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...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Super Funky Sax "Mo' Better Funk" (1994)

Would you settle for just Funky Sax?

1994's Mo' Better Funk is the 14-years later follow-up to producer David Matthews' Super Funky Sax project, accentuating the musicianship of saxophones, and, well, funk. There's no doubt this project launched in 1980, at the helm of a zenith crescendo in funk, fusion and disco-laced jazz. But 14-years have past, and it's interesting to see how Matthews' planned to inject this bygone era into the 90's, which isn't always an easy feat.

It's no surprise nobody's heard of the cheesy title and like magenta, clip artsy hues of Super Funky Sax...

Like most of his other works, Matthews' works are recorded in New York and produced in Japan though almost all of his participants are regularly New York musicians -- and some of the best he's kept close all these years. Most comparatively mirroring Bob James' in his arrangement style of delivering lofty production values, bombastic orchestras, horns and star-studded instrument solos, Matthews' has also been around long enough to know how to fuse commercially successful jazz, funk, even rock and strings. For unknown reasons, the American-born, incognito David Matthews' has had much notoriety and success in Japan, more so than his homeland. Most of his releases and projects have gone Japan-only, including the bizarrely titled and the out-of-print/non-reprinted Mo' Better Funk.

Unlike many other Matthews' productions, Super Funky Sax gives up most of the auxiliary bells and whistles of previous works, focusing on a jazz-rock set with four saxophonists at the spotlight by way of Kenny Garrett, Chris Hunter, a Sanborn doppleganging pitch on altos and band regulars George Young on tricky scaled tenor and Roger Rosenberg on (never boring) baritone.

Ironically, Super Funky Sax's second release has everyone in their place, strictly roled and seemingly statuesque at times, almost instructed not to play anything out of turn.

But nothing's off on the saxophone quartet, sometimes trio, all the solos are expertly manned and balanced though the crown has been given to guest Kenny Garrett, whose sometimes bright alto is uncompromised in signature to heartiness and passionate notes.

Mixing it up, Matthews' has appointed a specifically designated rhythm section comprised of veteran drummer Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson on bass (you can really feel), rhythm and cutting guitars from Ira Seagal and Ross Traut with David Spinozza at the frontline, adding the jazz-rock flavors inbetween saxophones. Keyboardist Gil Goldstein sifts into the background mostly, whose organ presents itself on Mayfield's cover and that's about it. If only Matthews' appointed solos for other non-winds players than guitarist Spinozza, the band wouldn't have sounded mechanical, programmed and imprisoned to just play for the saxes. Such talent seems wasted, stamped to the background, especially for a round-up of legendary session players here.

Mo' Better Funk's programme is seven polite, even-tempered and tempo but sanitized and heavily controlled on-rails, post-era jazz-funk; mostly robotic and seemingly medicated, yet accomplished in groove and bounciness. What each tune fails to deliver by way bordering on uninspired background music, earns points for being yet another quality sound design production Matthews' is no stranger to, making this disc highly listenable and toe-tapping, if not fresh.

Of the seven cuts, all were composed and arranged by Matthews with the exception of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and one of the liveliest numbers on the disc that feels most oiled, constantly trading solos on sax and guitar.

Air, which mimicks MJ's Billie Jean bassline keeps a bounce between solos mostly by Garrett until Spinozza breaks it up with some cool guitar, ending on an exciting baritone by Rosenberg. Smooth! adds on a smokey aire of detective jazz that begs for a mute but gives with mid-tempo and a surprise opening solo given to Spinozza's guitar, ends on Young's eclectic tenor soloing.

Super Groove II reprises from the original Super Funky Sax with homage to the original, having the understudy-in-sound Chris Hunter scream the echoes of Sanborn's tight alto. An almost nine-minute track desires to be the disc's jam session, impaired by an on-rails loop of melodic chorus, which ends up a plaguing arrest to most cuts on Mo' Better Funk here on out.

Sweet As Honey wants to be much more as demonstrated by a strong opening and a strong saxophone backbone but droops down to yet another syrupy paced circuit. Snake In The Grass turns up some attitude, most specifically with one of the most impressive, electrifying and spastic solos played out by George Young, who continually wows with an unpredictable tenor and Matthews' under utilized secret weapon on this release.

Mo' Better Funk could have been a Mo' Better disc if only David Matthews' could've been mo' himself: unchaining himself and the band a little bit, making those meandering moments on too many tracks filled with more soloing. Seems unnecessary for some of these tracks to trail on as long as they do with some saxists sitting backgrounded to mostly forgettable funk that seems to have been absent Mo' Soul.

Matthews' would go on to do a third (and final) Super Funky Sax Wazzup? in 1996. Let's hope they get it mo' right and tight next time.