Frank Gambale: Parallel Lines

John Kelman By

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Emerging in the mid-1980s, Australian-born guitarist Frank Gambale rose quickly to the upper end of the fusion food chain. While Scott Henderson was the first guitarist in keyboard legend Chick Corea's Elektric Band, it's Gambale who is best remembered for his work on a string of the band's albums beginning with Light Years (GRP, 1987). And when Corea decided to reform the quintet in the early part of this decade for an album and a couple of tours, it was Gambale that he called.

A virtuosic player with frightening facility, Gambale developed a technique called sweep picking that allows for the clean execution of phrases at seemingly impossible speeds, influencing an entire generation of fusion guitarists. But as powerful a player as Gambale is, he's also been prone to the excesses that sometimes give fusion a bad name.

Still, in the last few years, as a member of drummer Steve Smith's Vital Information and on his own most recent discs—Raison D'Etre (Wombat, 2004) and the all-acoustic trio disc, Natural High (Wombat, 2006)—Gambale has made several moves that reflect an increasing maturity. He's introduced his Neauveau Tuning, which allows for uncharacteristically close voicings. And while the staggering facility is still there, he's reached a point of where a more sophisticated musical philosophy is catching up with his technical aptitude.

Which make the release of three compilations on Gambale's Wombat label—focusing separately on jazz & rock fusion, acoustic and smooth—all the more curious. Gambale's albums have always combined pedal-to-the-metal fusion tunes with gentler acoustic tracks. And that's what has made his discography, despite the occasional excess, worth following. But, by dividing his music into three neat compartments, perhaps Gambale will be able to attract those whose tendencies lean to one or more of those categories, and introduce them to the bigger picture of his regular recordings. Sometimes the best way to lead people into uncharted territory is to deliver music that they can relate to, but which stretches them within a largely familiar context.

Frank Gambale
Best Of: Jazz & Rock Fusion
Wombat Records

The risk with any compilation is that the selected material sounds dated. It's especially problematic with fusion records, where the technology places the material in a timeframe. Any music can inherently feel of a time, but drum machines and synthesizers can date a song long before the actual music is considered. Surprisingly, Best Of: Jazz & Rock Fusion manages to avoid such pitfalls for the most part. Sure the DX-7 synth on "Leave Ozone Alone from The Great Explorers (JVC, 1990) almost immediately places it, but it's still a strong piece of powerful jazz-rock where the emphasis is plainly on the rock side of the equation.

This is the emphasis that pervades the majority of the disc. While the sophistication of Gambale's themes belie his jazz background, only "High 5, from Note Worker (JVC, 1991), and "Bittersweet and "Complex Emotions —both from Raison D'Etre—come close to speaking with a more jazz-centric vernacular. Tunes like "Little Charmer, "The Jaguar and "Shaker are pure rock, with Gambale at times owing as much to Hendrix—especially when he brings out the whammy bar—as he does to any jazz influence. Still, the complex, rapid-fire theme of "Shaker is something that no guitarist without some familiarity with the jazz language could come up with, while the latter half of "Complex Emotions feels like a contemporary take on early Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Songs like "The Final Frontier would fit comfortably on a Hellecasters record, while "Passages is an anthemic ballad that owes more than a little to Blow By Blow-era Jeff Beck, but with less inherent risk. But if Gambale's goal is, indeed, to entice people into his music by creating an accessible set that stretches its audience almost without them even knowing it, then Best Of: Jazz & Rock Fusion works just fine.

Frank Gambale
Best Of: The Acoustic Side
Wombat Records

While the subtle envelope-pushing of Jazz & Rock Fusion occurs throughout the disc, there's a clearer direct line that moves through The Acoustic Side. "Kuranda opens in territory that's very close to that Gambale no doubt explores on Best Of: The Smooth Jazz Side with its mellow but funky groove, wordless vocals and lyrical bent. But what separates Gambale from the heavily-programmed smooth jazz of today is (other than some dated drum machine programming) a reliance on real playing. The same way that guitar icon Pat Metheny is sometimes accused of leaning too far to the smooth side with some of his Pat Metheny Group recordings, look deeper under the covers and you invariably find more substance. Gambale's writing may not be as inimitable as Metheny's (and in particular that of Metheny's work with longstanding partner, keyboardist Lyle Mays), but his writing does reveal more on closer examination.

By the time the set reaches Raison D'Etre's balladic "Kaanapali, and the two closing tracks from Natural High—the sophisticated "The Long And Short Of It and Latin-tinged, bebop-ish melody of "D's Living Room —a subtle transformation has taken place. The listener has been gradually taken to a place where the rest of Natural High would be no confrontational stretch.

While Gambale's virtuosity is always evident, it's more impressive on The Acoustic Side. Any guitarist knows that it's easier to play fast with a distorted tone because a certain amount of sloppiness gets masked by the sound. Hearing Gambale articulate lines as cleanly on acoustic guitar as he does on overdriven electric does speak volumes about his formidable technique. And while speed doesn't in any way make one more musical, strong technique does allow one the opportunity to articulate a greater range of ideas.

Gambale can be accused of overplaying throughout his career, but his recent albums and work with Vital Information find him transcending those excesses. With an eye to letting notes breathe more he's become more concerned with developing a clearer voice, one that's about construction and narrative rather than just chops.

Both Best Of: Jazz & Rock Fusion and Best Of: The Acoustic Side are strong introductions for those unfamiliar with Gambale and who want to find an entry point through generally familiar terrain. If there's any criticism it's for the lack of discographical information. There are no notes to indicate what albums the songs come from, nor are there any personnel listings.

Still, with access to the internet it's possible to piece things together. And if Gambale's ultimate goal is to homogenize his music into three neat compartments that can serve as introductions for newcomers, and as focused compilations for existing fans, then these discs can be considered successful on both fronts.

Tracks and Personnel

Best Of: Jazz & Rock Fusion

Tracks: Little Charmer; Thunder Current; Leave Ozone Alone; The Jaguar; Shaker; The Final Frontier; High 5; Frankly Speaking; Bittersweet; Passages; My Little Viper; Complex Emotions.

Personnel: Frank Gambale: guitars. Other personnel unlisted.

Best Of: The Acoustic Side

Tracks: Kurandra; The Land Of Wonder; Awakening; Dawn Over The Nullarbor; Uluru; Infinity; A Lover's Night; Kaanapali; Spending Sunday With You; The Avenger's Suite Parts 1&2; The Long And Short Of It; D's Living Room.

Personnel: Frank Gambale: guitars. Other personnel unlisted.

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