Jeff Lorber’s “Hacienda” is A Nice Place to Visit

Marienthal, Lorber and Haslip keep the fusion flowing (photo by Greg Allen)

If the word “fusion” is a dirty word don’t tell Jeff Lorber.  The keyboard wizard is still playing it loud n’ proud some 37 years after he showed up on the scene.   In 1977, the Jeff Lorber Fusion made the scene and 36 years later there’s a new incarnation of the band built around Lorber’s keyboards, synths and occasional guitar, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Eric Marienthal on saxophone. What’s changed in nearly four decades later in the current version is a vastly improved model, but Lorber’s energy and exuberance for funky, rollicking jams is undiminished.

A perfect summation of how things come together is Frank Zappa’s “King Kong” which teams Lorber with two Mothers of Invention alumni, Jean-Luc Ponty and Ed Mann. Luc-Ponty’s is a gifted electric violinist who has been missing in action lately as he has pared back his appearances, but he sounds in fine form here as his leads dance in and out around Vinnie Colaiuta‘s kinetic drumming. Colaiuta, who can play with power, style and restraint, is the “X” factor here and the de facto fourth member of the band.

Marienthal’s alto sax gets a showcase on “The Steppe” and his lyrical approach is a warm caress to the senses as Haslip plucks some funky bass lines as Lorber and Colaiuta joining in to make their own contributions. “Hacienda” and “Fab Gear” are standard Lorber jams designed primarily to make toes tap and heads nod than anything more ambitious.

Lorber’s unwavering commitment to fusion results in some of his strongest renditions in years as Hacienda exhibits his expertise on the Rhodes electric piano and various synths. The spark that precedes Galaxy (Heads Up, 2010) shines brightly on Hacienda as Lorber, Haslip and Marienthal are on a brilliant musical adventure that is compelling, innovative, and unique.

Track Listing: Corinaldo; Solar Wind; King Kong; The Steppe; Hacienda; Fab Gear; Raptor; Everlast; Playa Del Falco; Escapade; Dragonfly

Personnel: Jeff Lorber: keyboards, synth bass, guitar; Paul Jackson Jr.: guitar (1, 6, 7, 8, 10); Jimmy Haslip: bass; Vinnie Colaiuta: drums (1-8); Lenny Castro: percussion (1, 4, 5, 7-10); Larry Koonse: guitar (2, 9); Eric Marienthal: alto sax, soprano saxophone (1, 2, 4-11); David Mann: horn arrangement, section saxophones, brass, flutes (1, 2, 5-7, 10, 11); Jean Luc-Ponty: violin (3); Ed Mann: marimba (3); Michael Thompson: guitar (3, 11), guitar orchestration (4); Gary Novak: drums (10); Dave Weckl: drums (11)

Record Label: Heads Up International

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.com

George Duke: The Master of the Game

I never caught George Duke in concert.   I never met the man in person.  However, he did give me two hours of his extremely busy time to talk to me for a career-spanning interview.   What came of it was the longest interview I had ever done before, after or since and after I finished it, I never wanted to put so much work into something I got so little compensation from.  Like zero dollars and cents.

But I think George liked it too because he put a link to it on the front page of his web site and that’s an honor.

I gained a whole new appreciation of the man they called “Big Daddy.”  If you love jazz fusion (and I do because I ain’t no jazz snob) you love George Duke, who was one of the top five keyboard players of the genre along with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Jeff Lorber.  Where Duke ranks in that group is subject to debate.   I place him in second place behind Hancock and ahead of Corea, Zawinul and Lorber.   Others may see it differently, but hey, it’s my list and I’ll order it how I want.

I published an excerpt of the interview which can be found in full on All About Jazz, but it’s way too long to publish the entire thing on this blog.   However, I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to ask Duke what it was like playing with the notoriously short-tempered Miles Davis.

All About Jazz: Regarding “Ripple In Time,” the trumpet playing by Oscar Brashear is a shout-out to Miles Davis. You played with Miles in his final years, and nobody comes away from working with Miles without some impression: good, bad or otherwise.

George Duke: He could be extremely intimidating. Matter of fact, I was playing with Cannonball Adderley at the Beacon Theater in New York. We had finished our show and I was out front listening to John McLaughlin, and Miles came to the show.

Two fusion masters: Jean Luc-Ponty and George Duke.

He said [slips into gravelly Miles Davis voice], “Hey man, what you doin’ in this band?”

I was, like, “Damn, did I just get dissed?” I didn’t know if he was saying I wasn’t good enough to be in Cannonball’s band. I didn’t know how to take that comment.

Years later, Miles would come to my shows in New York but he wouldn’t say anything to me. A murmur would go through the audience: “Miles is in the room!”

As time went by, he’d call me on the phone and tell me he wanted me to write a tune for him. He actually asked me to join his band at one point. We were never close friends and I wasn’t in his band, but we had this weird kind of relationship especially when he was with Cicely Tyson. I’d see him all the time. He said, “George, I want you to write me a tune.”

I wrote “Backyard Ritual” and sent it over to him as a demo thinking he’d go in and re-record it live with his guys. But he said, “I like it because it sounds funny.”

I said, “Miles, that’s a demo. We’re going to come in and re-cut it.”

Miles said, “Naw, man. I like it the way it is.”

And that’s the way it came out. “Backyard Ritual” is a demo Miles played over. I never saw him in the studio.

The original song I wrote for Miles had a French-Cuban atmosphere to it. Dianne Reeves came in the studio and heard me working on it. She said, “What’s that?”

I said, “This is for Miles.”

She said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re family. I want that tune for my record.”

GeorgeDuke

I told her, “Well, you can’t have it.”

Dianne said, “We’re family. You got to tell Miles he can’t have it. Write him something else.”

I said, “He’s already heard it. You call Miles and tell him he can’t have it!” She said she was already writing a lyric for it. I told her, “You gotta stop!” Well, Dianne is my cousin so I had to call Miles tell him. I said, “Hey Miles?”

“Yeah.”

“You know that I tune I wrote for you?”

“Yeah.”

“You know my cousin, Dianne Reeves?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh, can I write you another tune? She wants it for her album.”

Miles cussed me up and down. It took him about 15 minutes of swearing at me and her. “Tell that blankety-blank to get her own song!”

The song that came out of it for Dianne’s album was “Fumilayo,” and it was nominated for a Grammy. It didn’t win, but it started out as a song for Miles Davis.

AAJ: You hear these amazing stories about how intimidating Miles was and you think no way could it be true, but maybe it is.

GD: Miles was quite a character and much funnier than most people realize, especially if you were with him one-on-one—very interesting dude.

Going down the list of who Duke played with or produced includes Michael Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Sheila E., Frank Zappa, Jeffrey Osbourne, Deniece Williams,  Jean-Luc Ponty, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Billy Cobham,  Barry Manilow, Anita Baker,  A Taste of Honey, and on and on.   Duke liked to work as much as he liked to play and when his career cooled as a musician, he slipped effortlessly into the producer’s chair and kept pumpin’ out the hits.

I struggled with Duke’s last album, Dreamweaver.   It was dedicated to his wife, Corrine,  who passed away last year.   The album has its peaks and valleys and I struggled with writing the review.  I didn’t feel it was a great record, but I couldn’t knock the sincerity behind it.

The promotional video for the album shows a somewhat diminished Duke.  I see a man who has lost weight and wearing a hat instead of his usual Afro (possibly to cover hair loss from chemotherapy?).   Don’t know and it’s not my business anyway.   Duke cared about the music, not the trapping of stardom.  He played with giants, made hits for giants and became a giant without ever losing his humility, humanity or humor.  There’s the music he made and the many millions he reached for and turned on with the Dukey Stick.

There’s also the respect and love George Duke’s peers felt for him.

When I was growing up and learning to play guitar in Hawaii, George Duke was one of my heroes. It was a dream come true to play in his band, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his supportive attitude — and the way he pushed us all to play the best we could .

~ Charles “Icarus” Johnson, writer and blogger, Little Green Footballs and former guitarist in the George Duke Band
I can’t believe that I’m writing these words. George Duke has passed. This one is extra tough. He’d just lost his wife a year ago. George was one of those special human beings who changed the feeling of whatever room he occupied. When you were around him everything just seemed better. , lighter, more positive. Tremendous musician, incredible human being… No one who knew him will be quite the same now that he’s moved on.

~ Marcus Miller

George Duke’s talent was universal. He could adapt to all forms of jazz, pop, and rock – from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis and everything in between. He died not only of an illness but I think also of a broken heart. His wife Corrine left us last year and they were deeply in love.

~  Ramsey Lewis

Words cannot express the lost of my mentor and friend George Duke. I tried to come see you yesterday. You are now home. I love you.

~ Sheila E.

Go easy, Big Daddy.

Steve Smith and Vital Information: Giving the Drummer Some (Respect, that is)

“Journey? Do we LOOK like Journey?”

Even now, the two questions probably most asked of Steve Smith go something like, “Hey, are you the Steve Smith who played drums in Journey?” and “What’s Steve Perry like?”

This is clearly unfair to Smith, who spent ten years in Journey but 30 years in his own band, Vital Information, and One Great Night is a live CD/DVD celebration of its high energy, fusion infused performance. .

Yes, this is the same Steve Smith and while pounding the drum kit behind the hairy likes of Perry may have been Smith’s most high-profile gig, he has some serious jazz chops that includes stints with violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Hiromi, Steps Ahead and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Some of Smith’s finest recorded moments are on Luc-Ponty’s jazz-fusion masterpiece Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977). Smith once auditioned for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose and was offered a place in both bands. He opted to join Montrose, the opening act for Journey before it tabbed him as its drummer.

Smith’s approach to the drums incorporates breath-taking speed, raw power and impressive precision. He won Modern Drummer magazine’s Number One All-Around Drummer award four consecutive years and has been named as among the magazine’s Top 25 Drummers of All Time, so there’s little doubt this is a serious man with serious chops.

So why does it seem that when it comes time to name the best rhythmatists in the biz, Smith is overlooked? Is it because Vital Information is unapologetically a jazz fusion group and those are dirty words to purists? Is it it his rock and roll past? Is it those kinda, sorta, terrible Journey music videos?

All will be forgiven once One Great Night cues up and “Cat Walk” kicks in as Smith and his Vital Information band mates tear through over an hour’s worth of high-energy and innovative playing. The other information specialists, bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Vinnie Valentino and keyboardist Tom Coster are in perfect sync with Smith’s “lead drums.”

Sharp-eyed readers of album liner notes will puzzle over Smith and Valentino being credited as playing “konnakol.” If that’s an unfamiliar instrument that’s because it’s not an instrument at all. Konnakol is the South Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally. Fans of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s Shakti project may be familiar with konnakol. To the untrained ear it might sound almost like scat-singing. “Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue” feature Smith and Valentino demonstrating their konnakol skills.

Fusion is notable for being propulsive and dynamic and as Smith’s drums are pushed to the front this occasionally pushes the other instruments to the background. This occasionally leads to a minimizing of Coster’s formidable keyboard skills. Browne and Valentino make fine contributions, though they seem be along for the ride. It isn’t that Smith doesn’t play well with others, but that playing with him is a like with having Lebron James on your side for a pick-up game of basketball: he’s so good at what he does even his teammates stand around watching him.

One oddity about One Great Night. For a live album the audience doesn’t seem all that lively. Perhaps that’s a result of a faulty sound mix or maybe the people were simply stunned by the virtuosity of Vital Information. Whether it’s listened to or viewed, One Great Night is absolute proof of how dominant a drummer Smith truly is. Maybe it’s time now to stop asking him what Steve Perry is like?
Tracks: Cat Walk; Time Tunnel; Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous; Seven and a Half; Khanda West; The Trouble With; Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue; The Closer: Jimmy Jive.

Personnel: Vinny Valentino: guitar, konnakol, voice; Baron Browne: bass; Steve Smith: drums, konnakol; Tom Coster: keyboards.

This review originally published at All About Jazz

When Carlos Chased the Coltrane

A man, a guitar, and a search for greater meaning (and sales).

Once upon a time there was a guitar god whom had grown bored with all his fame, riches and glory.   He longed for something more than another multi-platinum selling record.  He desired not simply acclaim, but respect.  He knew to get it he would have to walk away from his distinctive rock style that made him popular and wealthy.   It was a risk to confuse his band and his fans by making a radical change in his musical direction.   But he did it anyway and he did break up the classic version of his band and alienated much of his audience in the process.

It must have seemed worth it at the time to Carlos Santana.  Appearing at Woodstock had announced to the world there was a new guitar god on the scene and he was a skinny Mexican who fused elements of rock, Latin, jazz and funky R&B in one soul-stirring stew.   Santana delivered on the promise with a trilogy of terrific albums (Sanana, Abraxas Santana III)

Caravanserai is the sound of a band uncertain of its music and its leader equally uncertain of the direction he wants to take them. Following Santana III, it must have puzzled and panicked the execs at Columbia Records when Carlos presented it to them. While it has its definite highs, the low points of Caravanserai are very low.

Gregg Rollie was skillful on the organ, acceptable as a vocalist and totally out of his league trying to fake it as a jazz musician. Rollie simply lacked any feel for this dense, hook-free tunes and soon would leave to form Journey taking guitarist Neal Schon with him.

The record is disjointed as Santana can’t fully let go of the Latin rock that made him wealthy and famous. Rolle sings on three songs and not one of them is memorable. The songs aren’t strong and neither is the playing. You can almost feel Santana’s frustration. If he were going to pursue this new path he was on he would need something absent from Caravanserai.

He would need better musicians to play the way he wanted and better music for them to play.  Carlos took the first step when he joined with guitarist John McLaughlin for Love, Devotion and Surrender.  Santana brought along members of his band and teamed with McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra to produce an eclectic electric guitar summit that confused both Santana fans and Columbia Record executives.

Welcome solved both problems. Some still choose Caravanserai as the more adventuresome of the two and I can see their point. But David Brown (bass) and Michael Carabello (percussion) were already out by that time and Rollie and Schon were eyeballing the exit sign as well.

The sound of jazz and rock fused almost perfectly

Carlos Santana has always fused the spiritual with the secular and Welcome is as close as the guitarist has ever come to the former with no regard for the latter. Welcome yielded no hit singles and was never conceived as an album rock radio would play. It’s Santana’s A Love Supreme; full of reverence and passion and conceived and executed by premier musicians playing their asses off.

The drone of “Going Home” two organs played by Tom Coster and Richard Kermode build and soar with a grandeur I recall grooving on through a marijuana-induced haze.  Carlos doesn’t even play guitar here and frequently fades into the background.  He’s secure in his own playing and completely confident he’s playing with a band that can deliver the goods and they do.  I wouldn’t call Welcome my favorite Santana album, but I’d call it one of them and as much of a classic Santana album as the first three. It sounds great nearly 40 years after its release.

The only comparable rock act that altered his sound so drastically as Santana did with Welcome is Jeff Beck and Blow by Blow.   However, Beck was taking the next step after a series of unsuccessful albums.  Santana was at the peak of his fame when he followed the path of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in seeking to make music that satisfied his soul, not a record company’s ledger sheet.

Even Robert Christgau,  the noted rock critic/curmudgeon,and former music editor of The Village Voice smiled on Welcome.

“More confident and hence more fun than Caravanserai, this proves that a communion of multipercussive rock and transcendentalist jazz can move the unenlightened–me, for instance. Good themes, good playing, good beat, and let us not forget good singing–Leon Thomas’s muscular spirituality grounds each side so firmly that not even Flora Purim can send it out the window.” B+

Hey, I liked Flora Purim’s singing on “Yours Is the Light.”

Cindy and Carlos redefining “a musical marriage”

I didn’t completely “got” Welcome in 1973. It wasn’t slightly different like Caravanserai with one foot still in rock and another with a toe dipping lightly into not only jazz fusion, but even free jazz. The same old Santana blazing guitar riffs were there, but more restrained and at times even submerged within the collective of the group. For someone whom grew up on “Black Magic Woman” this came as something of a small shock.

The secret weapon of Welcome is Michael Shrieve’s drumming and Coster and Kermode’s keyboards. They encourage Santana to stretch and while critics some find the album disappointing and full of “bloat” and even commercial, that’s a charge that makes no sense to me.  There’s no hit singles or any concessions made to radio here.   Maybe an adventuresome jazz station would play “Samba De Sausalito,” but even the vocal tracks, “When I Look Into Your Eyes” and “Light of Life” feature Leon Thomas’ vocals. Alternating between soulful singing and off-the-wall yodeling, Thomas may be the most off-the-wall vocalists ever to sign up to for the position.

Something else unique in the Welcome band was the presence of Wendy Haas, a vocalist and keyboard player Carlos plucked from Azteca, the same band he found a hot-shot 17-yr-old guitarist named Neal Schon, the future guitarist of Journey.

If Welcome is the summit of Santana’s jazz fusion era, Lotus and Borboletta fall off a cliff. Lotus was originally a three-record set that was whittled down to two in the CD era, but it’s still total overkill as Thomas is inept trying to front Santana standards such as “Black Magic Woman.”  Borboletta showcases a sullen Santana fronting an equally lethargic band and cursed by the ugliest cover art ever to appear on a Santana record.

In 1976, Santana ditched his dalliance with jazz and returned to Latin rock glory with Amigos.  Though he was still billed as “Devadip” Carlos Santana he was drifting away from his guru, Sri Chimoy, and would leave both him and jazz behind for the rest of his career.  Blues For Salvador and Santana Brothers are good, but are primarily instrumental recordings closer to a typical Santana album than it is to jazz.

The Swing of Delight pairs Carlos with the classic Miles Davis quintet of Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, but the result isn’t as satisfying because the songs here are loose jams and not as structured as Welcome.  They also are not as good.

Santana has continued to release instrumental albums, but they aren’t jazz and since the 15 million-selling Supernatural granted him late career superstar status on him in 1999, he has wasted the better part of a decade chasing similar success minus similar results.  The bottom of the barrel is Guitar Heaven, which sounds like the name for a video game but is a pandering mess of classic rock covers.

At this point in his life, Santana should be financially secure and has married his second wife, jazz drummer Cindy Blackman.  In May he released the 22nd Santana album, Shape Shifter.  With the exception of one vocal tracks it is a recording of instrumentals exclusively with just the man and his band and no awkward guest stars crow-barred in except his son Salvador playing keyboards.

In an interview, Santana explained why he was taking a break from his overly commercial direction of the past decade.

“In a lot of ways, yes, because I don’t need to accommodate lyrics, and I don’t need to accommodate artists. I say this in a funny way, but it’s more about letting a Mexican play the guitar, you know?”

“I’m never going to wait so long to brew ’em like this anymore. I’m going to make sure that I do one album like this and then another kind. I remember reading that John Coltrane would do one Pursuance album, and then he’d do a ballads album where he’d hardly play a solo – he’d just play the melody verbatim.”

Shape Shifter may be a slight retreat for Santana from pop music and return to pulling power chords from his guitar, but it’s not so bold as to be Welcome Part Two. That was a different man making different music in a different time.   The Santana of 1973 is not the Santana of 2012, but that man would not be the one he is now had he not chased his inner Coltrane and made a record as bold, brave and eternally beautiful as Welcome.

Young guns and electric guitars were their weapons.