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Archive for the ‘Fusion’ Category

TRACKLISTING:
1. Prelude (1:35)
2. Ruhkukah (5:32)
3. Low Levels, High Stakes (9:03)
4. Hard Hat Area (6:03)
5. Tullio (5:59)
6. House of Mirrors (7:44)
7. Postlude (5:28)

LINEUP:
Allan Holdsworth –  guitar, SynthAxe
Steve Hunt  – keyboards
Gary Husband – drums
Skúli Sverrisson – bass guitar

TRACKLISTING:
1. Countdown (3:09)
2. Nuages (5:40)
3. How Deep Is the Ocean (5:29)
4. Isotope (5:41)
5. None Too Soon Pt. 1 / Interlude / None Too Soon Pt. 2 (7:42)
6. Norwegian Wood (5:55)
7. Very Early (7:40)
8. San Marcos (3:22)
9. Inner Urge (6:15)

LINEUP:
Gordon Beck – digital piano, keyboards
Kirk Covington – drums
Allan Holdsworth – guitar, SynthAxe
Gary Willis – bass guitar

Yorkshire-born guitarist Allan Holsworth needs no introduction for progressive rock lovers of every persuasion. Before Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci and their ilk’s dazzling, faster-than-the-speed-of-light skills on the six strings gained worldwide success, Holdsworth had already attained legendary status for his work both as a solo artist and with the likes of Gong, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty and UK. Though the albums released in his own name are in the minority if compared to the sheer number of his collaborations, over the years they have become almost objects of cult in the community of jazz-fusion fans

Though I was familiar with Holdsworth’s work with bands such as UK and Gong,  I had not yet got round to exploring his solo output. Holdsworth’s reputation as the quintessential “musicians’ musician” may cause his work to be somewhat daunting for those who, like myself, have never touched a musical instrument in their lives. However, even laypersons can derive a lot of enjoyment from listening to music of such outstanding level,  although the nature of our comments will necessarily be “impressionistic”, so to speak, and probably even more so than in other occasions – as we will be unable to touch on any of the technical details essential for any practicing six-stringer.

Hard Hat Area and None Too Soon belong to the stage of Holdsworth’s full maturity as a musician and composer, as well as a pioneer of the iconic SynthAxe. Released only three years apart (respectively in 1993 and 1996), they differ quite noticeably in terms of  style and lineup. Both albums were out of print for a number of years before Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records (who is a personal friend of Holdsworth’s as well as fan of his music) took it upon himself to have them remastered and reissued – complete with exhaustive liner notes retracing their history, courtesy of Guitar Player magazine associate editor Barry Cleveland (also a fine musician in his own right). The distinctive elements of both albums are lovingly brought to the fore, with excellent sound quality that allows the listeners to partake of the seamless instrumental interplay without feeling overwhelmed by thousands of notes played at the speed of light.

As Cleveland points out, Holdsworth’s eight solo album, Hard Hat Area, is a logical extension of the guitarist’s previous efforts. It also marks the first time that he recorded an album in the studio with his touring band  (comprising drummer Gary Husband, keyboardist Steve Hunt and Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson), instead of recording each track on his own and then adding the other instruments. Not surprisingly, the result are 41 minutes of music that are astonishingly proficient from a technical point of view, yet also warm and fluid, showcasing Holdsworth’s trademark style without detracting from the other players’ outstanding skills. Indeed, in spite of the sky-high level of proficiency involved, the listener never gets the impression that the musicians are showing off – unlike  much of the output of modern “guitar legends”. The music possesses that easy, natural flow that can be so hard to achieve, and the crystalline sound quality emphasizes the sleek, effortless nature of the interaction between the various instruments.

The album, conceived in near-symphonic fashion with a “Prelude” and a “Postlude”, is laid-back, at times even lyrical in mood. In the almost 10-minute “Low Levels, High Stakes”, Holdsworth’s guitar and SynthAxe take on a calm, meditative tone, reflected by Hunt’s lovely rippling piano and Husband’s muted yet stunning drum work. Elegant and full of melody, the textbook-perfect fusion of “Ruhkukah” proves once again that fast playing does not have to equal soulless shredding. The title-track, on the other hand, introduces some harsh, industrial elements through mechanical sound effects and a sharper, metallic guitar tone; The atmospheric quality of “Postlude”, enhanced by ethereal keyboard washes, allows Skúli Sverrisson’s splendidly understated bass to step into the limelight, while the SynthAxe engages in a sort of “duel” with the drums, emphasizing the almost uncanny chemistry between Holdsworth and Husband.

Even if released less than three years after Hard Hat Area, None Too Soon is quite a different beast – featuring a completely new band (including Holdsworth’s longtime friend and collaborator, the late pianist Gordon Beck) and a tracklist largely consisting of covers of jazz classics by revered composers such as Bill Evans, Irving Berlin and John Coltrane. While Hard Hat Area is a top-notch example of fusion, None Too Soon treads into traditional jazz territory, though the pervasive presence of the SynthAxe pushes it firmly into a contemporary context that might alienate hardcore purists. Gary Willis and Kirk Covington of US jazz-fusion outfit Tribal Tech provide an impeccable rhythm backdrop, often understated, occasionally stepping into the limelight. However, the real protagonist of the album – in some ways even more so than Holdsworth – is Gordon Beck’s fluid, scintillating piano, which complements Holdsworth’s playing with the effortless ease born of a long partnership.

Clocking in at around 51 minutes, the album features 9 tracks, two of which are Beck’s own compositions – the three-part title-track, with its almost lazy, relaxed mood, and the brisk, energetic “San Marcos”. The jazz novice will probably be unfamiliar with most of the tracks, except for The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” – here almost unrecognizable, with a dazzling, piano-led central section bookended by the well-known, Indian-tinged tune. An understated, atmospheric rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages”, with Beck’s magnificent piano complementing Holdsworth’s exertions, and Bill Evans’ elegant, romantic “Very Early”, which sees Willis’ bass emerge discreetly, are also among the undisputed highlights of a very solid album.

Needless to say, both albums are essential listening for any self-respecting fan of jazz-rock/fusion, as well as for guitarists who want to learn how to effectively combine speed and technical proficiency with melody and emotion. They also offer an invaluable introduction to Holdsworth’s solo output, as well as a genuinely enjoyable listening experience for those non-musicians who  love great music. Kudos to Leonardo Pavkovic for having rescued these excellent albums from oblivion.

Links:
http://www.therealallanholdsworth.com/

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Past Present (6:46)
2. 16 Feet Below (5:42)
3. Underpass (5:33)
4. Push Too (5:05)
5. Pendulum (6:31)
6. Depth Charge (6:20)
7. Of Age (6:40)
8. New Resolution (8:37)

LINEUP:
Dean Watson – all instruments

Two years after the excellent Unsettled, Canadian multi-instrumentalist Dean Watson is back with his sophomore effort, Imposing Elements – inspired like its predecessor by the work of Toronto-based artist Ron Eady. Both those who download the album from Watson’s Bandcamp page and those who opt for the physical object will be treated to an impressive cover depicting one of Eady’s austere, Gothic-tinged industrial landscapes, realized with the ancient encaustic technique.

The relationship between progressive rock (in all its manifestations) and the visual arts is a long-standing one, and for many devotees of the genre it is almost impossible to separate the music from the images that graced the covers of vinyl LPs in the Sixties and Seventies. Though Eady’s work suggests a Blade Runner-like universe (perhaps more suited to a highly technical metal band) than the bright-hued flights of fancy of Roger Dean and his ilk, it is interesting to see how Watson rendered the visuals in musical terms – stressing the painting’s undeniably majestic aspect rather than its bleakness.

With impressive technical and compositional skills honed in years of experience on the music scene, Watson is not your typical self-important artist who delivers one vanity project after the other, regardless of whether quality matches quantity. Even someone who, like me, is generally a bit wary of the ubiquitous “solo-pilot” releases made possible by modern technology and the widespread use of the Internet will not fail to recognize that Watson is someone who genuinely cares about producing high-quality music, rather than out to bludgeon his audience over the head with pointless pyrotechnics.

While Unsettled was a classy, eminently listenable effort, Imposing Elements marks a big step ahead for Watson, both as an instrumentalist and a composer. Firmly rooted in the progressive jazz-fusion tradition represented by the likes of Jeff Beck circa Blow by Blow and Wired, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Bruford and  Brand X (among many others), the  album transcends the divide between conservatism and innovation, proving that great music does not necessarily have to be groundbreaking.  Imposing Elements is a more understated effort than Unsettled, dispensing almost completely with the (admittedly trendy) metal overtones of its predecessor, while raising the bar in terms of composition. Indeed, for his sophomore effort, Watson seems to have gone for a more laid-back mood, allowing for frequent tempo changes but never pushing too hard on the accelerator. Balance and restraint are the name of the game – something that is often conspicuously absent in the work of many modern acts.

Watson’s first love, the keyboards, are the undisputed protagonists of Imposing Elements, creating rich layers of sound and seamlessly sparring with the guitar (which on this album takes on more of a supporting role).  The whistle of the synths has been decidedly toned down this time around, while organ and piano (both electric and acoustic) frequently step into the limelight. Watson even brings in the iconic mellotron to add a touch of symphonic lushness, especially evident in the soothingly meditative “Pendulum”. The drums, with their surprisingly organic sound, lay down intricate patterns that have elicited comparisons with jazz-rock luminaries such as Bruford or Cobham.

Instrumentally speaking, however, the biggest improvement is the presence of a real electric bass, especially effective in the dramatic “Of Age” (which is the closest the album gets to the prog-metal mood of the previous release), as well as stately, evocative opener “Past Present”. Watson also shines at creating rarefied atmospheres, as in slow-burning closer “New Resolution”, hovering between a loose, jazzy texture and a tighter, brisker pace, or the electronics-laden “Depth Charge”. Percussion shines in “Push Too”, bolstering the exertions of synth and guitar; while “16 Feet Below” and “Underpass” run the gamut of tempo and mood changes – the latter displaying an intriguingly funky swagger.

With tracks between 5 and 8 minutes, and a total running time of 52 minutes, Imposing Elements never outstays its welcome. While a lot of jazz/fusion may come across as formally impeccable but rather emotionless, Dean Watson’s music possesses a thoroughly human dimension, revealing the artist’s dedication to his craft. I am sure that Watson’s compositions would transfer effortlessly to a stage setting, although the current music scene makes it increasingly difficult for musicians to perform live, therefore encouraging studio-only projects. However, even if this never happens, Imposing Elements remains an outstanding release, highly recommended to fans of progressive fusion and instrumental music in general.

Links:
http://deanwatson.bandcamp.com/album/imposing-elements

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/deanwatson12

http://www.myspace.com/deanwatson2

http://www.roneady.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Loopy (5.59)
2. A Serious Man (3.49)
3. Mom’s Song (2.05)
4. Bar Stomp (3.04)
5. Outdoor Revolution (3.08)
6. Western Sky (2.12)
7. Burning Match (5.11)
8. Claire’s Indigo (2.11)
9. Snufkin (2.48)
10. Old Silhouette (4.12)
11. Winds of Grace (8.39)

LINEUP:
Dani Rabin – guitar
Danny Markovitch – saxophone
Steve Rodby – bass
Paul Wertico – drums, percussion (1, 8)

With:
Jamey Haddad – percussion (2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10)
Matt Davidson – vocals (3, 6)
Leslie Beukelman – vocals (3, 6)
Makaya McCraven – drums (4)
Daniel White – lyrics, vocals (11)

Marbin’s eponymous debut came to my attention towards the end of 2009, soon after its release. Even if the duo formed by two young, talented Israeli-born musicians who had recently moved to Chicago was an unknown quantity to me and most other reviewers, the album’s endearingly naïve artwork and intriguing musical offer were enough to warrant closer scrutiny. With a name cleverly fashioned out of the surnames of the two artists (Danny MARkovitch and Dani RaBIN), Marbin made their debut on the US music scene with an album full of intriguing melodies crafted with ony two instruments – Rabin’s guitar and Markovitch’s saxophone – characterised by an ethereal, almost brittle quality, reminiscent of the delicacy of Far Eastern art, complex yet at the same time not too taxing for the listener.

The year 2010 marked a veritable quantum leap for Marbin (very active on the live front in the Chicago area), when they came under the radar of MoonJune Records’ mainman Leonardo Pavkovic, a man with a keen eye for new acts of outstanding quality. Promptly snapped up by the New York-based label, Marbin – who in the meantime had become a real band, with the addition of  Pat Metheny alumni Steve Rodby (bass) and Paul Wertico (drums) – released their second album at the beginning of 2011.

Breaking the Cycle is indeed an impressive effort, which sees the band build upon the foundation laid by their debut, while fine-tuning their sound and adding layers of complexity, though without making things unnecessarily convoluted. Indeed, rather interestingly, a fellow reviewer used the term ‘easy listening’ in connection to the album –  a definition that may conjure images of that openly commercial subgenre known as smooth jazz. However, while Breaking the Cycle does have plenty of smoothness and melody, I would certainly never call it background music. The presence of a full-blown rhythm section has given a boost to the ambient-tinged, chamber-like atmosphere of the debut, and some of the tracks display a more than satisfying level of energy and dynamics, all the while keeping true to the deeper nature of their sound.

Clocking in at slightly over 40 minutes, Breaking the Cycle immediately appears as a supremely sophisticated effort, starting from the striking cover artwork whose mix of the industrial (the bridge on the front cover) and the natural (the elephant on the back cover) seems to reflect the nature of the music itself. While the majority of the tracks lean towards the slower, more atmospheric side of things, delivered in a rather short, somewhat compact format, the album is bookended by two numbers that differ quite sharply from the rest, as well as from each other. Opener “Loopy” is the closest Marbin get to a ‘conventional’ jazz-fusion sound, almost 6 minutes of sax and guitar emoting over an exhilarating jungle beat laid down by Wertico’s drums and percussion that gives a first taste of the seamless interplay between the instruments. On the other hand, the medieval-tinged, acoustic folk ballad “Winds of Grace”, masterfully interpreted by guest singer Daniel White (who also wrote the lyrics), though apparently out of place in the context of the album,  is imbued with a feeling of nostalgia and loss suggested by several other tracks.

Indeed, the three numbers that form the central section of the album might almost be considered as parts of a single suite, since they are characterized by a wistful, romantic (though anything but cheesy) mood. An extended sax solo is the real showstopper in “Outdoor Revolution”, while wordless vocalizing enhances the country-tinged acoustic guitar in “Western Sky”. “Burning Match” seems to reflect its title almost perfectly, its smouldering atmosphere touched with a hint of sadness, the yearning tone of the sax suggesting the end of a love affair. A strong visual element is evoked throughout the album: “Old Silhouette” creates a faintly mysterious picture, yet full of subtle warmth intensified by the slow, deep movement of the percussion; while the sweet, soothing chanting in “Mom’s Song”, combined with the gentleness of the guitar, brought to my mind images of a beach at sunset. In sharp contrast, “Bar Stomp” delivers exactly what the title promises – a bluesy, electrified romp with Rabin’s guitar taking centre stage, bolstered by an imposing percussive apparatus involving the presence of three drummers (Wertico plus guests Makaya McCraven and Jamey Haddad), and spiced up with a hint of cinematic tension.

The final remarks I made in my review of Boris Savoldelli’s Biocosmopolitan may also apply to Breaking the Cycle. Oozing sheer class, with outstanding performances all round, yet plenty of warmth and accessibility (unlike a lot of hyper-technical albums), this is a release that has the potential to appeal to anyone who loves good music and does not care about sticking a label on anything they hear. Judging from the positive reactions to this album, Marbin are definitely going to be another asset for the ever-reliable MoonJune Records.

Links:
http://www.marbinmusic.com

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Aria (2:09)
2. Biocosmopolitan (3:36)
3. Concrete Clima (4:26)
4. The Discordia (3:42)
5. Kerouac in New York City (3:13)
6. Is Difficult to Fly Without Whisky (3:26)
7. Dandy Dog (2:12)
8. Danny Is a Man Now (1:42)
9. Biocosmo (3:39)
10. Lovecity (2:47)
11. Springstorm (3:21)
12. The Miss Kiss (2:57)
13. My Barry Lindon (1:28)
14. Closin’ Theme (2:32)
15. Crosstown Traffic (bonus track) (4:03)
16. Biocosmo (English version – bonus track) (4:14)

Bonus video:
The Miss Kiss

LINEUP:
Boris Savoldelli – all vocals and vocal instruments, piano (9, 16)

With:
Jimmy Haslip – bass (2)
Paolo Fresu – trumpet, flugelhorn (3, 5)

At a first glance, Boris Savoldelli’s second solo album does not spell ‘progressive rock’. With 14 songs (plus two bonus tracks) between 1 and 4 minutes in length, and a rather minimalistic instrumental accompaniment, Biocosmopolitan looks light years away from the lushly orchestrated productions of the flag-bearers of the genre. Moreover, even if the output of New York-based MoonJune Records (one of the few authentically forward-thinking labels in the business) is frequently placed under the used-and-abused ‘prog’ umbrella, this album displays a somewhat different approach to music-making, one that tries to offers something genuinely original rather than a more or less successful replica of Seventies modes.

My first encounter with Boris Savoldelli’s music dates back from 2009, when I reviewed his solo debut, Insanology – an album that impressed me for its unique blend of elegance and uncontrived cheerfulness. It was one of those truly enjoyable discs whose apparent simplicity reveals layers of complexity with every successive listen. It is, however, not the complexity for its own sake that can be sometimes encountered in ‘standard’ progressive rock, but is rather achieved with a lightness of  touch, a kind of consummate subtlety that is all too rare on the modern music scene – all accomplished with one main instrument, Savoldelli’s voice, a veritable one-man-orchestra of stunning versatility that has been compared to luminaries like Bobby McFerrin or Demetrio Stratos.

Indeed, Boris Savoldelli is much more than an ordinary singer – to quote our fellow Italians PFM, he is a real maestro della voce, a master of the art of shaping his voice in ways that would sound impossible to most people, replacing most of the conventional instrumentation used in jazz and rock with an array of awe-inspiring effects whose apparently effortless nature belie the years of hard work behind it all. While most of the songs, which blend traditional and unconventional features, have a similar structure – where two or more vocal lines (both percussive and harmonic) intersect and spar with each other – as a whole Biocosmopolitan does not sound monotonous or repetitive. In my view, his unique handling of the linguistic aspects is probably the single most important factor for the album’s success. English and Italian intermingle with astounding naturalness (while on most other albums a mix of languages would sound contrived) that lends the album a truly cosmopolitan feel – with devices such as alliteration and assonance used to bolster the musical content, creating intriguing rhythms and textures.

In the four years between Insanology and Biocosmopolitan, Boris Savoldelli has been quite busy, though on a more decidedly experimental level – releasing the album Protoplasmic in collaboration with Elliott Sharp, as well as three albums with avant-garde outfit S.A.D.O. While Insanology saw the presence of veteran jazz guitarist Marc Ribot on two tracks, this time Savoldelli avails himself of the collaboration of two outstanding musicians – renowned Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, and bassist Jimmy Haslip (of Yellowjackets fame). Haslip’s bass adds depth and interest to the title-track, complementing Savoldelli’s bluesy vocals in a song that is much more complex than it short running time would suggest. Fresu’s wistful-sounding trumpet punctuates the cheery, infectious repetition of the line “the corner is dirty” in the pause-laden “Concrete Clima” (the longest track on the album at slightly over 4 minutes), and its sudden bursts of sounds enrich the fabric of the bright, endearingly nonsensical “Kerouac in New York”.

Most of the songs share the same sunny, upbeat nature and exude a genuine sense of warmth, reminding the listener of exotic vocal styles or of the sensuality of Latin rhythms, combining modernity and a charming retro feel (most evident in the Fifties’ doo-wop style of the hugely entertaining “The Miss Kiss”). Boris’s voice ranges from gritty, passionate blues tones to elegant, jazzy smoothness, infused with a genuine sense of humour and enjoyment. The only number that clearly differs from the rest is the melancholy ballad “Biocosmo”, a slow-burner (also present as a bonus track with English-language vocals) accompanied by piano and ending with solemn, choir-like chanting and distant clinking sounds, which one can almost imagine Savoldelli performing in the semi-darkness of a smoky night club. The album is then wrapped up, in cinematic fashion,  by two humorous complementary pieces, “My Barry Lindon “ – basically a series of ‘thank you’, handclaps and assorted sounds with occasional vocal harmonies thrown in – and “Closin’ Theme”, where a voice recites the album’s credits in English with mock seriousness. The second bonus track, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic”(already included on Insanology), is the closest the album goes to traditional rock, with Savoldelli offering a more than credible performance as a hard rock vocalist.

Biocosmopolitan is one of those rare albums that are potentially appealing to all music lovers, regardless of genres and labels – though it might disappoint those who require songs to be over 10 minutes in length, or object to the lack of ‘proper’ instruments, or even shun any kind of music that is not dead serious or just plain depressing. Progressive without necessarily being ‘prog’, entertaining and at times even exhilarating, Biocosmopolitan is an ideal showcase for the amazing vocal and compositional talents of an artist whose work proves that impeccably performed music can also be fun.

Links:
http://www.borisinger.eu

http://www.moonjune.com

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TRACKLISTING (2005  edition):
Disc 1:
1. Dark Side Of The Moog (6:17)
2. Down To You (9:05)
3. Gemini And Leo (4:48)
4. Secret Places (3:59)
5. On Second Thoughts (7:30)
6. Winds (10:23)
7. Castles Version 1. (previously unreleased demo – 1975)(11:09)
8. Gary’s Lament (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:00)
9. Walking The Park (previously unreleased demo – 1975) (7:05)

Disc 2:
1. Night Creeper (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (3:46)
2. The Awakening (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (11:43)
3. Siren Song (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (6:55)
4. Castles Version 2. (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:00)
5. The Scorch (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:39)
6. Rivers (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (4:27)
7. Interplanetary Slut (previously unreleased demo – 1976) (5:32)
8. Dark Side Of The Moog (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (9:00)
9. Siren Song (BBC session, In Concert- June 1976) (12:13)
10. The Awakening (BBC session, In Concert – June 1976) (15:46)

LINEUP:
Don Airey – keyboards, synthesizers
Jon Hiseman – drums, tympani, gongs
Gary Moore – guitars, vocals
Neil Murray – bass
Mike Starrs – lead vocals

Although I had been thinking for a while of posting a review of this album for my ‘vault’ series, the sad events of today have made it almost mandatory for me to do so.  And what better way to celebrate the life and work of Irish guitar legend Gary Moore – who passed away last night at the still young age of 58 – than posting a review of an album that sees some of his finest contributions to the history of rock music?

In spite of the name, the only connection between Colosseum II and the original Colosseum is the presence of monster skinsman Jon Hiseman (so conveniently forgotten in those boring “best drummer” polls, where everybody seems to think that Portnoy and his ilk are God’s gift to drumming).  The new band also showcased the considerable talents of keyboard maestro Don Airey (who went on to replace Jon Lord in Deep Purple) and bassist Neil Murray, nowadays better known for his stints in Whitesnake and Black Sabbath. Murray tends to be given less credit than other four-stringers – in spite of having previously played with such Canterbury legends as Gilgamesh and  National Health, where he took the place left vacant by Richard Sinclair after Hatfield and the North’s demise. The musical proficiency of somebody who can keep up with both Jon Hiseman and Pip Pyle cannot be so easily disregarded, and Murray’s playing on Strange New Flesh is immaculate.

However, Colosseum II’s ace in the hole was the fiery fretboard prowess of then 24-year-old Gary Moore, formerly with Dublin-based band Skid Row. Moore’s stunning guitar work gave  Colosseum II a definitely harder edge  than the band’s former incarnation – straddling the line between Colosseum’s blues-based, sax-laden jazz-rock and Deep Purple-style hard rock. Unlike other jazz-rock bands, Colosseum II did not start out as a purely instrumental outfit. For Strange New Flesh, their debut album, Hiseman and Moore enlisted the talents of  vocalist Mike Starrs  (later with German-based band Lucifer’s Friend). For some, the sometimes overpowering presence of Starrs’s otherwise excellent vocals – a powerful tenor that, at times, oddly reminds me of a richer, more restrained version of James LaBrie – detracts from the overall brilliance of the album. Personally, though I quite like Starrs’s singing (Moore’s backing vocals being quite abrasive most of the time, though he developed quite a respectable voice in later years), I must also admit to having a slight preference for the instrumental tracks.  As Starrs (together with Murray) was subsequently fired by the band’s record label, Colosseum II’s next two albums were almost completely instrumental.

Most of the songs on the album were penned by Moore, with the exception of the Joni Mitchell cover “Down to You” – apparently an odd choice, yet rather successful, mainly thanks to Starrs’ passionate vocal performance and Moore’s beautifully melodic guitar. The album, however, opens in a completely different vein, with the blistering keyboard and guitar tour de force of the aptly-titled “Dark Side of the Moog”. “Gemini and Leo” is a funkier, jazzier track, with Starrs sounding a bit like Glenn Hughes in his Trapeze years. The following songs, “Secret Place” and On Second Thoughts” continue in much the same vein, all featuring superb interplay between the four virtuoso musicians, as well as soaring, powerful vocals. Hiseman and Murray’s propulsive rhythm section is masterful throughout, but Moore and Airey are the ones who really steal the show, Airey’s majestic keyboard sweeps duelling with Moore’s fluid yet searing lead. Original album closer “Winds” , a 10-minute-plus epic, summarizes all that is great about this record, at the same time jazzy and edgy, with plenty of tempo changes and that magnificent guitar sound.

The 2005 edition contains some real treats for fans of the band, including a number of live tracks (such as a killer version of “Dark Side of the Moog”) and quite a few unreleased demos of songs, part of which would end up on the band’s following albums, Electric Savage and War Dance – notably the original versions of blistering, intricate “Intergalactic Strut” (here bearing the amusing title of “Interplanetary Slut”),  the self-explanatory “The Scorch”  and romantic ballad “Castles”.

The highlight of those bonus tracks, though, is  the utterly beautiful Moore showcase “Gary’s Lament”, a wistful slow burner that  sounds particularly poignant in the light of today’s news. Gary was the anti-shredder, a down-to-earth guy who could really make his instrument speak and sing with an almost human voice. This review is dedicated to him, one of the many great musicians who left us way too soon. On any account, Strange New Flesh is a superb album, highly recommended to all lovers of great musicianship combined with heart and soul.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Baltasaurus (14:18)
2. Flying Trip (7:51)
3. Vietato Generalizzare (6:38)
4. Mosoq Runa (18:58)
5. The Mirror (10:16)
6. La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri (10:16)

LINEUP:
Alberto De Grandis – drums, percussion, vocals (5)
Alberto Bonomi – Hammond A-100 organ with Leslie 760, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Steinway acoustic piano, synthesizers, flute
Silvio Minella – electric guitars
Luca Baldassari – bass guitar

With:
Andhira (Elena Nulchis, Cristina Lanzi, Egidiana Carta) –  vocals (6)
Zoltan Szabo – cello (4, 6)
Maria Vicentini – violin, viola (4, 6)

Hailing from Shakespeare’s own ‘fair Verona’ (one of the most beautiful cities in Italy), where they formed in the mid-Nineties, D.F.A. (acronym of Duty Free Area) are living proof of the old Latin saying that a prophet has no honour in his own country. Hailed as one of the best progressive rock bands of the past decade, they took the NEARfest audience by storm in 2000, and offered a stunning repeat performance in 2009 – when I first saw them, and was floored right from the opening strains of  their set. However, as seems to happen all too frequently, they are barely known in their home country, where their extremely elegant yet punchy brand of Canterbury-tinged jazz-rock starkly contrasts with worship of all things Genesis that is still widespread in Italy. That historic first NEARfest performance was captured on the band’s 2001 live album, Work in Progress, which for over seven years remained the last testimony of the band’s activity.

D.F.A. are nothing but pure class. A quartet reproducing the configuration of bands such as Hatfield and the North and National Health – with both keyboards and guitar in a prominent role,  and the occasional contribution of other instruments – they are one of those rare outfits where each member’s contribution is essential to the band’s overall sound. Even if drummer Alberto De Grandis –  a drummer that, like Christian Vander or Daniel Denis, is much more than a simple timekeeper – gets most of the composing credits, all of the instruments get their chance to shine and create a tightly woven mesh of sound. Alberto Bonomi’s multilayered keyboards lay a lush tapestry for Silvio Minella’s brilliantly expressive guitar work; while Luca Baldassarri’s bass provides ever-reliable bottom end, adding fullness and texture to De Grandis’ propulsive drumming. D.F.A.’s music is effortlessly fluid, yet complex enough to please the most demanding jazz-rock fans – striking a perfect balance between technical skill and genuine emotion, breathless dynamics and captivating atmospheres.

Taking a leaf out of Soft Machine’s book, the album’s title is a simple numeral – not surprising, in the light of their affiliation with Leonardo Pavkovic’s far-sighted MoonJune label. Though it runs at almost 70 minutes, unlike the majority of albums running at over an hour it never outstays its welcome, and always manages to hold the listener’s attention. Most of the six tracks are instrumental, with one notable exception (on which more later). Interestingly, though D.F.A. do not sound as typically ‘Italian’ as those bands who opt for a more traditionally symphonic sound, they possess the inimitable flair for melody that seems to be ingrained in most Italian musicians. Their music is never harsh or needlessly convoluted, yet it also manages to eschew that somewhat overblown theatricality that can turn people off Italian progressive rock. It would be unfair to the band, however, to imply that they are mere Canterbury imitators. While D.F.A have a definitely international appeal (as proved by their choice of giving their composition titles both in Italian and in English), their Mediterranean inspiration – even if thankfully untainted by the overly sentimental excesses of Italian melodic pop – can be often keenly felt. This is one aspect that D.F.A. share with historic jazz-rock outfits such as Area, Il Baricentro and Napoli Centrale.

Chosen to accompany the opening images of the documentary film Romantic Warriors, “Baltasaurus” introduces the album in charmingly subdued mode, a feature shared by most of the tracks. Elegant guitar licks and flawless rhythm section lead the way for a splendid, mid-paced development, in which keyboards and guitar seamlessly interact, bolstered by De Grandis’ stunning drum work – never overwhelming, but very much a protagonist. Gently atmospheric sections alternate with more energetic ones, and the many tempo changes do not break up the smooth flow of the music. The following number, “Flying Trip”,  picks up the Canterbury references with a wistful mid-tempo spiced up by occasional jazzy, Latin-flavoured passages, and featuring some stunningly beautiful organ passages and delicate flute; while the barnstorming “Vietato Generalizzare” (It Is Forbidden to Generalize – the track with which D.F.A. opened their set at NEARfest 2009) barges in, propelled by a vertiginous synth riff and high-energy drumming. Very much guitar-driven, it allows Silvio Minella to display his considerable chops in an intense, expressive solo reminiscent of Gary Moore during his Colosseum II tenure. “The Mirror”, on the other hand, is a classic jazz-rock workout, with the instruments creating a keen, somewhat darker-hued sense of tension – though eased by snippets of muted singing at the beginning and in the middle of the track – and climaxing with an arresting, yet subtle drum ‘solo’.

That leaves the album’s epic, the almost 19-minute “Mosoq Runa” (Quechua for “new human being”), which, not surprisingly, displays a definitely more symphonic bent – thanks also to the presence of strings, as well as a recurring main theme. The amazing interplay between the instruments is nowhere more evident than here, and – in spite of its running time – the track never once feels overlong or overdone; as usual, both the guitar and the keyboards get their chance to shine, with Minella’s soloing at its most soulful. However, 4th’s most distinctive track is strategically placed at the close of the disc. Sung entirely in the ancient Sardinian language (the most archaic of Romance languages) by the heavenly voices of the folk trio Andhira, “La Ballata de s’Isposa ‘e Mannorri” (The Ballad of the Bride of Mannorri) is a tale of love, betrayal and vengeance that would be perfectly at home on a Pentangle album – in spite of the frequent comparisons between Andhira and Canterbury’s own trio of female vocalists, The Northettes. The three Sardinian vocalists, though, are less operatic and more emotional; the resonant contralto timbre of one of them lends even more depth to their performance. The minimalistic instrumental accompaniment does not divert the attention from the sheer beauty of the vocal interplay – though the bridge features a lovely, touching guitar solo that seems to echo the profound sadness of the story.

At the time of writing, D.F.A. are reported to be on indefinite hiatus, due to the all too familiar pressures of ‘real life’ (i.e. family and work) on any non-professional musician. It may even be that the band has reached the end of the road – which would obviously result in a great loss for the whole progressive rock scene. However, even if they indeed decide to call it a day, they will have left a lasting legacy in the history of progressive rock, both for the beauty and power of their music and their genuinely down-to-earth attitude – as captured in the aforementioned Romantic Warriors.. Needless to say, 4th is a must-listen for devotees of the Canterbury scene and classic jazz-rock, and very highly recommended to prog fans of every persuasion. This is one of the landmark albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and one of the very best productions to ever come out of the Italian progressive music scene.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/dutyfreearea
http://www.moonjune.com/MJR021.htm
http://www.andhira.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bodhisattva  (5:19)
2. Razor Boy  (3:11)
3. The Boston Rag  (5:40)
4. Your Gold Teeth  (7:02)
5. Show Biz Kids  (5:25)
6. My Old School  (5:47)
7. Pearl of the Quarter  (3:50)
8. King of the World  (5:04)

LINEUP:
Donald Fagen – piano, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
Walter Becker – electric bass, harmonica, vocals
Ray Brown – string bass on Razor Boy
Denny Dias – guitar, Stereo Mixmaster General
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Hodder – drums, percussion, vocals

With:
Ben Benay – acoustic guitar
Ray Brown – string bass (2)
Rick Derringer – slide guitar (5)
Victor Feldman – vibes, marimba, percussion
Ernie Watts – saxophone
Johnny Rotella – saxophone
Lanny Morgan – saxophone
Bill Perkins – saxophone
Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia Hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston, Michael Fennelly – background vocals

Steely Dan are one of those bands that are loved passionately by a great many progressive rock fans, but whose legitimacy as a genuinely progressive outfit can spark some really heated debate. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with ‘traditional’ prog (as in 30-minute epics, head-spinning time signature changes, and all that jazz), its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance – not to mention Donald Fagen’s literate, sarcastic lyrics –  deserves a place in any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.

Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past few years that I really got to know them in depth – thanks to the man who is now my husband. Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy (the band’s sophomore effort) their masterpiece, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with  complex instrumental interplay that would do any ‘classic’ prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently carefree melodies.

Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with “Bodhisattva”, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (the pun in ‘the sparkle of your China’ is quite priceless). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has a brisk, almost danceable rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. “Razor Boy” follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of Steely Dan’s many seedy tales of lost lives: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away….”  The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone lends a haunting quality to the song. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite number, the moody, somewhat menacing “The Boston Rag”, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (“Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag”), and the closest Steely Dan get to guitar power chords.

Out of the remaining songs, the hit “My Old School” and the romantic, French-flavoured “Pearl of the Quarter” lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. “Your Gold Teeth”, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers – the venomous “Showbiz Kids”, punctuated by relentless background chants of ‘outrageous’, and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer “King of the World”, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by distinctive, slightly cheesy synth sounds.

Even though at a superficial listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, yet ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep even the most demanding prog fan on their toes. Everything is there – the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this gem. You will not regret it.

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TRACKLISTING:
1. The Encounter ( 5:03 )
2. The Push ( 3:36 )
3. Out Of The Mist ( 8:25 )
4. Sequence Of Events ( 3:25 )
5. DIP ( 6:56 )
6. The Departure ( 4:40 )
7. Gray Matter ( 6:16 )
8. Orb ( 7:47 )
9. 11th Heaven Blues ( 4:00 )
10. Still (Unsettled ) ( 2:10 )

LINEUP:
Dean Watson – all instruments

While so-called ‘solo-pilot’ instrumental albums seem to be rather ubiquitous these days (with results not always up to scratch), it is far from an everyday occurrence to come across an album as impressive as Unsettled, Dean Watson’s debut release – even more so if we consider that we are dealing with a wholly independent production. An amazingly accomplished disc, structured in a remarkably balanced way, it presents music that is eclectic without being directionless, and complex without being unnecessarily convoluted.

For such a proficient composer and multi-instrumentalist, Toronto-based Dean Watson is a very unassuming character, in spite of his decades-long experience in the music world. Dispensing with the bells and whistles to which so many new acts seem to be addicted, he has embarked on the promotion of his music completely on his own, offering his album for review on progressive rock discussion boards, and eliciting almost unanimously positive feedback. Indeed, though it falls somewhat short of perfection,  Unsettled as a whole is an impressively cohesive effort: inspired by the painting of the same name by Ron Eady (a visual artist also based in Toronto), it is conceived as a sonic rendition of the painting itself, realized with a successful blend of emotion and technical skill that often eludes all-instrumental productions.

Other reviewers have labelled Unsettled as progressive fusion, and, in some ways at least, the description fits the album quite well – especially if we take into account the many diverse sources of inspiration (listed by Watson on his MySpace page) that make up its sound.  the actual jazz-rock component in Unsettled is rather restrained, sharing the stage with spacey touches, progressive metal overtones, and even subtle classic rock influences. Although comparisons have been made with the likes of Planet X and Liquid Tension Experiment – at least as regards those moments on the album where things take a more metallic turn – I feel they limit the scope of Watson’s creative impulse. In fact, while some tracks on the album may bring to mind the aforementioned, hyper-technical instrumental combos, others reveal a vintage jazz-rock feel akin to Jeff Beck’s two seminal mid-Seventies albums, Blow by Blow and Wired, eschewing the feeling of chilly perfection that often plagues the output of metal-fusion acts.

Unsettled’s main flaw lies in the use of programmed drums, though they are nowhere as annoying than on other similar projects. True, their artificial nature occasionally surfaces, marring (albeit slightly) the otherwise warm and engaging sound of the compositions, and making one wonder how the album would sound if Watson had instead gone for the real thing. A couple of tracks also come across as somewhat less cohesive than the others, with abrupt changes in mood and pace that may leave the listener a tad baffled. However, the level of both composition and execution is so consistently high that it amply compensates for these shortcomings.

Running at around 52 minutes, Unsettled is a compact album that strikes the right balance between longer, more complex compositions and shorter numbers with a more direct impact. Watson’s approach definitely helps the listener to concentrate on each number, and appreciate the diversity on offer. Watson always keeps melody at the forefront, opting for power rather than harshness when introducing heavy riffing into the fabric of his songs, so that even the heaviest moments are amazingly tuneful. Opener “The Encounter” is a good example of how Watson merges progressive metal vibes with more sedate moods;  the use of keyboard-based riffs reminded me of Relocator’s self-titled debut (another excellent instrumental album released in 2010), with various electronic effects adding a spacey note, and some remarkable Hammond organ and guitar work. “Sequence of Events”, one of the shortest items on the album at barely over 3 minutes, offers an intense, almost concentrated atmosphere made of brisk keyboard flights and hard-edged riffing reminiscent of classic instrumental metal-fusion; while the brisk, high-energy “Orb” would have been more effective without the overpowering drums and whistling synth sounds.

On the other hand, Watson’s talent emerges most clearly in those tracks where the prog-metal component is kept to a minimum – such as the jazzy, almost funky “The Push”, relying on some fine organ-guitar interplay with a warm, rugged Seventies sound, or the exhilarating “Gray Matter”, propelled by energetic bass and drums and showcasing Watson’s outstanding skills as a guitarist. His soloing here, as well as in the splendid first half of “The Departure”, possesses a clean, melodic feel that evokes  the aforementioned Jeff Beck, as well as another guitar great, Irish legend Gary Moore. While the latter number is somewhat marred by an abrupt change in pace and style towards the end, its slow-burning, wistful first half brought to my mind some of Moore’s more meditative pieces, such as “Sunset”, “The Loner” or “Gary’s Lament”. With “Out of the Mist”, the longest piece on the album (and possibly its highlight), we are presented with a musical version of Ron Eady’s intriguing cover painting, with its romantic, melancholy beginning, backed by strings that add depth to the beautiful strumming of the acoustic and electric guitars, and a second half full of tension and menace, driven by intense riffing and crashing drums.

Though the problem with an album such as Unsettled might lie in its evident metal subtext – which may put off the more conservative jazz-fusion fans – lovers of eclectic instrumental rock will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this finely-crafted effort, an excellent debut from an outstanding musician. In any case, it would be interesting to see Watson branch out and enlist the help of some other musicians, in order to bring his compositions before a live audience.

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/deanwatson2
http://www.roneady.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Clear Air Turbulence  (7:35)
2. Five Moons  (7:30)
3. Money Lender  (5:38)
4. Over the Hill (7:14)
5. Goodhand Liza  (5:24)
7. Angel Manchenio  (5:17)

LINEUP:
Ian Gillan – lead vocals
Colin Towns – keyboards, flutes
John Gustafson – bass, vocals
Ray Fenwick – guitars, vocals
Mark Nauseef – drums, percussion
Martin Firth – baritone saxophone
John Huckridge – trumpets
Derek Healey – trumpets
Malcolm Griffiths – trombone
Phil Kersie – tenor saxophone (2)

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to call  Clear Air Turbulence, the second album released by the sadly short-lived Ian Gillan Band, one of the forgotten masterpieces of Seventies progressive rock. For those who think of Ian Gillan as little more than a hirsute hard rock screamer,  even a casual listen to this record may definitely bring somewhat of a shock – and not just because of the vocals.

Following his return to the world of music after a series of unsuccessful business ventures, Ian surrounded himself with a bunch of seasoned musicians (including bassist John Gustafson, of Quatermass and Roxy Music fame), and proceeded to surprise his fans by slowly but inexorably detaching himself from his Deep Purple past. Unfortunately, though, rock fans are not always as open-minded as we would wish them to be, and the project folded after releasing a total of three studio albums, plus a posthumous live one.

When listening to Clear Air Turbulence,  we cannot but regret the demise of such an exciting outfit, offering an incredibly high level of musicianship as well as  creativity. The six tracks on the album, which all exceed the five-minute mark, feature complex, multi-layered structures, enhanced by the discreet presence of a horn section, and distinguished by an overall sense of  sophistication, a lightness of touch seldom associated with Gillan’s mother band. Even Ian’s vocals, while easily recognizable, never really sound like the original ‘air raid siren’ unleashed on the likes of  Machine Head and  Made in Japan.

However, the ace in the hole on Clear Air Turbulence is undoubtedly keyboardist Colin Towns.  Another of the many unsung heroes of the rock world, now a composer of jazz and soundtrack music, Towns joined the band for the recording of this album (replacing original member Mike Moran), and immediately stamped his mark on their music, as well as on the band’s later incarnation – simply called Gillan, and much more akin to Deep Purple in sound, with excursions into outright heavy metal.

Weird, spaced-out keyboard sounds introduce the title-track, surging into a crescendo that soon gives way to a manic, bass- and drum-driven riff, and a wildly exhilarating, 7-minute-plus ride, powered by Towns’ sweeping synthesizers. In the middle section of the song, guitarist Ray Fenwick (a veteran of the British rock scene, formerly with the Spencer Davis Group) demonstrates his skills with a slow-burning, emotional solo. Towns is  also responsible for the delicate flutes on the dreamy, soulful ballad “Five Moons”; while on the funky “Money Lender” horns take pride of place, with Gillan’s  commanding, even aggressive vocal performance somewhat reminiscent of his hard-rockin’ past.

“Over the Hill” (my personal favourite, together with the title-track) showcases drummer Mark Nauseef’s impressive skills, as well as brilliant piano and synth in the bridge, and more understated yet distinctive guitar work. The atmospheric “Good Hand Liza” follows, punctuated by Latin-style percussion and spacey synths, and driven along by John Gustafson’s meaty, dynamic bass lines. The album ends in style with another intricate, highly structured number, the romantic “Angel Manchenio”, dedicated to a Gypsy who became Gillan’s blood brother (an intriguing tale, as told by both the lyrics and the liner notes). The song, which alternates slower, almost Latin-flavoured moments with full-fledged jazzy flights of instrumental and vocal prowess, is probably the furthest Gillan ever strayed away from his hard rock roots, and a perfect closer for such a distinctive album.

At the time of its release, Clear Air Turbulence was not considered rock enough by Deep Purple fans, and probably not jazzy enough by fusion devotees; moreover,  the competition of the fledgling punk scene did it no favours. Over thirty years later, however, it is high time it was recognized as an adventurous, stimulating effort, at times bordering on masterpiece status. It is a sad fact of the music world that, all too often, musicians are much more ready to try new avenues than their fans…  I would encourage my readers not to make the same mistake:  if you love sophisticated, complex jazz-rock/fusion, do not be put off by the name, and get hold of this album.

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TRACK LIST:
STAGE:
1. Hipster Spinster  (6:06)
2. March To Orion  (5:11)
3. Mystic Jam  (7:28)
4. Market Square  (8:13)

STUDIO:
5. Hide & Seek  (3:58)
6. Jazzmin  (5:07)
7. Say What?  (3:38)
8. The Timekeeper  (2:53)
9. 28 Degrees  (4:34)
10. Neon Noodle  (4:17)

FILM:
11. Z’Hadum  (10:26)
12. Phantom Lair  (4:41)
13. Break A Leg  (4:03)
14. Christine’s Theme  (2:40)

LINEUP:
Vic Samalot – electric and acoustic guitar
Bobbi Holt – keyboards, 2nd guitar (10), percussion (5)
Jeffrey Scott – bass guitar
Ivan George – drums
Vince Broncaccio – drums (8, 10)
Phil Quidort – trumpet (4)

Sessions is the fifth album released by Cleveland-based outfit Rare Blend, founded by guitarist Vic Samalot and keyboardist Bobbi Holt in 1993. Celebrating their 17th year of activity in 2010, Rare Blend are indeed aptly named – a band that successfully blends jazz-fusion, traditional progressive rock and jam-band attitudes, coupled with a healthy dose of sterling musicianship and a genuine sense of enjoyment. A remarkably tight band, capable of tackling complex compositions and recording them in one take, they emphasize live performance rather than polished studio recording – as their long experience and affiliation with local festivals, supported by their obvious dedication to their music, allow them to take advantage of every opportunity to perform before an audience.

Sessions clearly proves that the band have come a long way since their debut as a duo, Cinefusion, released in 1995. Honed by years of regular gigging,  they have gradually moved from the generic ‘prog’ approach of that first release towards a fluid form of jazz-rock rooted in the golden years of the genre, though infused with a personal touch. Rare Blend are in the habit of recording everything they play, be it in the studio or on stage, which spells a remarkable confidence in their craft. Though never rehearsed, their music shows a kind of discipline does not so much stem from endless hours spent perfecting each and every one of their compositions, as from an easy familiarity with the demands of performance.

The first part of the album contains four tracks recorded live in various venues (including the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore, recently featured in the documentary film Romantic Warriors). Opener “Hipster Spinster” blends fluid, vintage jazz-rock stylings with atmospheric keyboards à la Pink Floyd – an influence that also surfaces in the Middle Eastern-tinged “Mystic Jam”; while “March to Orion” is driven by Jeff Scott’s solid bass line (a constant of the album, like glue holding the fabric of the compositions together), underpinning Samalot’s ever-reliable guitar forays. “Market Square” (named after the place in Cleveland where the track was originally recorded) sees the impromptu participation of Phil Quidort on trumpet, adding a wistful note to a dynamic yet oddly mesmerizing number, and sparring with Samalot’s guitar over Scott’s pumping bass line.

The six studio tracks (recorded in one take during rehearsals) display more of the band’s trademark free-form, yet appealingly melodic approach, with a loose texture ensuring that every instrument gets the chance to shine. All the tracks are rather short (with the aptly-titled “Jazzmin” the longest at 5 minutes), the funky, uptempo “The Timekeeper” and “Say What?” nicely balanced by the atmospheric mood of “Neon Noodle”, enhanced by some beautiful interplay between electric and acoustic guitar.

The Film section features four compositions conceived as soundtracks to two famous silent movies of the 1920s. The album’s longest track, the strongly cinematic “Z’Hadum” (inspired by Fritz Lang’s iconic Metropolis),  is a suitably Gothic offering,with a peculiar structure broken down by frequent pauses that create a sense of palpable tension, its hypnotic pace providing an ideal backdrop for synth and guitar excursions. The three remaining numbers (inspired by the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera), all markedly shorter and veering towards classic  progressive rock territories, share a similarly ominous mood.

If I had to level some criticism at Sessions, it would be on account of its running time of almost 72 minutes. Though somehow justified by the album’s distinctive format, I still feel that some judicious editing would not have gone amiss. However, the album aims at offering as complete as possible a picture of Rare Blend’s varied output, and its three-part structure makes it easier to break it down into sections for listening purposes. In any case, Sessions is packed with energetic, brilliantly executed compositions that will definitely appeal to fans of jazz-rock/fusion, especially those who enjoy spontaneous, unscripted performances. It is also an excellent introduction to Rare Blend for those who are not yet familiar with the band.

Link:
http://www.rareblend.net

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