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...