In the heyday of progressive rock and fusion bands, Britain's Brand X may have gained attention first and foremost because of the involvement of Phil Collins, who at the time was the drummer and new lead singer of Genesis, yet to become the pop pariah he would in subsequent years. But the band member who was truly the most innovative, imaginative and stylistically incomparable was Percy Jones, a bassist who, had he been working in North America with exposure to a broader audience, could easily have given Jaco Pastorius a run for his money.
Pastorius was unquestionably a greater overall musical force, with a compositional voice that distinguished him then and, with a small but significant songbook, to this day. But as much as Pastorius was considered a bassist who almost single-handedly reinvented the role of the electric bass, Jones' fretless playing was clearly on equal standing. With equal facility and a harmonic approach that was just as distinctive, Jones deserved at least a share of the many accolades afforded to Pastorius.
Sadly, it was not to be. Pastorius passed away into the realm of legend while Jones has continued to work in the ensuing years in relative obscurity, known to niche fans of progressive rock/fusion but hardly a household name. In the past few years he has been making some waves with his group Tunnels, an unusual trio that features Marc Wagnon on midi vibes and currently Lance Carter on drums, replacing founding member Frank Katz. Their latest disc, The Art of Living Dangerously , may do little to broaden their audience, but more's the pity, as this is a live fusion record with plenty to recommend.
It may be hard to imagine a vibes-bass-drums trio as a fusion affair, but with Wagnon's midi vibes, he squeezes a wealth of textures out of an instrument that is traditionally thought of as rather cool; in fact, there's nary a traditional vibes sound to be heard on the 76-minute recording, which finds the trio augmented at times by guitarists including Van Manakas, Julien Feltin, and most notably ex-Brand X-mate John Goodsall. Also making an appearance is the ubiquitous Mark Feldman on violin, proving as always that there isn't a context he can't fit into.
The compositions are as unique as the band's sound, with plenty of space for Jones' still-captivating technique. Few bassists have the dexterity with harmonics that Jones has; he manages to combine staggering ability with strong groove on the blistering "Berrio," which features one of Wagnon's strongest solos of the set, and "Flavor," a drums and bass duet that demonstrates in six short minutes what fans of Victor Wooten and Michael Manring are missing.
While strong themes abound, the trio feels more openly exploratory than most fusion bands, busy but not self-indulgent. And while everyone contributes strong playing, it is Jones' identifiable and compelling sound that makes The Art of Living Dangerously stand out as a fusion record well worth investigating.
Personnel: Marc Wagnon (midi vibes), Percy Jones (bass), Frank Katz (drums). With special guests: Van Manakas
(guitar on "Prisoner of the Knitting Factory Hallway"), John Goodsall (guitar on "Wall to Wall Sunshine"),
Julien Feltin (guitar on "Bad American Dream the 43rd") , Mark Feldman (violin on "Wall to Wall
Sunshine," "Lilly's Dolphin"), Lance Carter (drums on "Bad American Dream the 43rd")