Committed fusioners might be disappointed when they read the back cover of shred-meister Frank Gambale's latest release, Natural High. After all, the Aussie guitarist is best-known for his high-volume, high-velocity chops as a member of Chick Corea's Elektric Band and on his own series of albums, including Raison D'être (Wombat, 2004)which, featuring his innovative Neauveau Tuning, represented both consolidation and departure.
The personnel on Natural High looks promising. Otmaro Ruiz may not be a household name, but he's made significant keyboard contributions to John McLaughlin's Heart of Things touring band and the Robben Ford/Jimmy Haslip/Vinnie Colaiuta collaborative Jing Chi. Bassist Alain Caron is no stranger to fusion fans eitherfirst as founding member of the Canadian '80s fusion group UZEB, later playing with artists like Mike Stern and releasing his own form of cross-pollinated fusion, like 5 (BHM, 2005).
But wait! Where's the drummer? Sure, percussionist Mike Shapiro appears on four of the album's nine tracks, but there's no kit listed. Ruiz is credited only on piano. And Gambale? Acoustic guitar? What's going on here?
Gambale has taken a decided left turn from his usual pedal-to-the-metal work with a mainstream jazz record that fusion fans shouldn't reject on face value. The sound may be organic, and Natural High is the closest thing to a bebop record in Gambale's body of work, but it suffers no drop in energy. While the textures may be acoustic, it's still got the chops-per-second ratio that fusion fans have come to expect from everyone involved. Even the lack of a drummer doesn't detract from the power that's there from start to finish.
Even the most successful fusion players, able to navigate the often complex metric and harmonic shifts that define the genre, need a firm grounding in the jazz tradition, where understanding how to play through changes is essential. The material on Natural High is all Gambale's, but much of it is sourced from the Great American Songbook. "You Are All the Things is a relaxed and swinging re-imagining of "All the Things You Are, with a mind-numbing theme played in unison by Gambale, Ruiz and Caron. "We'll Remember December is an equally comfortable rethinking of "I'll Remember April, while the Latin-inflected version of "Have You Met Tom Jones whimsically reinvents "Have You Met Miss Jones with a humorous reference to the Welsh singer's "It's Not Unusual.
There's plenty of chemistry here. Caron and Ruiz are totally comfortable alternating support duties behind Gambale and doubling his often death-defying lines. At times the trio travels with an uncanny and direct synchronicity; elsewhere the serendipity is more subtlefelt, rather than heard. The trio also proves that formidable technique need not detract from the construction of purposeful and evocative solos.
In many ways Natural High is the Gambale album that his fusion fan base needs to heardemonstrating the firm but sometimes forgotten link between mainstream jazz and one of its many stylistic descendents.
Personnel: Frank Gambale: acoustic guitar; Otmaro Ruiz: piano; Alain Caron: bass; Mike Shapiro: