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

Jazz Needs Fewer Critics and More Fans

“Gimme a good review, Jeff!” You got it, George.

It’s been a little quiet around here.  I wasn’t planning on taking a Christmas break, but the demands of work and home call and would not be denied.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Either you’re going to do something or you’re not. If you really want to drop 25 pounds or find another job or scale the Himalayas then you will. Or you won’t.

A new year doesn’t just mark new beginnings, it can mean the end of old ways and old relationships. That’s why 2013 will be the year I stop reviewing jazz.   I’m  not having a crisis of confidence and I haven’t given up jazz in favor of death metal or country  music.   It is time to put a fork in it.   After a decade of writing and listening to jazz, I’ve used up all the words I have.  I don’t have an original thought left in me.

For months now there has been a half-dozen albums sitting on my desk waiting for me to review…and waiting..and waiting.   Some of the CDs are quite good actually.  A few are okay and one or two are totally lame.   My problem is I can’t work up any enthusiasm for even the ones I like.  It’s not exactly writer’s block.   I’m numb to it and in some ways that’s worse than not being unable to come up with 500 words for a review.

You! Go out and listen to some jazz!

I’ve contributed to All About Jazz since 2006 and written 102 reviews and several interviews. The career-spanning conversation I had with the .great George Duke was one of the best I’ve ever conducted and after it was published I knew I’d never write another for AAJ. It was epic in length, exhaustive in the research and limited in impact.  The Duke interview generated over 17,000 page hits. That’s a nice number.  For a blog post.  In relation to the time and effort I put into it the result was a big disappointment.

That’s was the point where I began to wonder, “Does this really make any difference to anyone?”

After close to a decade of writing reviews for AAJ and Jazz Review.com, I’m gratified for all the music I’ve been allowed to hear and the artists I’ve been allowed to interview. Speaking with Patti Austin, Keiko Matsui, Harvey Mason, George Benson, Rachel Z., Everette Harp, Gerri Allen, Cheryl Bentyne, Jane Monheit, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jessy J., Nestor Torres, Chris Standring, Al Jarreau and Cindy Bradley among others was big fun. Musicians are my most favorite persons to interview.

Yet I’m frustrated that the following of jazz is so small. I’m frustrated when an artist asks me what the best venue for live jazz in town is and my answer is “There isn’t one.” I’m frustrated even when I give a jazz release a four-star rating, it will be nearly impossible to walk into what’s left of the music section of a Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Barnes & Noble and buy it.

Check out Billboard’s 2012 Year-End Charts for Jazz Albums and you know what sold the best?  A Michael Buble Christmas album!   Michael Buble?  Are you yanking me?

Can the savior of jazz get a chair?

It gets worse.  The top Five is rounded out by Duets II by Tony Bennett, Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney, Dead Sinatra’s Best of the Rest, and That’s Life from Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., whom I’ve never heard of, but I guess he was on “American Idol” so that makes him a big deal.   The first album I’ve even heard of is Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society at No. 6 ( and I thought it was lousy).

My favorite jazz recording of 2012 was Najee’s  The Smooth Side of Soul which came in at #26.   It’s been that kind of year.

Jazz is not dead. It’s not even sick. As long as there are young artists still playing pianos, strumming guitars, pounding drums and blowing horns, the tradition carries on. What I fear is jazz being ignored. You don’t hear it on the radio. You never see it on television. Jazz is not the music of the young. It’s a tough time to be a fan if you don’t live in a city with a jazz scene or radio stations that still program it.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to Hiromi’s  “Move” upcoming in March.    The Japanese piano virtuoso has been a consistently interesting talent whose rise I’ve followed since 2003.    When Hiromi released her third album Brain in 2006,  I positively bubbled with excitement.   THIS is why we love jazz. It’s exciting to see an artist develop. It’s thrilling to hear how self-assured and confident a group of musicians can become when they learn, grow and develop their talents together. It’s a joyous and satisfying experience when it all comes together in a burst of aesthetic brilliance. “

I meant every hyperbolic word, but I don’t get that feeling as often from as many jazz artists any longer.

I may not give up critiquing jazz entirely, but I will ring down the curtain on my AAJ contributions. My taste in jazz  always were more mainstream than the majority of their writers.   I know a lot about jazz artists, but many times AAJ’s annual  “Best of” lists  didn’t have a single name on it I recognized.   There isn’t much use for someone who prefers  Fourplay,  Jeff Lorber or Norman Brown to some Yugoslavian thumb piano player.

My love for jazz  still runs strong, but I’ve run out of words to express that love.  I began covering this music because I wanted to spread what Kirk Whalum calls “the gospel according to jazz.”   I’m still  excited by its endless energy and uncanny creativity, but I have doubts I’ve been as effective advocate for jazz as I hoped I would.  Looking at  what is currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts and it’s more like “snooze jazz” to me.

Maybe what jazz needs are fewer critics getting the music for free and more paying fans to keep it alive.

Jazz doesn’t need saviors. It needs supporters.

George Benson Plays and Sings (and quite well, thank you)

Still a hell of a guitar player when he plays guitar

At some point George Benson morphed from a guitarist who occasionally sang into a singer who occasionally played guitar. Benson’s Breezin’ (Warner Bros, 1976) launched his career trajectory to new heights based upon “This Masquerade,” his only vocal turn on the album.

But oh, what a vocal “This Masquerade” was. It propelled Breezin’ to Number One on the pop charts and the album won multiple Grammys, including Record of the Year, and his recording formula was set for the next 20 years. The follow-up, In Flight (Warner Bros, 1977) featured Benson’s soulful tenor vocals on four of the six tracks and, while In Flight didn’t boast a song as memorable as “This Masquerade,” his guitar was still the musical centerpiece of the music.

Jazz aficionados rightly scratched their heads as Benson dove headlong into pop music and, by the time of 1984’s 20/20 (Warner Bros, 1984), the guitar had virtually disappeared in a pea soup of limp arrangements, synthesizers and syndrums, the quintessential instrument that dates ’80s records. The nadir of Benson’s career might be Irreplaceable (GRP, 2004) which made a bid for hip-hop radio through sincere, but contrived tunes such as “Cell Phone,” where Benson tried to place a call to heaven on the title device (no joke).

As a vocalist, Benson has proven to be at his best when the material is as strong as his 63 year old voice, and Guitar Man is a splendid showcase for it. The Beatles and Benson get along very well together (reference The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969) for further evidence), as his skilled fingers strum the six strings on a lush interpretation of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The mood of this recording is lights down low, slow dance and romance music. This is a record made by a grown-up for grown-ups. Benson has no need to make albums with one eye on the pop charts anymore. Recognizing his reign there is over, he can put his emphasis simply on playing and singing whatever he feels like.

Despite its title, Guitar Man doesn’t feature a lot of frenzied jamming and high-flying solos, but Benson doesn’t have to hammer with pyrotechnics. When he’s on his game, as he is whether he’s crooning Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour” or gently coaxing the notes out of his guitar on John Coltrane‘s “Naima,” it’s a demonstration of an artist confidently allowing the music to speak for itself.

Whether he’s swinging on “Tequila,” with keyboardist Joe Sample, drummer Harvey Mason, and bassist Ben Williams, loping through “Don’t Know Why,” or straight-up crooning on “My One and Only Love,” Benson’s sense of taste, phrasing and ability to swing remain undiminished by time. Ably assisted by an accomplished assemblage of musicians, this is one of the best albums of the year. Just don’t call it a comeback. George Benson is still The Guitar Man and even when it seemed he had forgotten for awhile, he always was.

Track Listing:Tenderly; I Want To Hold Your Hand; My Cherie Amour; Naima; Tequila; Don’t Know Why; The Lady In My Life; My One and Only Love; Paper Moon; Danny Boy; Since I Fell For You; Fingerlero.

Personnel: George Benson: guitar, vocals; David Garfield: piano, keyboards, rhythm arrangement (2-8, 11, 12); Paul Jackson, Jr.: rhythm guitar (2); Ray Fuller: rhythm guitar (2); Freddie Washington: bass (2); Oscar Seaton, Jr. (2): drums; Charlie Bishart: violin, viola (2, 7); Dan Higgins: flute, alto flute, clarinet (2); Oscar Castro-Neves: orchestral arrangement (2); Ben Williams: bass (3-5, 7-9, 12); Harvey Mason: drums (3-5, 7-9, 12); Lenny Castro: percussion (3, 5, 6, 12); Joe Sample: piano (5, 8, 9, 12); Chris Walden: keyboards, string arrangement (7).

This review originally appeared in All About Jazz