As with so many of the most radical developments in jazz, it’s only now, decades after the event, that drummer Tony Williams’ incendiary jazz-rock vehicle, Lifetime, is getting the kudos it deserves. Now that ‘70s fusion’s slightly preposterous shadow is receding into history, critics and fans alike can unanimously agree that Williams’ pioneering precursor—a no-holds-barred hybrid of rock power and jazz improvisation—was the real deal.
In this context, Trio Beyond’s Saudades, a live recording of their debut show at the 2004 London Jazz Festival, can be seen as a decisive event in Lifetime’s rehabilitation. No matter how grouchy and traditionalist they may be, there’s no way any jazz critic could deny that this release is authentically breathtaking in its vitality and importance.
But then, with a line-up like this, there’s not much chance that this disc could miss the mark. This is a real super-heavyweight team: Jack DeJohnette was the drummer that replaced Williams when he left Miles Davis’ band to form Lifetime; guitarist John Scofield made his name playing with Davis in the ‘80s; and Larry Goldings (here making his debut for ECM) has long been one of the most consistently inventive keyboardists around. Clearly the instrumentation of drums, electric guitar, and Hammond organ is striving to recapture the sound of the original—and most important—Lifetime line-up, which saw Williams joined by two other Davis alumni: guitarist John McLaughlin and Larry Young behind the organ.
There are, of course, some wildly enthusiastic, high-octane versions of numbers from Lifetime’s first two albums, Emergency and Turn It Over. “Spectrum” and “Emergency” both start out as blistering, up-tempo swingers before breaking down into more experimental, free-form explorations; and the trio’s take on Lifetime’s version of John Coltrane’s “Big Nick” is satisfyingly heavy. On all these long jams, DeJohnette absolutely bristles with power and panache—swinging hard and inventively and showing yet again why he is universally recognized as one of the foremost jazz drummers alive today.
Make no mistake, though, this is no idle Lifetime covers band. Saudades also delves into the band’s margins to find other connections and points of reference. So, we get a bluesy version of “If” from Larry Young’s 1965 album Unity, sounding here like pretty much the definitive homage to the classic organ trio. There are also a few tunes frequently played by Miles Davis’ classic ‘60s quintet when Williams was his young firebrand drummer: “Seven Steps to Heaven” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” both get respectful readings, as does Williams’ own “Pee Wee”.
But surprisingly, for a band with such an explicitly nostalgic brief, it’s Trio Beyond’s two originals that really point the way, finding them unable to quell the impulse to update and innovate. The title track is a monumentally funky groove with Scofield churning out pinched wah-wah, backwards loops, live manipulations, and robot dissonance that take the music close to the timbral preoccupations of electronica—all this before Goldings launches a dub reggae bassline and the groove subsides into one of the tightest live fade-outs ever captured on disc.
The highlight, though, is surely “Love in Blues”, a group improvisation that grows out of the ending of “I Fall in Love Too Easily”. Goldings introduces a couple of simple chords echoing Davis’ classic “All Blues”, and Scofield slots straight into a solo escapade with eastern sonorities and swirling, hallucinatory effects. The track is a gripping tour de force that lives on in the listener’s mind long after the disc has finished.
There’s a lot of life in this band and a casual brilliance that hints at more records to come. A recent European tour—including a return gig in London—saw them extending their repertoire even further. One can only wait and see just how much further they are prepared to take things.