Monday, June 11, 2012

Spectrum Road - The Smile on Tony Williams' Face

Veulta Abajo is a brilliant place for Spectrum Road to start their debut album. One of the heaviest rocking pieces of jazz fusion that ever was etched onto vinyl, the tune could easily be mistaken for a King Crimson outtake that got lost on its way through the big top of a passing circus. In paying tribute and homage to The Tony Williams Lifetime, Spectrum Road throws down the gauntlet as Cindy Blackman-Santana unleashes a dizzying drum roll that careens down the straightaway, splitting apart the furious molten metal riffing provided by Vernon Reid's Fripp-a-licious guitaring, John Medeski's howling Hammond organ, and the unstoppable Jack Bruce's bludgeoning bassline. This band is fearless - this record is fantastic. Filling the rather large footprint of Tony Williams' stick work is no mean feat, but from beginning to end, Blackman-Santana drives this band relentlessly with endless chops, sophistication, and a go for the throat energy that leaves one breathless, and smiling.

Born of a conversation almost ten years ago between Reid and Bruce, Spectrum Road started out as a tribute to Williams, but has grown into an entity of its own - Williams' tunes are the guidepost, but while they provide a basic frame, the album is an endless array of brash improvisations, solos, and a sense of accompaniment that always pushes the soloist to push themselves to the outer limits of their huge skill sets. Vernon Reid makes no particular effort to replicate John McLaughlin's original guitar parts, instead, he's simply being himself - at times reminding the listener of the super effected, turbocharged leads that brought him to fame with the woefully underrated Living Colour, and then at times he sounds like the best jazz saxophonist in decades. Where McLaughlin's playing on Lifetime records suggested psychedelia, Reid's suggests extraterrestrials.

Photo by Marek Hofman
Immediately after wrapping up the whirlwind of the first cut, There Comes A Time shows Jack Bruce in amazing voice as the band unveils a sleek slow blues that dances sensually through the extended intro - except for Blackman-Santana. She sounds like a cat on a hot tinned roof, playing perfectly, but in an anything but in an expected manner. As Reid plays some of the most restrained, melodic single string work of his career, the drummer is an acrobat on a bet - a thrill at every turn, but with a sense of surefooted confidence. At the young age of 69, Bruce has never been busier, and has never been more in command of his talents. He's not doing a lot of singing on this record, so when he does you are thrilled as he sounds as if he's lost not a note, and his bass playing is adventurous as ever.

Next up is Going Back Home, based on a Jan Hammer tune, Coming Back Home, from Williams' 1978 album, The Joy of Flying. This would be a fairly standard piece of melodic fusion were it not for the virtuosity on display. Everyone takes a few turns, and this becomes much more than just a pleasant melody. It wonderfully reflects the maturity of these players as they unleash otherworldly chops, and yet manage to not step on one another's toes, or ever seem overly busy. Even as Reid toggles between stating the melody in myriad of subtle variations and some splendid torrents of 64th notes, he does so with an understated grace - something most guitarists will ever comprehend, let alone emulate.

Where finds Blackman-Santana scatting in a stoney Nancy Sinatra sort of way for the first three minutes as Medeski and Bruce weave a web under her tribute to Tony Williams fantastic drumming. Then Vernon Reid brings in some Mid-Eastern flavored fusion that suggests what may have come from Al DiMeola mind melding with Jimi Hendrix. Vernon delivers loads of notes, some sensational swagger, but also some bluesy bends and otherworldly squalls. After Reid pontificates for quite some time, he steps aside and Medeski cuts loose with the gnarliest B-3 solo that I have heard in a great many years. This is a full metal jacket only affair - Reid lays down some incredibly heavy rhythm guitar work, and the keyboardist gets out every hard rock dream he's ever dreamt. At the eleven minute mark, Cindy is back with her rap, and the band takes a minute and a half to come down from a trip that sounds better than anything that went down at Woodstock. This is jazz-rock grown up, and it is Good.

Sounding like a hybrid of Scottish, Indian, and inter-galactic space rock, An t-Eilan Muileach (Isle of Mull) is a Jack Bruce raga meditation on a Scottish classic, sang, of course, in Gaelic. Sitting roughly at the album's midpoint, one could hardly ask for a more thoughtful and pleasant respite. Never so meditative as to become sleepy, again it demonstrates the remarkable musical maturity on tap here.

Cindy Blackman-Santana is often referred to as a Tony Williams acolyte. She has spent untold hours ingesting the master's lessons and has absorbed the teachings and applied them to her own musicianship. Vashkar, the Carla Bley tune from Lifetime's 1969 Emergency album is a number that the drummer has covered on many previous occasions, and this time around it would appear that she has taken it as far as it can be taken. Once again, Vernon Reid is spectacular. The note count alone on this song is astronomical, but he's always exciting and interesting - he never disappears into repetition, or lethargy, largely due to the poking and prodding of three of the heaviest hitters in history keeping him on his toes and moving. Medeski then takes the helm and proceeds to raise the roof with soulful, and exciting Hammond wizardry. This may be one of the few bands on the planet that can make you turn your head away from Jack Bruce, if only for a few minutes.

Bruce returns to the past for One Word, which he originally recorded with Williams in 1970 after he had left the luxurious, but stressful environs of Cream. What's amazing is how much better his voice sounds here than in did 42 years ago. There is more dynamism and energy, as well as straight fire power. I don't know how Bruce has managed to make such a tremendous comeback from a life threatening liver transplant just eight short years ago, but I am ever so grateful to still have him here and making such music. I can't see where this record is much less earth shattering than Cream's were in their day.

When was the last time you heard a mellotron solo? I don't know that I ever had until the original improvisation, Tillmon's Blues, named for Tony William's father a jazz saxophonist, who took Tony to Jazz clubs and had the boy sitting in with the bands by the time he was eleven years old. Not much different is the story of Cindy Blackman-Santana, who discovered the drums at a pool party in her hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio when she was just seven years old. She simply sat down, started playing, and has never stopped. While she is certainly not a carbon copy of Williams' playing, she has absorbed the essence, the musicality of his musicianship, and that has allowed her to make this music her own. She's definitely bringing more of a rock and roll hammer to the show, and it fits beautifully.

Allah B Praised features the band wearing their rock and roll shoes again, and they maintain a blistering pace for over four minutes of musical daredevilry. It amazes me to hear a superstar such as Bruce functioning strictly as the bass player, and knocking the ball clean out of the park. I always get miffed when someone accuses a star such as, say, Paul McCartney, of laying back, or holding his best licks for his own tunes - time and time again, this is simply not true (listen to Paul's work on Something, or Lennon's Come Together!). Bruce is always a beautiful part of Spectrum Road's rich tapestry.

Spectrum Road ends the second step their journey with a thoughtful and melodic rendition of Wild Life, the only tune they take on from the Allan Holdsworth edition of Lifetime. Vernon Reid rides this out with the magnificence he has displayed throughout the album. I'm not sure where musicians of Reid's rank size up in the eyes of a strange new music business, but two words that should come to mind are virtuoso and superstar. His playing is shining more than it ever has, and he generally shoulders the melodies for this troop. His soloing is sublime, as is John Medeski's.

I can't imagine that this won't lead to another record, and I'm hoping that if there is another, that it will be filled with originals. It's very clear that Spectrum Road has a magic that far exceeds their initial premise. Every member plays as well, if not better than they ever have.

Jack Bruce? Well, don't get me started. The guy seems to be getting better by the moment, having seemingly found the fountain of musical youth and genius. The man is a true inspiration.

At the end of the day, this just might be Mrs. Santana's album. I don't know of any other drummer who has laid it down quite like this in some time in this realm. A magnificent performer, and performance.

Great thanks to Spectrum Road, and Kevin Calabro at Calabro Music Media.

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