Monday, February 07, 2011

Schultz' Earful: Spectrum Road; The White Stripes

By: David Schultz

Miles Davis may not have invented jazz fusion but he surely served as its lightning rod in the late Sixties. At the outset, he absorbed all the slings and arrows from those who thought he bastardized the sacrosanct quality of jazz (think Dylan going electric at Newport) before basking in the historic glow of those who ultimately realized he helped shepherd jazz into a new millennium, merging it with funk and rock. Joining Davis on this journey was Tony Williams, one of jazz and rock’s most influential drummers. Breaking free from the trumpeter’s fold after In A Silent Way, the 24-year-old formed The Tony Williams Lifetime, his own trio with fellow Davis alumni, guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Like the Velvet Underground’s first album, The Tony Williams Lifetime’s now-revered jazz fusion masterpiece, Emergency!, met with little esteem upon its release. Further expanding on Lifetime’s legend, when the band added a bassist for their follow-up, it was Jack Bruce, fresh off his stint with Cream.

Jazz fusion may inspire groans from those who don’t fancy the genre’s improvisational discursions. However, among musicians with an expert handling on their craft, it’s a style rife with possibilities. In 2008, with Bruce providing a 1n level of separation from the original band, a supergroup consisting of Living Colour guitar impresario Vernon Reid, jam-scene keyboard maven John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman (Santana), toured Japan. At the end of January, reforming under the Lifetime-apropos moniker of Spectrum Road, they electrified the storied surroundings of New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club for four nights of fitting tribute to The Tony Williams Lifetime.

Part funk, part industrial, part rock-based rhythm and blues, The Tony Williams Lifetime was a band ahead of its time, leaving a legacy that needed, possibly required, the level of musicianship found within Spectrum Road. It would take a true jazz obsessive to discern how much of the music on stage represented a faithful reproduction of the Lifetime material as opposed to Williams-inspired improvisation. In the context of jazz and the purpose of Spectrum Road, such distinction is meant to be immaterial. Echoing Williams and his Lifetime, Bruce and Blackman work various time signatures allowing Medeski and Reid to fill in the gaps. When Medeski would set the tone, he would shroud the music in eerie psychedelic overtones and out of the dense miasma of his swirling keyboards would come the ricochet of Blackman's snare soon to be complemented with a winding bass line from Bruce. Reid would either join in with a guitar riff not so distant from his signature scree or experiment with a countermanding run of his own choosing. In interpreting John McLaughlin’s intricate odysseys, Reid finds material that presents him a challenge worthy of his estimable skills. No stranger to supergroups, Bruce, the near 70-year-old Scot, revealed a remarkably funky side, getting to display a sense of idiosyncratic timing rarely heard on Cream’s classic rock radio staples.

Following their Blue Note residency, Spectrum Road headed out west for a set of shows at Yoshi’s in San Francisco and will finish up this week at the Jazz Alley in Seattle. Unlike 2008, the project may have more legs this time around: more shows, including festival appearances, are in the works and a studio album could also result. With Bruce, Reid, Medeski and Blackman having a wealth of projects at their fingertips, their decision to pursue this venture further offers the thrill of seeing an extraordinarily talented group of musicians relishing the challenge of bringing a band ahead of its time into the present day.

THE WHITE STRIPES HAVE ANNOUNCED that they are folding up their red and white outfits and putting the band to rest. When Jack and Meg White emerged from Detroit in the late 90s, the two person guitar and drums onslaught was a novel concept. Their influence has been prominent over the past decade. Since the Whites revived interest in minimalist rock, The Black Keys, Helio Sequence, No Age and an uncountable number other duos have put every conceivable spin on the concept. Obscuring their backstory in a smokescreen of myth and misdirection, The Stripes left people with not much else to focus on besides their music, which, according to the press release announcing their retirement, now belongs to all of us. I for one will surely be checking the mail with unbounded excitement for the royalty checks that such a bequest will surely yield. Thanks White Stripes!

1 comment:

Art of the MIx said...

Caught Spectrum Road in Seattle -- they are monsters! Amazing night.

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