Two years ago in a Jazz Today column (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/rip-smooth-jazz-round-two/), I wrote about the last album by keyboard player and producer Jeff Lorber. Lorber debuted in the late 1970s as a fusion-lite player and bandleader and eventually morphed—like so many others at the time—into a smooth jazzer, laying down easy-peasy funk grooves behind indistinct R’n’B vocalists for the general betterment of the dental and elevator industries. In my 2008 column, I argued that Heard That was such a shame because Lorber himself is not a hack.
Two years later, that very good musician is back with another program of too-bland music. But Now Is The Time is the better disc because it is a self-conscious attempt to update Lorber’s earlier compositions and style. In short, when it is good it re-examines the pianist’s “old stuff”, and it rediscovers some of what was so fun about the early days of fusion—the lickety-split melodies and the thrill of putting some groove behind music that has the harmonic sophistication of jazz.
So, a tune like “Chinese Medicinal Herbs” is fleet and fun. The bass line is a funked-up version of the classic from Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, with a Latin groove invigorating things as Lorber plays cool chords across everything on his Rhodes electric piano. The guitar solo is clean and smart, and Lorber solos on acoustic piano like he means it—dashing single note lines with real attack alternating with nice chordal work. The melody is played by guitar and soprano sax in the kind of tight unison that sends a chill up your spine, at least if you were teenager in the late ‘70s and listened to this stuff back then.
But for every tune like that there is something like “Water Sign”, which starts off in a similar mode and then curdles. Tenor sax (Eric Marienthal) plays a hip melody in unison with Lorber over a funk groove, but then the vocal comes in, mushy and oversweet, with overdubbed harmonies sounding like the backing vocals on a Steely Dan record, but without any of the Dan’s sardonic wit or blues guitar work. The singer, “IreneB” (Irene Bauza) from Barcelona, has a lovely voice and is probably very talented, but here she is nothing but bric-a-brac on a smooth jazz recording, as essential to the mix as vanilla icing on vanilla cake.
But here’s the kicker with “Water Sign”: the very next tune (“Sumatra”) is almost exactly the same length and tempo, with the very same funk groove and Marienthal sound (on alto now, but remarkably the same). Another pentatonic melody in the same vein—different, to be sure, but I’d like to hear you hum one and then the other in quick succession—represent the incredible gall of Lorber and his partners.
What is the appropriate analogy here? Imagine that a restaurant sold you a “four-course meal” and then brought you a bowl of chicken soup, a bowl of bland chicken gumbo, a slice of cheesecake, and then a slice of strawberry cheesecake. “Now is the time”, you might suggest, “to find a new place to eat.”
So, is there anything else on the menu to particularly order—or to skip? The vocals are missable. “Sugar Free” is immaculately produced, with a horn section (credited as the “Blood, Sweat and Tears horns”, by the way) meshing seamlessly with IreneB’s layed harmonies. “Curtains/Before We Go” is a quirkier version of the same ingredients, but it tacks on a goofy synthesizer solo for those who might otherwise have doubts.
“Dr. Moy” is one of those old tunes, but nothing more than a palate cleanser, with Lorber taking an organ solo here for a change of pace. “Las Rosas” is a funk ballad, with Lorber’s piano taking the melody in a relaxed manner before Marienthal’s soprano etches something above the groove—very pretty indeed but oddly only three minutes long, which seems like a very odd choice. The best tune is also the shortest?
I can recommend for individual-tune-downloading the tasty “Pixel”, which seems the least fusiony of all this music—punchy and bopping, with the horn section making a positive difference. Marienthal’s alto has a moment of grit, and Lorber’s Rhodes and acoustic piano sounds each get to riff over the top of a genuinely hip-shaking funk. “Black Ice” also works for me, with lots of complicated moving parts all locking together intricately: a clavinet line, a guitar line, the obligatory soprano/piano unison melody, and Vinnie Caliuta’s perfect drumming all making for a spicy queso dip.
Throughout Now Is The Time, however, the improvised solos (even on the good tunes) are super-limited in duration and passion. The production style here squelches what even very good musicians can bring to the table. They have to play their hottest licks as quick as they can—no actual development, no playing with motifs, no climaxing in an exciting style, everything concise and clean and finally dull even when the tune isn’t a piece of Muzak.
So how odd is it, then, to find a tune by Weather Report on this record? Wayne Shorter’s “Mysterious Traveler” is track number five, and it is plainly the most interesting/weird thing you’ll find here. The groove is full of space rather than busy funk. The melody is elliptical and, yup, mysterious, and whole musical space is wide open and intriguing rather than being lined up identically like soup cans in aisle seven at the Safeway. Marienthal lets his soprano take some risks over the top of things, spinning abstractly while the rhythm section creates a sense of shifting sand.
Plainly, Jeff Lorber knows his jazz. He has a million-and-one technical gifts, and he’s a Wayne Shorter fan. Enough of his music shows glints of wonder, but almost all of it is glossy and abbreviated, calculated not to offend and thus never to really be of any daring or interest. It is sonic Aleve, designed to deaden the pain of a bad day, perhaps, but not to bring real feelings to life.
And when it aspires to something more, as on the cover of “Mysterious Traveler”, it is only a tease. For, alas, at the appointed 3:57, the tune fades out like it was a radio mix hunting for play on the local “Mix 106” station.
At this moment, actual fans of jazz-fusion will want to reach into their speakers and hope that there is some short path to the necks of Jeff Lorber and his co-producer Rex Rideout. Let the wringing begin.
Wayner Shorter turned 77 this year, so he can’t dole out the necessary punishment. Folks, it’s up to us.