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Fusion Times Four: New From Cuneiform

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Anyone who thinks that fusion died in the '80s needs a head check. It didn't even take a nap. And for those who assume the genre consists solely of virtuosic guitar solos, heavy beats, and cheesy keyboard textures... well, it's time to catch up.

The modern fusion is an amalgamation of progressive rock, adventurous jazz, understated funk, and the familiar jam, swirled together quite deliberately in a way that places heavy demands on players to keep together without losing the spark of spontaneity.

It's also an involving listen, with so many ingredients in the mix. Anything but repetitive, anything but predictable.

Cuneiform Records has long been a home of progressive fusion. These four new releases document long-standing groups, though each crew has undergone many changes over the years. Colorado, New York, Boston, and the UK are represented, each a fertile scene for this sort of thing. The lineups uniformly feature (at a minimum) keyboards, saxophone, guitar, and drums. Despite having more in common than may be immediately apparent, there's plenty to distinguish each group.

For more information, visit Cuneiform Records on the web.

In this collection:

Phil Miller/In Cahoots, All That (Cuneiform, 2003)
Curlew, Mercury (Cuneiform, 2003)
Thinking Plague, A History of Madness (Cuneiform, 2003)
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, The Iridium Controversy (Cuneiform, 2003)


Phil Miller/In Cahoots
All That
Cuneiform Rune 181
2003

The group known as In Cahoots was originally formed as a quartet in 1982. Since then it has recorded eight records, retained two players (guitarist Phil Miller and saxophonist Elton Dean), and expanded to a sextet. For those in the know, In Cahoots apparently represents the vanguard of the so-called Canterbury School, though I must confess total ignorance in this regard.

Miller plays ringleader, committing five of the seven compositions and often taking the lead when it comes to solo space. While there's plenty of emphasis on themes and heads, the tunes (from six to thirteen minutes long) tend to serve as vehicles for solo improvisation. Everyone pitches in.

The 12-minute "Inca" draws on a slowed-down chunky funk, steady as she goes from start to finish. Credit bassist Fred Baker and drummer Mark Fletcher for pinning things down in an unobtrustive fashion. Solos by Miller and Dean aim toward structure and evolution, the former mostly foregoing his ample virtuosity to develop a deliberate statement. Dean's sax playing, rather bright and scratchy in tone, assembles short phrases into an extended whole.

Other highlights include "Black Cat," an extended sunny anthem with notable solos by Miller (not holding back) and Baker (slippery and eager). "Sleight of Hand" slows things down a bit, going for a polyrhythmic pulse. "Your Root 2" takes a no-holds barred voyage into dramatic intensity.

At certain times scattered throughout the disc, In Cahoots tends to linger a bit much in the groove; keyboard vamps occasionally dip into the cheese. But the group deserves credit for its tightness, range, and energy. Whatever the context, this sextet milks the music for all it's worth.

Visit Phil Miller on the web.


Curlew
Mercury
Cuneiform Rune 177
2003

Curlew is another revolving unit with deep roots, drawing heavily from New York's alternative music scene for 24 years over nine records. Curlew has developed a cult following of sorts, driven by saxophonist George Cartwright's enduring vision. Cartwright contributes about half of the compositions on Mercury and some of the record's most energetic playing, though there aren't any notable weaknesses elsewhere in the quintet.

By the time the brief and ironically titled "Still" erupts from the speakers, there's no doubt this will be an edgy, energetic voyage. It's a burning hunk of a rocker, underpinned by Fred Chalenor's ostinato bass and distorted blocks of sound from the guitar of Dean Granros. After Cartwright takes things to the outer limits, the group pauses a bit to regroup and work through a theme. It gets right back into energy mode with a (seeming) collective improvisation where nobody hesitates to butt heads. Down the road, "Still Still" takes off where the opener began.

Keyboard player Chris Parker contributes "Funny Money," which goes deep into a hefty funk fueled by a guitar vamp and tight drumming. Brief solos gradually turn toward a reverberant dream sequence, which then dissolves right back into the backbeat and then a jumpy group improvisation, only to close out with another dreamy wisp. Down the road, Fred Chalenor's "Ludlow" offers a more regular alternative, anchored by an undulating rhythmic cycle and rippling jauntily to a satisfying conclusion.

While Curlew spends plenty of time working together to develop coherent themes, the real meat of Mercury lies in improvisation, and particularly the more open variety. These players are not at all afraid to take risks, which makes for exciting but demanding listening. (Those who prefer a more structured variety of fusion are best advised to look elsewhere.) There may be pensive moments scattered throughout the disc, but make no mistake: this is testosterone all the way. The Mercury rises high indeed.




Thinking Plague
A History of Madness
Cuneiform Rune 180
2003

Too much texture can be a dangerous thing. Thinking Plague, nominally a sextet, picks up five extra players for parts here and there on A History Of Madness, and the end result is a multi-layered creation.

Fortunately the combination works quite well. It ends up sounding full-bodied and detailed, with plenty of understated polyrhythms to go around. All sorts of unusual instruments pop in and out, including Mike Johnson's four guitars and assemblage of miscellaneous percussion, Dave Willey's accordion and melodica, and Mark McCoin's scary combination of "sadbefré, lap-fractar, rümderfon, and 'exquisite porpenar'." But with the unifying force of Deborah Perry's insistent vocals on top, the group never gets lost.

Thinking Plague has gone through more than its share of changes since the group's eponymous debut in 1985. The thing that has always tied it together is guitarist Mike Johnson, who contributes ten of the twelve pieces on the record, as well as the lyrics. There's no doubt he spent a lot of time thinking about what went down here, as judged by his appraisal of the record's title (referring to human history as well as family history) and its reflection in 13th century France. No, that's not a typo. He's a thinker.

These pieces flow together quite coherently, making up a full-bodied suite that tends to feel psychedelic and uneasy. That's more than reinforced by the lyrics—for example, "All my life I've been searching for the reason that my heart is broken" from "The Underground Stream." Indeed. If Curlew is testosterone-rich, then Thinking Plague is estrogenic. Vocalist Deborah Perry, the latest singer to join the group, has a relatively flat affect that suits these grey pieces perfectly. She's no virtuoso, and not particularly colorful, but that's what's called for here.

For the most part these pieces are carefully arranged, though it's hard to tell exactly where improvisation cuts in. The regular, layered pulse and openly harmonized vocals here betray prog rock roots, as does the structured compositional emphasis and architecture. But it's hard to pin down Thinking Plague, especially when it comes to what bin the record belongs in. Just as well. Mike Johnson may be deadly serious, but his music has enough layers to bypass classification.


Birdsongs of the Mesozoic
The Iridium Controversy
Cuneiform Rune 179
2003

A professed "aural pangaea," the latest effort by Boston's Birdsongs of the Mesozoic certainly conjoins more than its share of musical continents. The quartet features personnel first documented on 1995's Dancing on A'A, plus five additional guests who mostly round out the percussion department. Notably present is ex-Mission of Burma icon Roger Miller (piano on two tracks). Miller played an instrumental role in getting the group off the ground back in the the '80s, along with pianist Erik Lindgren. Since that time players have popped in and out, but the current lineup (Lindgren plus Ken Field, Rick Scott, and Michael Bierylo) seems quite stable and sympathetic. Everyone plays multiple instruments both electric and acoustic.

The Iridium Controversy is serious and rather self-conscious music, but not without ample moments of levity and celebration. Half the pieces are penned by Lindgren, the rest consistent enough to render facile comparisons pointless. After the eager and rather forward opener, the first of two title tracks (subtitled "Before") departs from its rocking energy toward a docile chamber sound that's almost baroque in its counterpoint and clarity. Its successor, "After," builds on military beats to assemble an optimistic prog- rock colossus, high-riding melodies alternating with periods of restraint.

Bierylo next interrupts this seeming clarity with a pointed collection of polyrhythms. Rick Scott's appropriately titled "Tectonic Melange" goes from deep held notes to an upbeat group improvisation. The most openly rock-oriented piece is "Sherpas on Parade," while "Race Point" offers yet more orchestral textures. It's a very strange combination of approaches, heavy on composition but often quite light in tone. Since it's often hard to distinguish the voices involved, Birdsongs melds into a shifting, shimmering entity.

Pangaea or Panthalassa, it's all the same. Lots of connections from lots of places. A fitting fusion for four restless spirits who refuse to settle down.

Scores and MIDI files for these compositions can be found online at www.birdsongsofthemesozoic.org.


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