Classification of living things is called “Taxonomy”. Scientists place organisms into groups because they have things in common. The first groups they use are the “kingdoms”. Kingdoms are broken down into smaller groups called “phyla”, and phyla are subdivided into “classes”, classes into “families”, families into “genera” — and each genus is made up of particular “species”. Biology: fascinating yet strangely dull.
And so it is with music! Professor Layman ‘splains:
Music is just music, yes — we all know that. Ellington said the only distinction is between “good” and “bad” music, but — hey, Duke! — are you telling me that there’s no logical way to define the difference between a wonderful Mozart string quartet and a superior Jimi Hendrix solo? There is.
There is MUSIC, and here on this floating blue orb music breaks down into some broad categories. We shall recognize, for example, a distinction between “European Classical Music”, and “Pop-Rock”, and “Classical Indian Music”. Among these mighty categories, we hereby recognize: The Kingdom of JAZZ.
The Sub-Phyla of Jazz. Within the broad and proud Kingdom of Jazz, there are several important sub-categories or phyla. We hereby recognize: New Orleans Jazz, Swing, Bebop, Avant-Garde, and Electric Jazz. Yes, yes — we know that many artists and many pieces of music cross over between phyla. But, actually, most don’t. Pops didn’t play bop, and Dizzy never played avant-garde and so on. The Phylum of Electric Jazz is our interest today. Allow me to proceed.
The Sub-Classes of Electric Jazz. Electric Jazz (an inelegant name, I know, but try pronouncing “rana catesbeiana” and you wind up going with “bullfrog” instead) arose in the mid-1960s in response to “rock music”, incorporating electric instruments and rock rhythms into jazz. Over time it subsequently subdivided into many different “classes”, including:
Smoooove Jazz: The overslick Velveeta of the jazz kingdom that sounds like mushy instrumental R&B played on a heavy dose of sedatives.
Acid Jazz: Smoooove Jazz played by British people who fancy themselves cool because they dig trendy dance music.
Nu Jazz: Jazz funked up with a hip-hop edge and a healthy dose of harmonic freedom.
Fusion: The most venerable form of electric jazz — typified by fast melodies, precision playing, bombastic but virtuosic drumming, and an overall abundance of notes. Thought to have gone extinct sometime in the 1980s.
Until now. (This brings us, at last, to our album review. Are you still with me? Let me speed things up.) Enter Flashpoint, the new “all star” album by saxophonist Dave Liebman, Drummer Steve Smith, bassist Anthony Jackson, and gizmo-player Eydin Esen. It is, my friends, as if this quartet of musicians discovered a mosquito in a block of amber, and that mosquito (back in the ’70s) had bitten Al DiMeola or Joseph Zawinul, leaving some of their blood — and fusion DNA! — in the mosquito’s insect sucker-thingie. I mean, it’s like these four guys got Ol’ Stevie Speilberg on the phone and said, “Hey, let’s make a movie called Jurassic Jazz in which four notably talented musician get frickin’ lost in a fusion theme park!”
Let’s break it down.
Drummer Steve Smith is a funky robot of tom-roll precision and Billy Cobham-esque precision. He locks in with the speed rumble of Anthony Jackson’s electric bass like they were jigsaw soul mates. On top of this, pour a speedy line of soprano saxophonic complexity courtesy of the truly brilliant Dave Liebman (veteran of bands led by Miles, Elvin, others — and a true-to-life great saxophone player of big-time achievement and integrity) that is doubled and shadowed and colored by all manner of spooky sounding Moog-ish synthesizers under the fingers of Eydin Esen. It adds up to the opener and title track — a rush-to-the-front-of-the-line tune penned by Mr. Liebman. Only a handful of musicians on the planet can play this kind of stuff but — and here’s what makes it FUSION — should it be played at all?
This first example would suggest the Chop-arific Family under the fusion umbrella, but such classification may be too hasty. “Like John”, another Liebman tune, has a Trane-referencing title but a Herbie Hancock ala “Maiden Voyage” sound — though the rhythm of the tune is cushioned by synth organ as much as by an acoustic piano vamp. And Mr. Esen (here as everywhere) cannot resist a flutely-sounding synth solo. While clearly not Smoooove, this track suggests the soft underbelly of Mr. Hancock’s lesser work or, perhaps, the impressionistic synthesizer dreams of Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul.
Weather Report! Now there is a Fusion Family that makes sense here. No matter how imposing Dave Liebman’s talent and resume may be, the synthesizers of Mr. Esen dominate and define nearly every tune on Flashpoint. Mr. Liebman’s saxophone (particularly his tenor) has the tendency to sound processed itself on these tracks, receding into the background. He plays the Wayne Shorter role — the greater talent who seems complicit in his own disappearance. On “Particles” and “Speak Without Words”, this seems precisely to be the case. On the Esen-penned “Fabric of Reality”, the soprano-synth lead and the funk bridge that precedes a Jaco-ish bass figure both point the taxonomic arrow Zawinul-ward.
But isn’t it true that Mr. Esen (apparently the key to this classification puzzle) also take many more acoustic piano solos than Mssrs. Hancock and Zawinul? Do we really have this tweaked correctly? Point taken. Mr. Esen acquits himself on the pianoforte, but almost always does so while padding the band’s sound with left-handed synth washes to sweeten the mix. A good scientist is tempted to test the hypothesis that — and I am loathe to even bring this up on a web site that can be accessed by children — the prototype for this fusion band is the Chick Corea Elektric Band of the late ’80s, which featured this acoustic/electric combination. This was the least distinguished of Mr. Corea’s fusion exercises — having none of the lilting subtlety of the first Return to Forever (with Airto, Flora Purim, and Joe Farrell) and having none of the high-octane precision of the RTF featuring the aforementioned Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White. The Elektric Band — though favored with clever and tasty Corea compositions — was a highwire circus of fancy musical footwork without much soul and without a unified group sound. Being a child of the 1980s, it was to fusion as Flock of Seagulls was to rock ‘n’ roll.
Even on a reasonably wonderful track like Mr. Liebman’s “Maid in the Mist”, the Elektric Band looms. This track is impressionistic in the manner of the Zawinul-Shorter duets heard occasionally on WR albums — with soprano sax and acoustic piano playing a gentle, romantic game of tag over cymbal wash and subdued bass. Yet Mr. Esen seems not to trust his piano work, as even this lovely track is painted in synthesizer acrylics where the acoustic watercolor was doing just fine, thanks.
Bringing forth new species to swim in the water of the Fusion Class seems to be the particular business of Tone Center Records, by the way. Its roster of artists is chock-a-block with contemporary fusioneers such as guitarist Frank Gambale (alum of the dreaded Electric Band), guitarist Bill Connors (a Return to Forever alum), Victor Wooten (bass maniac from the Flektones), drummer Dennis Chambers, and fusion-guitar papa Larry Coryell. Flashpoint is curiously guitar-free — its main distinction from The Elektric Band, actually.
So, to summarize: Within Music there is the mighty Kingdom of Jazz. Among its many phyla, there is the relatively recent Electric Jazz. And of all the classes you might occupy in this phylum, fusion may not be the most hospitable. Still, there are some exciting species in there. But can it really be a good thing to be in the Elektric Band family?