The long-overdue reunion of two fusion pioneers whose power has multiplied over the years. Larry Coryell and Steve “The Count” Marcus have created bold new statements in jazz-rock, accompanied by some shining stars of fusion’s present, resulting in one of this year’s must-hear albums.
Before Miles plugged in and cracked the jazz-rock eggshell wide open, Coryell and Marcus were experimenting with combining the two disparate musical forms. After about thirty years apart, the two were reunited in 1999 by drummer Steve Smith after working with him on separate discs for the Tone Center label. Kai Eckhardt, bassist with John McLaughlin’s group, was recruited as a fourth member, and Count’s Rock Band was reincarnated as Count’s Jam Band. Jeff Chimenti, keyboardist for the oddball-jam bands of Bob Weir and Les Claypool, performs on four tunes.
Some of the tunes on Reunion are originals, others were resurrected from past albums by Marcus and Count’s Rock Band. Not a one of them sounds like it was thought up thirty-odd years ago, when jazz-rock was a mere fledgling of questionable breeding. Coryell has since changed his approach to the guitar, no longer relying so much on sheer volume to convey intensity as he did with the Free Spirits and Jazz Composers Orchestra. His focus now is on melodicism and musical logic, and he delivers in spades throughout Reunion.
Marcus, who shone brightly for over a decade with Buddy Rich’s band, proves that he’s one of the best soprano saxophonists since Steve Lacy. His tone is sharp and commanding, his control of intonation sensational at high velocity and all ranges of the horn. Marcus has not been well represented on recordings in the past decade, so this disc is an especially refreshing opportunity to hear this undersung giant at work. Aspiring sopranists should sit down and take notes.
The opening track, “Scotland”, begins with an austere, droning theme and rippling percussion, barely hinting the power of what’s about to happen. Soon enough the band rips into the fleet 16th-note theme with a facility that can make jaws drop. It bears all the angularity and energy of fusion at its onset, but refined through experience and advanced sensibility into a music of undeniable consequence. Things crunch onward from there, through tender ballads and exotic architectural structures that continually peak interest.
One particular high point is “Tomorrow Never Knows”; the frontmen ride on jostling polyrhythms and ostinato bass as Coryell churns out mysterious drones, buzzes and dissonance. “Foreplay” illustrates the guitarist’s affinity for unusual chord voicings, which influenced Pat Metheny and many other subsequent players. His acoustic guitar on “Pedals”, while quiet and restrained, is disjointed and chomps at the bit as if in a fearsome dreamscape. “Blues For Yoshiro Hattori” is a comfortable blues waltz with an additional bittersweet undercurrent.
Eckhardt and Smith were perhaps the ideal rhythm team for a project as ambitious as this. Smith is the veritable “house drummer” for Tone Center, appearing on almost every one of the label’s releases and producing many as well. His legendary attentiveness to intimate detail is apparent in both his drumming and in the overall quality of this album. He possesses Art Blakey’s penchant for creating dense, brocaded rhythmic layers while maintaining an unwavering pulse for the other musicians to focus upon. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is an especially apt testimony to Smith’s skills as both a creative artist and a band mate.
Eckhardt is a bass phenomenon on a par with Stanley Clarke and Jaco, constantly percolating and extrapolating without adversely affecting the front line. On the title track, his bass functions as much as a percussion instrument as a stringed one, adding to the richness of the rhythmic base. He and Smith interact brilliantly with one another and the lead players throughout. Jeff Chimenti is utilized in just the right measure, supplying harmonic depth and support on the tunes where a piano is most needed.
Marcus’ sinuous soprano provides an ideal foil to all of Coryell’s ventures, building up hope for future collaborations between the two. “Ballad” contains some of the most lyrically beautiful work by either man in years and emphasizes their fine-tuned friendly interplay. Coryell lays out for some reason on the closing track, a quintessential jam on which Marcus and the rhythm duo burst out and let it all fly, an awe-inspiring end to a head-spinning session. If you only buy one fusion disc this year, let this be the one. Satisfaction is guaranteed.
Personnel: Larry Coryell, electric and acoustic guitars; Steve Marcus, soprano sax; Kai Eckhardt, electric bass; Steve Smith, drums; Jeff Chimenti, piano.