By: Eric Podolsky
Spectrum Road :: 02.03.11 :: Yoshi's :: Oakland, CA
Upon reading the announcement of this supergroup's seemingly out-of-nowhere formation and mini-tour of small jazz clubs, it was easy to do a double (or triple)-take at the heavyweight lineup. “Lenny Kravitz's drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana, is playing with John Medeski and Vernon Reid?! What? Holy shit, Jack Bruce, too?! What is this?”
United from all over the spectrum (no pun intended) by an admiration for the late great Tony Williams' music, this improbable band of virtuosos is a Fusion geek's Cream Dream (I'm on a roll here).
For those who don't know, Tony Williams, the drummer for Miles Davis' 60s Quintet, basically invented jazz-rock (aka Fusion). His first album, 1969's Emergency!, was the first to combine rock's heavy sound and electric instruments with the subtlety and adventurousness of jazz. And though Miles' seminal Bitches Brew album takes credit for bringing this sound to the masses, Emergency! was released months before it. Jack Bruce joined the band soon after, and the band cut a couple of albums before John McLaughlin left the group and it dissembled.
But where to begin with this current supergroup, Spectrum Road? First and foremost is the driving force of nature Cindy Blackman-Santana (yes, she's married to Carlos, but we'll get to that later). In a pearl necklace and a fro, she completely stole the show with her otherworldly drumming – the music being a perfect showcase for her prowess on the skins. Then there's Brucey, the legend himself: a mighty force on fretless electric bass whose mere presence seemed to justify and push this weird, wonderful music forward in a shamanic sort of way. Contributing their own mad skills were Vernon Reid on righteous guitar and Medeski on organ, who each patiently held back and kept the compositions cohesive until it was their time to shine and blow minds. Simply put, the tiny stage at Yoshi's just wasn't big enough for the talent it contained.
Coming off a two-hour Early Show which went way over schedule, there was some talk coming into the Late Show that the band had blown its load early on this night. It hardly mattered when the band took the stage though, as the intimacy and impeccable acoustics of the tiny jazz club hit us, making for an almost unnerving atmosphere considering who was onstage. We could hear every murmur coming from the musicians, forcing them to whisper to each other to plan their next move. The set started off slow, with Bruce leading the band into a strange John McLaughlin composition from 1970 called “One Word,” which featured Jack reprising his original, very strange vocals. Though the music of Tony Williams' Lifetime was certainly not known for its vocals (the New-Agey lyrics have certainly not aged well), the piece soon built to a heavy, rapid-fire climax that burst open in a flurry of notes by Reid, giving us the first taste of the serious instrumental prowess this band is capable of.
With the audience salivating nicely at this point, Bruce started up a weird, angular bass line which was picked up and played off of by Reid, forming a cerebral, jerky duel of sorts. Medeski and Blackman soon slid their way in, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a huge, manically swinging free-jazz groove, driven by Bruce's wild, jumpy basslines. The barrage of sound coming off stage at this point was chaotic, confounding and utterly thrilling – true order-in-chaos. It evoked a runaway train on the verge of flying off the tracks, but the music never quite spiraled out of control. Instead, the band dropped out to let Blackman loose, and she tore us all a new one with an epic drum journey. With pure, rolling fluidity and spontaneous, off-the-cuff creativity, she told us a story through rhythm, bringing the tale up and down and back up again, coaxing completely new tones from her kit that weren't there minutes before. One minute her touch was silky-smooth, the next she was bashing with a Mitch Mitchell-like ferocity.
After this jaw-dropping spectacle, the music turned heavier and more linear with the dark riffage of “Vuelta Abajo,” another big cut from the Turn It Over Lifetime album Bruce originally played on. This almost proto-metal sounding composition featured a monster riff in 15/16 time which gave Reid plenty to work with on guitar, and he tore it up with some soaring, McLaughlin-inspired shreddage. This was followed by some big start-stop riffs, over which Medeski stepped up with his patented mad-professor-freak-out organ swirls and washes, coaxing avant-garde weirdness out of the B-3 like no one else.
From here, we got more weirdness when the band dropped into the bizarre, off-kilter spoken word song “Beyond Games” from Emergency! Now up to this point, I was stunned with disbelief and awe at the original musicality that had been pouring from the stage, but I have to admit, this song is quite awful. The original version features Tony Williams on some sort of spoken-word poetry rap with lyrics about caring and sharing and growing that are incredibly dated and silly. It was surreal to see Bruce tackle them with a straight face, and it's too bad, because they really ruined the otherwise interesting minor-key shuffle the band was laying down behind him – Medeski's dissonant organ howls really cut through the music to give the piece an eerie edge. From here they thankfully picked it up into a straight funk number where Medeski again made his B-3 sing over the smokin', lusciously fluid rolls of Blackman.
And then just like that, Carlos Santana was onstage. The proud new husband of the Star of The Show beamed and strutted as he started up “Sunshine of Your Love,” and then there we were, watching Jack Bruce sing his own lyrics as the band chugged away around him. Everyone traded a few searing solos to the so-classic-it's-cliche riff, and the song peaked out in grand fashion. And just like that it was over.
The audience was so stricken, that after almost ten minutes of hollering at the stage, the band came out with Santana for an extended encore of “Spoonful.” Another old Cream chestnut, this Willie Dixon number was Santana's bread and butter, and it was fun to see the band loosen up and dig deep into a straight blues workout after the mind-fuck explorations they had just charted. It was a sloppy and fun ending to an evening of serious music, and the crowd filed out elated.
The strange, cerebral compositions of Tony Williams Lifetime are certainly not a light snack. They are dense, atonal and searching, and make for a seriously heavy meal to digest. These four musicians were brought together by their love and respect for this open-ended, forward-thinking music, and it was a joy to witness the deep exploration which the Lifetime catalog inspired in them, especially in such an intimate setting. Now go pick up a copy of Emergency! and get your freak on.
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