"Louder than jazz, smarter than rock.
It's a catchy slogan for Not On Mars, a new fusion quintet from Madison, Wis., and good shorthand for describing the merits of their composing and playing. They may not be the smartest guys in class, but they get their assignments done and still throw parties that get decent crowds on weekends.
Their debut March 25, 2005, show and four demo songs are available free at their web site. The 29 MP3 songs total 2.6 hours in length and 188MB in size. There's a bit of buzz between songs and during quiet interludes, and the volume levels aren't always consistent, but the overall audio quality is very listenable and well mixed.
Sounding about halfway between Return To Forever and straight instrumental rock, the group's "promo sheet thingy acknowledges "purists would be hard-pressed to call Not On Mars a jazz group. But they also take organ and guitar ideas at least some distance beyond the lead lines of originals and stalwarts like "Footprints, even if there's too much sameness in beats seemingly intended for the R&B dance floor.
Guitarists Greg Dalbey and Jed Heckman are the featured players, with various electric tones that are more Larry Carlton playing "Layla than Joe Satriani or John Scofield toeing their respective edges. Keyboardist Dylan Heckman rides shotgun with organ textures that are clean but lacking the daring color of greats past and present. Drummer Chris Marr's constant high-speed motion is too conventional for excitement and he never gets an adequate showcase opportunity to prove otherwise.
The easiest way to evaluate a new band is their treatment of standards and originals with titles suggesting obvious themes. There's plenty of both on two discs' worth of live material, with results likely to resonate with their intended audience.
Classics like "Footprints and "All Blues are indeed heavily funkified, if nothing more dramatic than what Marcus Miller and others of his ilk have been doing for years. There's less reworking but deeper soloing on "A Go Go, perhaps due to its more modern edge. The group reaches across the state line for some Motown spirit on the lively "Movin' On Up and more laid-back "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, the latter proving more interesting with the rare opportunity to hear Dalbey and the Heckmans engage in verbose harmonic solos whose proficiency is reflected by a lack of adherence to the familiar melodies.
Many originals have catchy hooks like the mellow classic rock feel of "A Little Jazzier, easygoing simplicity of "The Bounce and gritty redneck blues of "Horatio Alger's T.V. Dinner (although "Pretty Tan sounds an awful lot like Three Dog Night's "Joy To The World ). The weakness is a lack of enduring distinctiveness, with most turning into solo sessions against fairly standard rhythm backdrops.
"In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed is an excellent example, starting slowly and meditatively, but shifting abruptly mid-song to up-tempo rock. It seems inappropriate for a "memorial, but some Googling indicates it could easily be an Allman Brothers Band cover or "soundtrack for an episode of the cartoon TV show "Space Ghost featuring William Shatner as a guest star. Even so, a bit more change of pace would be welcome.
The 22-minute collection of original demos, featuring four studio versions of songs also played during the live show, is a good way to get acquainted with the band, since its concepts and talent are more distinguishable than during the often generic foundation of the live tunes. One can also learn a lot about the band's mentality by surfing their site, such as an archive of "Mel And Floyd public radio shows that summarize the week's news in a rather comic fashion (it's amusing, but if you don't want tongue-in-cheek remarks about the Pope's funeral, stay away).
Not On Mars stands just a but outside the vast collection of jam bands whose shows are widely posted on the Net due to tighter arranging and more concept-driven songs. But there's still plenty of free-spiritedness and, even if they don't achieve the intellectual heft "purists can relate to, there's enough meat for the supposedly shallow-minded to indulge in when they want something more than "three chords and the truth.
Greg Dalbey, guitar; Jed Heckman, guitar; Frank Torrey, bass; Dylan Heckman, keyboards; Chris Marr, drums
Live At Mr. Roberts 3/25/2005
Disc 1: 1) Akos; 2) Pretty Tan; 3) Walking Beside Myself; 4) Footprints; 5) Po' Boy; 6) All Blues; 7) Lipstick; 8) The Chicken; 9) Vulcan Mining Song; 10) Well, You Needn't; 11) Jiggle; 12) Movin' On Up; 13) Happy Friends; 14) Mercy,Mercy,Mercy; 15) A Little Jazzer
Disc 2: 1) In Memory of Elizabeth Reed; 2) Another Action Flick; 3) Fuzzbuster; 4) Lucky Numbers; 5) A Go-Go; 6) Red Clay; 7) Groove Holmes; 8) Horatios TV Dinner; 9) The Bounce; 10) Feel Like Dynamite
El Nino Stomp; Walkin' Beside Myself; The Bounce; A Little Jazzer
Visit Not on Mars on the web.