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Spectrum Road: Back to Fusion

Jazz-rock supergroup makes vital music from a decades-old songbook

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music

©Palmetto
Spectrum Road (©Palmetto)

"Where are you going?"

Drummer and singer Cindy Blackman Santana asked that musical question on June 29th at New York City's BB King Club. She and her blue chip bandmates in Spectrum Road were performing a song from the book of the late, great jazz drummer Tony Williams, and in the case of this group, that question, and the larger questions the music brought up, could be best addressed by answering the next line in the lyric of "Where:" "Where have you been?"

Blackman Santana, while best known as the foxy lady behind the drum kit in countless music videos and many tours with rocker Lenny Kravitz, has said that jazz, in which she was trained and where she began her musical career, is where her heart is. But on tours with her husband, legendary guitarist Carlos Santana, she plays an eclectic rock-funk-jazz-Latin mix. The guitarist for Spectrum Road, Vernon Reid, is a shredder who's not a wanker (the two qualities can be mutually exclusive, alas), who made a big part of his name with the African-American hard rock outfit Living Colour and who's also a vital record producer, helming some of the best recent recordings by jazz-funk guitar master James "Blood" Ulmer. Keyboardist John Medeski is at the forefront of what we'll call the accessible avant-garde branch of jazz, at the front line of the trio Medeski, Martin and Wood; he's also done sessions and tours with the likes of Phil Lesh and Trey Anastasio. And bassist/singer Jack Bruce, of course, was a founding member of the '60s power trio Cream, with guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker, and has since that time conducted a series of musical explorations that range from the most challenging classically-inflected jazz compositions (collaborating with the likes of Mike Mantler and Carla Bley) to the most bludgeoning arena rock (see/hear the Mountain offshoot West, Bruce and Laing) and beyond.

"Beyond" was definitely the category of music Spectrum Road specializes in, despite the fact that most of the tunes in its book are forty years old. The band was formed as a tribute to the above-cited Williams, who as a young tyro revolutionized jazz drumming (he was all of 18 when he played on the classic Eric Dolphy session "Out To Lunch!," the record on which Bruce first heard the drummer), became the innovative fulcrum of Miles Davis' second great quartet, and then, around the turn of the '70s, decided, in a sense, that he wanted to be a rock star. And why not? He was all of 24 when he formed the Tony Williams Lifetime, a trio that featured John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young on organ (which also doubled as bass). The group's debut album, "Emergency!" was a blistering all-electric record that confused everyone from the recording engineers (who didn't know how to handle the volume) to even the more adventurous jazz fans. Ahead of its time? Absolutely, and a vital influence on everything the players in Spectrum Road have been involved in. Matter of fact, Mr. Bruce himself was a member of Lifetime, joining McLaughlin, Young, and Williams for the combo's second album, "Turn it Over," in 1970. The spectacle of a bonafide rock star (Bruce was barely two years out of Cream) joining an electric jazz band was news. And such were the roots of a controversial label: fusion.

Your average know-somethingish jazzbo will tell you the biggest difference between jazz and rock 'n' roll, instrumentation aside, is that jazz swings while rock thumps. People who listen hard know better. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones describes Charlie Watts as a jazz drummer who plays a little louder and harder than his predecessors; Watts, who sometimes (quite creditably) leads a jazz big band, might concur. Tony Williams knew better too (as a session drummer he even played behind punk icon John Lydon on the Public Image Ltd. "generic" album). And Blackman Santana knows better, too. The songs that Spectrum Road draws on range from pretty elemental futuristic blues vamps to complicated multi- theme compositions with breakneck starts and stops, but all of them leave plenty of room for improvisation.

More on Bing: Tony Williams  

In the best Williams tradition, Blackman Santana keeps the swing going even when hammering at her kit, and constantly keeps the action going with idiosyncratic accents and ingenious beat subdivisions. Her Williams-esque approach was most obviously evident on the two more or less straight out rock 'n' roll songs the band did. Both were, as you might have guessed, Cream tunes: the sly blues "Politician" and the big hit "Sunshine of Your Love." The drumming was particularly springy and sly on the former, with a lot of purposeful dropouts followed by ever-more-surprising snare wallops.

Throughout, the other players wailed in their most comfortable and exhilarating modes: Reid lightning-fingered and wailing; Bruce dense, dark, and dissonant; Medeski grooving like the organ player at the cocktail lounge in a deep space station. However you wanted to characterize the music generically, it was a glorious cosmic storm, and the group looked delighted to be making all that noise. Bruce, 69 years old and the not-too-long-ago recipient of a new liver, was on his feet and wailing (with the exception of a minutes-long offstage break while the remaining trio vamped) for a nearly two-hour set, and referred to New York audiences as "still the best in the room." The packed house ate it up. The band's new self-titled record is superb, an excellent record of what it's about, but if you can see them live you absolutely should.

So is fusion back? Chick Corea's infamous-to-some band Return To Forever is back on the road; a recent live album shows the group, now featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty as a permanent member, doing the same pyrotechnics that got it condemned in some circles as speed-indulgent. But there's a new (for lack of a better word) maturity at work that I can hear, a more joyful virtuosity than the "can you top this" kind, and the group is refreshingly unselfconscious about toggling between acoustic and electric modes. More to this reviewer's taste was the appearance of the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal at New York's Le Poisson Rouge a few days before the Spectrum Road show. Working with a drummer Paolo Vinaccia, organist Stale Storiøkken and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, Rypdal went at his Strat with a fire that's not always as hot on his studio recordings, while the trumpeter responded with bracing blats and lyrical runs. Rypdal's actual style is pretty firmly in the blues-and-rock camp, while the band brought the jazz feel. Listening, one had the notion that had Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix ever gotten to officially record together, they might well have cooked up something like this. Which was, on the other hand, wholly beside the point: this music was here, and now, and is still happening and viable. Which is more than enough, to this reviewer's ears, to justify or rationalize any "revival" of "fusion."

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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