kept right where they should be: brief. That last track Walk With Me My Love And Dream, Klemmer drops the sax for one-man instrumentation on layered flutes, rhodes and narration, which is hypnotic lullaby of flutism.

Touch may not have hit mainstream ears but was Klemmer's step-forward into his solo career long before slipping into oblivion after funk-fusion took a backseat to a vastly electronic age of fusion by the 1980's. For my ears, I've not heard anything quite like Touch or for that matter John Klemmer's free-form fusion (maybe Norihiko Hibino follows his work), which will take you to a far away land.

NOTABLE TRACKS: Tone Row Weaver, Body Pulse, Sleeping Eyes
COOL TO HEAR: “Deorge Guke” George Duke, Larry Carlton and Dave Grusin' guest spots
IT'S LIKE: stepping into a storybook fantasy world from the foggy 70's

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ronnie Laws "Mirror Town" (1986)

The 80's were about mirrors -- and there's mirrors all over the walls and ceiling!

Ronnie Laws may not be the first “Laws” in the jazz version of Match Game. That honor might go to his flautist older brother, Hubert Laws, whose got that title locked down pretty tight even to Herbie Mann and Dave Valentin as the go-to guy for session flute in the 70's. Meanwhile, Ronnie mastered the sax and even began a vocal career by the early 80's, fusing both into most of this era releases including Mirror Town. 

Ronnie began playing with Earth Wind & Fire in the early 70's, and thankfully, he met the legendary Larry Dunn, the band's former synthesizer wizard. Both Ronnie Laws and Dunn collaborate often, and even a good decade plus, they're still playing on each others albums, including the vastly different pop-jazz outing, Mirror Town.

Mirror Town is not jazz, but then that's not what Ronnie set out to do since 1980's Every Generation and 1983's Mr. Nice Guy. The light sensibilities of the album reflect the 80's trend with often dancable rhythms fused with elements of jazz, friendliest with mainstream commercial pop.

Seeing as he was one of EWF's sax players, he became accustomed to doing mainly funk orientations, but like EWF, jazz was in the soul of the band as it still is on his works. Here's where I come in and excuse many jazzers crankin' fusion in the 70's with a heavy emphasis on Rhodes-led, bouncing and slappin' bass to drum machine and synthesized, vocal-led madness of the 80's. Laws was en route to selling his image as an R&B vocalist much like George Benson.

Every track on Mirror Town is heavily sequenced, drum-machined electronic as his previous two, with his or a disc produced in the heart of the 80's, stylized to personify the era of electronic orchestras, synthetics with much use of the Yamaha DX-7 -- or the keyboard of the 80's.

I saw this disc on the shelf at a Savers, immediately catching my eye as a rarity. Not many things have been written about Mirror Town, which was likely a forgotten release as too many 80's discographies are for artists. There's some impressive guests here: the aforementioned Larry Dunn, who sadly meshes into the final product of the album as well as Jeff Lorber, who shines through a bit on Tell Me. Lorber, who had a tight fusion group which disbanded in 1982, wandered into the same realm of lighter substance and sequencing of the times, even using Laws on his 1984 Heat of the Night. 

Mirror Town doesn't age well -- it's a true 1986 sound -- love it or hate it. Not without pomp, energy and the occasional silly lyric and otherwise overproduced pop-fluff, it really works. 

Instead of putting the sax down for machines or Laws sole interest in becoming a pop icon, his injections of saxes on soprano, alto and tenor are accompanied and companionate to each tune as you've come to know his sound -- bright, sharp, sophisticated and tricky solos that never stray too far nor too close to jazz saxophone -- just perfect, superbly funky for the lighter whip of Mirror Town. Within the layers of electronics and vocals, Laws' soulful and smooth vocals still remind us he's still a sax player above all, soloing a little more than your average pop record as a former fusion-jazzer ought to -- and he can carry a tune, too.

After doing a little research, it seems the original CD print contends to be the only one out there among a sea of vinyls thus being hard to find, no less a gem for a thrift store pick-up. A fun disc it is, not to be taken as jazz nor too seriously -- this is the fancy free Reagan-era 80's after all!


NOTABLE TRACKS: Tell Me, Take A Chance, Come To Me, Misled, Cold Day
COULD NOT: pass up an album with Larry Dunn on board, even if he doesn't make his presence enough here
NOT ONE: but two creepy trench-coated Laws on the cover...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tom Schuman "Extremities" (1990)

Schuman's debut, mostly without Spyro alum, sets in a standard of enjoyable "GRP sound" and surprise

After a much celebrated decade, Spyro Gyra's leading keyboardist Tom Schuman gets his time to shine without fellow mate, Jay Beckenstein (well, sort of) on his 1990 GRP release. Extremities, lets Schuman go a little more freely without the tropic of marimbas and Beckenstein's brightly sax drowning out all of the spotlight. Apart from composition, most of the performance is led by Schuman and his full array of synthesizer keyboards but also acoustic piano with a flurry of results. Though his solo effort may have come out a decade too late, landing in the heart of 90's fusion, the result isn't muted, more than a trumpet or two.

As the trend of 1990 goes on, GRP came to stick with a safe formula for its sound for the early decade: eight-to-ten tracks, a cover (or two), airy voice-imitating synth (a la Lyle Mays), maybe a vocal and, yes, a mute trumpet. Mute trumpets and jazz-pop came trending and buzzing on more than a few releases and it's here as well, by way of harolded composer and session player Jon Faddis (see: Clint Eastwood's trumpet player). That doesn't mean Extremities doesn't woo and surprise around some bends...

On board is a strong band: always exciting Dave Weckl on drums, longtime Spyro guitarist Steve Love on guitars, and the everywhere man Will Lee on bass, Schuman has a few surprises including a cameo from Jay Beckenstein on soprano sax as well. He guests on only one cut here, a cover of the soul classic Loving You, which by this time has been covered umpteenth times over, is given a fully syrupy sax treatment that leaves this as the album's skipper.

Palisades Parkway dazzles on the album with an instant hook for the radio, though losing focus a bit within, follows with funky bass and guitar and one of two tracks Steve Love breaks out a bluesy electric sound on Front Seat Reservation.

Crystal Lane and its use of sequenced drum machines, even at this time is sounding dated and exhausted but still shows off more of Schuman's keyboarding. Taking a break from the upbeat omnibus is Mood Swing, a campy, creeping tune with Faddis on, yes, a mute trumpet in the intro.

Skywriter is of the album's more interesting: a clash of contemporary sting of synths over a traditional jazz trio of brushing drums, thick upright bass and a solid horn from Bob Berg delivering a sharp solo on his tenor.  

To B.E. pays tribute to Bill Evans with a heartfelt acoustic trio -- no synthesizers, no horns here.

Extremities greatest success is Schuman's array of fresh synthesizers that defined 1990's fusion sound (that, yes, aficionados dismiss as light jazz in “G”, Kenny G, that is) and a unique sound GRP favored in its catalog, a sound akin to that of Ricky Peterson around this time. While this was Schuman's only stint on GRP and an album is mostly overlooked and somewhat obscure today was a strong effort coming off the heels of the commercially successful Spyro Gyra and it's 14th release Fast Forward.


NOTABLE TRACKS: Palisades Parkway, Skywriter, Front Seat Reservation
COULD'VE DONE WITHOUT “Loving You” -- off-the-chart cheese.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mark Egan "A Touch of Light" (1988)

Only a touch of light upon the vibrance of the bassist's spectrum...

Mark Egan has been Pat Metheny's sideman for a good long time and his ability and unique style has been demonstrated over again with the masterclass fusion guitarist. The towering, skeletal statuesque Egan wields a double electric bass on the cover of A Touch of Light, which doesn't follow inline with other FM-friendly GRP productions with an atmospheric new-age temperment, into far-depths of science class exposition about exotic sealife has a place for sure. That's what makes Egan an inordinary creature and what baffled critics about the mostly smooth jazz pushing label, which is why A Touch of Light is oddly found if obscured in the GRP catalog.

Very little does the program depart from mostly borderline psychedelic fantasia a la Dan Siegel style new-age, where Egan is entirely fretless synthesizer bassin' for his 1988 outing and debut for the label. A band of inconsistent coloring of underutilized talent is accompanied by keyboardists Cliff Carter and Gil Goldstein for various tracks fade lost into a swirl of Egan's soundscape. Metheny bandmate Danny Gottlieb lends a cymbal of his kit to the smattering of tracks for an added touch.

Bombay Way predictably draws indian sitar influences on the fretless and like ethnic percussion while it's neighborly Eastern Window takes on a synthed and sequenced background of more worldly jazz influence. Waterfall Cafe does as described, but won't distinguish itself merely by name.

A Touch of Light's self-title, most radio friendly attempt features Bill Evans fluttering midway through on the soprano sax, and the most distinctive of the disc's mostly sauntering set.

GRP's gimmick here is for Egan's show off Egan's non-linear approach and an impressive show as to what else can be done on the displayed double four-eight-string electric bass, but A Touch of Light only casts a glimpse of the shadowy tones of what Egan is capable of with his jazz weapon. Aside from the title cut, the album departs the commercial glaze of common GRP jazz but loses oneself in what often sounds like a unfocused display of cool bass trick synthesis. Though the fretlessness Egan is obsessed with on this album is psychotropic, dazed and mildly progressive, it's directive ethereal outcome languishes like a summer afternoon heatstroke; it's not terribly captivating, mostly dozy and redundantly forgettable, boresome BGM aside from a few of the deep sea crescendos where some jazz bandplay emerges.

A Touch of Light is no diorama of Egan's true prowess, instead, a forgettable concept that only rewarded the Skeletor bassist one round on the label and a collective yawn.

DIGITAL VERDICT : 4.0  (out of 10)

NOTABLE TRACKS : A Touch of Light
WHAT IT REALLY COMES DOWN TO is atmospheric background music with little memorable value

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Richard Tee “Inside You” (1989)

The tunes will get inside you...

I think that's the title of Richard Tee's fourth solo effort means...

Inside You compiles the works of the late, great keyboardist Richard Tee from 1983 until its release in 1989 though not a compilation, but an album that cooked for roughly six years in the studio(s).  Though it's unclear as to what was recorded when during the six-year span that results in Inside You, the time span is seamless. While the longer recording span might invite the possibility of sounding dated by now with that 70's sound it has become Richard Tee's signature, though not as adaptable to the times as other keyboardists like George Duke to evolve from that era, Tee's comfortably rolling with it.

Most famous for his “reverb” or echoplex effect Fender Rhodes (or to get more technical using a phase shifter), made famous in the 70's with hits like Grover Washington Jr's “Just The Two Of Us” and even mimicked by Billy Joel on “Just The Way You Are”. That Tee sound was ubiquitous in discofied funk throughout the 70's but the man behind it has gone largely obscure as far as his own fame went. Even though his session work eclipsed his own band Stuff, a stretching resume in the wake of his life, Tee's solo career never really made it.

A shame really, Tee was an icon who often employed vocals on his own works while mainly juggling keyboards on sessions, including 1985's Japan-only Bottom Line were a tad hollow and awkward. Tee even admitted his vocal talents hounded him throughout his career, yet, challenged himself at it until his final release. His successful run in Japan of all places has made way for a skyrocket in out-of-print prices for his recordings.

Inside You made way to the U.S. by way of Columbia Records, as one his more successful, commercial efforts with a mixture of mostly chill R&B, jazz, and funk with a setlist mixed with vocals and instrumentals the Tee way. This may not be the most balanced Tee you might find but the fairweather package for his stylings by this time, or until the 1992 release of Real Time.

Tee brings in a bevy of his closest sessioneers, including Stuff's Steve Gadd on drums, Marcus Miller on basses, John Tropea on (mostly rhythm) guitar and even former Tower of Power tenor altissimo king Lenny Pickett, who by this time is leading his own show on Saturday Night Live. There's also a wonderful layer of separately recorded strings behind almost all the tunes that give it an elegant charm of an old-time movie (as Gordon Lightfoot once sang).

Tee's triad of keyboards command and layer most tracks with acoustic piano, Rhodes and organ accompanied by vocals not only the title Inside You come off as soulful and upbeat but also marred by some lyrical staccato and awkward delivery. Apart from the title vocal, which is all passable until the goofy chorus and dated use of the 80's pioneered Linn drum, Tee succeeds better with others So Hard To Handle which has Pickett buzzing on sax and Changes, featuring a haunting acoustic bass from Eddie Gomez. Chalk It All Up, penned by longtime collaborator Bill Withers has Tee supplying his Rhodes, Linn drums and a fair vocal to an otherwise catchy R&B chorus.

Similarly pitched yet more baritone Bill Eaton makes a return from The Bottom Line, lending his voice on Crying In My Sleep Tonight, a warming, melancholic ballad backed by plush strings and velvety Rhodes for agreeable adult contemporary radio play.

Single-handledly bumping up the slump on the disc is by far saxophonist Lenny Pickett, who woos with soulful, growling and just plain hot (alto and tenor) sax on five tracks, mostly in his tricky high notes and ad libbing, especially on the gospelish Louisiana Sunday Afternoon, which not only has Pickett (rarely captured) on alto but additionally has notable Patti Austin disguisedly supporting the chorus of the disc's most energetic piece.

Will You Be There is a soulful wedding-march style instrumental and one of a few tracks which allows the band to flex a bit as well as the moody Precious Thing. Tee gets a chance to get more personal on the strings intertwined Lullaby and the disc closer, Wishing, which takes you by candlelight and up-close solo piano.

Following the wake of a mostly forgotten Japan-only Bottom Line, which was likely recorded during this time, is a more somber, ballad-centric disc, unlike his debut album Strokin' which had you bouncing on bass a little more. The focal is vocal, less on jammin' out and maybe a tad lighter on solo keyboarding than desired. Though the vocals may take a little warming up but when they get Inside You, it's a pleasing release that surprisingly kept reeling me back in despite a lack of some finer tee-uning.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Electrifying David Matthews Remasters To Be Reprinted

Exciting news for David Matthews jazz and fusion fans: many of his and other Electric Bird releases will be reprinted in a selected collection of mostly early-to-mid 1980's material beginning December 2014. 

Let's start with the bad news: they're imports, of course, mostly Japanese releases for Japan only.

But, the good news is that they'll be "priced-down" limited edition re-issues at roughly 1,000 yen. The even better news is that internet is here to help with retailers like CDBanq, HMV and CDJapan charging just under $10 for albums that are been scarce for many years under a limited reprint. Once the run is over, typically two years, these prices tend to jack up on the reseller sites until another, seemingly once-per-decade reprint.

As part of Electric Bird's birthday, King Records Japan will be re-releasing a select 50 releases as part of Electric Bird Best Selection 1000 on December 14. In addition to the reprint, all releases have been "remastered" but is unclear as to whether they're additionally (re-remastered!) 24-bit remastered or previously remastered from the earlier CD pressing.

Electric Bird, under the umbrella of King Records, is reprinting most of its jazz-fusion 75-release catalog by year's end.  But enough, the list!

David Matthews & The Electric Birds - Digital Love (1979)
David Matthews & The Electric Birds - Cosmic City (1980)
David Matthews presents The Grand Cross (1980)
David Matthews Orchestra featuring Earl Klugh - Delta Lady (1980)
Super Funky Sax (1980) 
New York Liner (1981)
Jim Hall & David Matthews Orchestra - Concierto De Aranjuez (1982)
David Matthews Orchestra featuring Earl Klugh - Grand Connection (1983)
Fuse One - Ice (1984)
David Matthews & First Calls - Speed Demon (1984)

Most exciting out of this set is are these rarer releases: 1981's New York Liner, which features guitarists Eric Gale, John Tropea and David Spinozza and is a predecessor to another rarity, 1996's Guitars on Fire

1984's Ice by Fuse One is another, the second/last release of the Fuse One fusion project which had been previously reprinted in 2002, whose prices have locked around $50 used. 

The jazz-funk masterpiece The Grand Cross has an all-star cast carried by The Brecker Brothers and a slew of guitarists including Larry Carlton will see a release after a decade-plus of scarcity. 

Most of the others including both Earl Klugh guest spots and Speed Demon have seen a few runs and even been released stateside under the GNP Crescendo label.

Super Funky Sax, which is a series of three albums highlighting the saxophone will only see the long out-of-print debut album reprinted. The third Wazzup? got a remastered reprint while the recently covered Mo' Better Funk remains never to be reprinted.

Additionally, many Matthews' band interlopers on the label including Steve Gadd, Ronnie Cuber, Lew Soloff and George Young are seeing long overdue reprints of their albums as well, some of which feature Matthews on keyboards. I have yet to see the 1985 Richard Tee's (Japan-only) Bottom Line on there amongst their nearly 70+ albums reprinted this and last year from Electric Bird.

The legendary CTI Records producer, arranger and keyboardist David Matthews isn't discussed much and has been a little obscured due to his success in Japan, eclipsed by those like him including Bob James. Best known for his 1977 Dune album under CTI, whose reigned to a cult-like status, has yet to see another reprint on a very limited compact disc run from the early 90's in Japan. The spacey album, which contains funked-up sci-fi centric jazz contains a few Star Wars tracks and even a David Bowie song, are possibly cause for licensing hurdles though it was once explained by Matthews' himself as CTI being centered for the rights limitations to Matthews' himself.

Sadly, Dune isn't on any list...

Dune's 1993 King Records Japan CD pressing is extremely rare and has never seen another run on CD and has been in demand for a while, seeing prices of over $400 on reseller sites, worldwide. Here's hoping I can discard my scratchy LP rip soon...