PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Dave Liebman, Steve Smith, Eydin Esen, Anthony Jackson: Flashpoint

Will Layman

Fusion forward -- Dave Liebman fronts a musical version of That '70s Show.


Anthony Jackson

Flashpoint

Display Artist: Dave Liebman, Steve Smith, Eydin Esen, Anthony Jackson
Label: Tone Center
US Release Date: 2005-08-16
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

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?

3

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.