It may seem odd to take nearly 40 years to release a debut, but in the case of L'Image it's definitely a case of never-too-late. A collective formed by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri
in the early 1970s, L'Image generated considerable buzz for its live shows before, on the cusp of recording its first album, circumstances forced the group to dissolve. Mainieri reunited the group in 2008 for a Japanese tour and to record 2.0
, and for fans of an era that delivered groove-happy groups like Stuff, and the funk-driven fusion of The Arista All Stars and its two Blue Montreux
(Arista, 1978) LPs, it's a welcome opportunity to revisit a time when easy-on-the-ears jazz had yet to morph into dispensable smooth stuff.
Not that 2.0 is retro; the group sounds thoroughly in the new millennium, even as it revisits a couple of 1970s Mainieri compositions, in particular the eminently singable title track to Love Play (Arista, 1977), here combined with Mainieri's knotty but Latin-esque "Coming Home." Mainieri's tunes, which comprise half of 2.0's eight tracks, straddle the fence between easy-flowing accessibility and beneath-the-covers depth, in particular the tone row-driven "All in a Row," where Tony Levin's Chapman Stick gets a workout beyond the confines of the progressive rock arena in which he's been more often than not found since hooking up with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel in the late 1970s. 2.0 is, in fact, a rare opportunity to hear Levin return to jazz, his deep arco creating a robust foundation for Mainieri's "Reunion," an otherwise atmospheric track where David Spinozza's nylon-string guitar and Mainieri's vibes gracefully combine. Levin proves that just because an artist doesn't, it needn't mean they can't.
The same can be said for drummer Steve Gadd, whose jazz cred is amply proven on seminal albums by Chick Corea, Larry Carlton, and Joe Farrell, despite a career largely spent as a session and touring musician with pop/rock artists like Eric Clapton, Paul Simon and James Taylor Quartet. Gadd's Stuff was a soulful and unassuming alternative to powerhouse fusion back in the day, and that same relaxed but unerring groove is all over 2.0, especially on keyboardist Warren Bernhardt's opening "Praise," a lengthy, gospel-tinged tune featuring lively solos from Mainieri and Spinozza. And if Gadd's sense of swing was ever in doubt, there's Mainieri's "Gadd-Ddagit!," which features Bernhardt's strongest piano solo of the set, and Spinozza in flat-out Wes Montgomery mode.
Spinozza and Bernhardt may well be 2.0's biggest treats, if only because they're so under-represented compared to the more visible careers of Levin, Gadd, and Mainieri. Spinozza, in particular, demonstrates a compositional acumen as strong as his playing on three tunes, notably the ambling but deceptively change-heavy "Doesn't She Know By Now?" and spare yet visceral blues, "Hidden Drive."
The best players check their egos at the door, and with L'Image completing a fall 2009 run at New York's Iridium and a live CD/DVD in the works, 2.0 is the long overdue introduction to a group with nothing to prove and everything to say.