Sep 14 2013
Veteran drummer Steve Gadd has spent decades playing one type of fusion or the other, as a sideman on the projects of artists from one genre category or the other. Names like Chick Corea, Art Farmer, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, BB King, Al Di Meola, Rickie Lee Jones, and Eric Clapton are notched on his resume, all playing some strain of fusion that incorporates rock, blues, and jazz. Depending on which decade the recording sprung from, you can count on a certain amount of polished production, conformity with the prevalent sound of the time, and broad demographic appeal. There’s nothing wrong with an artistic piece having any of those attributes, but it’s generally preferred that they be a result of a genuine creative process and not the motivating force. For the most part, Gadd has been involved in projects that fall under the former category.
Tangentially, it does seem that the worst transgressors of the latter of those two options are to be found in the projects that delve into that axis of blues-jazz-rock fusion. I’m unsure if this is because the attempt to adopt the most obviously flattering characteristics of each genre has the unintended effect of neutralizing each of them, or perhaps, it’s by cherry-picking those attributes that a vague but unmistakable laziness reveals itself in the music.
Where am I going with this rather unprofessional first-person blog-y style of writing? Well, one, when a promo sheet or album relates early on that this is going to be a jazz-blues-rock type of fusion, I get disinterested pretty fast. And, two, it’s always nice to have expectations transformed, and be reminded that an artist can craft any archetype into a very enjoyable, very fun piece of work if they have the talent and motivation.
This lead-in wasn’t meant to serve as one of those clever switcheroos… (I made you think I didn’t like an album, but really all along, I was gonna write something nice about it, see?)… No, not that. As a reviewer, I listen to a lot of music. And it may be a fact that I may listen to more music than most reviewers. That’s not offered boastfully, only to illustrate the volume of music I encounter as I search for the good stuff. And as most reviewers know, it’s easy to fall into patterns of expectations… to listen inattentively, to fuel the ear with assumptions rather than notes, and to rely too heavily on sorting mechanisms instituted to hasten the listening process. Because, baby, those stacks of CDs and downloads ain’t gonna listen to themselves. And this new Steve Gadd album Gattitude, well, I pretty much expected that it wasn’t gonna do much for me and would be a quick listen before I moved onto the next CD in the stack.
Your album personnel: Steve Gadd (drums), Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Larry Goldings (Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ), Michael Landau (guitar), Jimmy Johnson (bass), and guest vocalists Arnold McCuller and David Lasley.
But, as you’ve guessed by now, that first track held my attention, though I wasn’t anywhere close to buying in yet. Plenty of mediocre albums have a solid opening track. But this tune, “Africa,” a composition by guitarist Michael Landau (like Gadd, a guy who has made a career as a session musician), between its opaque spirituality and its airy groove, I was locked in for several more album tracks (at least).
And that’s kind of how it goes with me. I’d love to be able to give a thorough listen to every album I receive in the mail or my email inbox. Artists spend a lot of their heart and soul and time and income putting a recording together. I’d like to respect that by affording plenty of time and care in evaluating each and every one of their recordings. But if I were to do that, I’d still be listening to albums released in the last decade. If an album wants me to listen to it from first note to last, it damn well better grab my ear and not let go. Gadd’s “Africa” did just that.
Second track “Ask Me,” a Larry Goldings composition, begins with a martial cadence from Gadd, with Goldings and Landau setting down drifting crosscurrents on Rhodes and guitar that nicely counterbalance Gadd’s tight marching line. And then Fowler comes in on trumpet with a melodic sigh that brings it all together. Even after subsequent solos leave that melody behind, developing harmonically and rhythmically to different climes, that melody hangs in the air no matter what elevation the ensemble attains. And each time one of the musicians returns to that brief melodic statement, it’s like the ensemble never left home.
At this point, I was pretty locked into listening all the way through. It would’ve taken some seriously awful music to follow those first two tracks to get me to stop listening, and nothing even resembling that occurs on this fine album.
The quality I enjoyed most of third track “Country” (a Keith Jarrett composition from his Euro Quartet release My Song) is the seaside ease guitarist Landau sets over the tune. Interestingly, the group’s rendition of this Jarrett composition (one of two that Gadd embraces on this album) is that it sounds less like early Nordic Jazz, and more reminiscent of Dire Straits’ talent at inducing a casual stroll out of grooving blues-rock tunes.
Trumpeter Walt Fowler gives a celebratory turn on Larry Goldings’ “Cavaliero,” a highlight which springs from the swirling eddies conjured up by guitar and organ. And the more the ensemble turns up the heat on this tune, the greater the exclamatory effect of Fowler’s trumpet exaltation.
The entire ensemble contributes to “Green Foam,” a jazz tune steeped in the blues. It’s got a nifty hop and groove that gets interspersed with some disjointed breakdowns at strange intervals which have the effect of accentuating the essential nature of the existing groove and the intrigue of improvisational unpredictability.
Another interesting (and admirable) selection for this recording is the Abdullah Ibrahim composition “The Mountain,” which Gadd gives an upbeat twist. The original contemplative tune is only recognizable by the occasional statements of melody, and as far as demeanor, the water analogy has less to do with an ancient well and more akin to an Otis Redding dock by the bay. It’s a different kind of rendition of a great song, to be sure, and even if it doesn’t completely click, it does fit in well with the album’s identity… and album cohesion isn’t a quality that should be dismissed.
Seventh track “Who Knows Blues” is song title as rhetorical question. The group bops their way through a blues, with some nice collaborative work between Gadd and bassist Johnson as the track highlight. This leads into the other Jarrett composition, “The Wind-Up.” The band swings right into action, with Landau’s guitar flirting with hot jazz territory before the ensemble develops a groove with more of a Caribbean flavor.
And, then, as a fascinating exclamation point to this album, they close things out with a rendition of Radiohead’s “Scatterbrain.” It’s just thrilling to hear how the band envelops the original’s dour serenity into their own airy groove, not to mention the comprehensive overall sound that binds the entire album together.
As a reviewer, that’s how I want to see an artist close an album out. It’s also the kind of thing that spurs a reviewer to drop what they’re doing and just start writing. Which is where I am right now as I type these words.
Just one of those enjoyable albums that make it very easy to return to again and again.
Released on the BFM Jazz label.
Jazz from the Phoenix, Arizona scene.