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As might be gathered from the setlist, Mantra draws rich inspiration from the early fusion movement of the 1970s. Not your average hippy-trippy apes, the trio remain perhaps closer to the true spirit of the Miles Revolution than projects like Leo Smith’s Yo Miles! For all the sampling and wanna-be funk that has clogged the market lately, Mantra helps remind us of what the electric insurrection was all about.
Jimmy Smith proved decades ago that a band doesn’t need a bassist as long as the organist has competent feet. Yet in Miles Davis’ early electric groups, the bassist played the all-important role of unflagging anchor. (Ever count how many times Michael Henderson ran through the same dang ostinato on a quarter-hour jam?) The bass isn’t even missed here; Jon Ozment is fully up to snuff, blasting through pedal-less, neo-retro organ grooves that would do Larry Young proud while Mark Merella’s percussion fills in some low-end space. Ozment’s acid-drenched electric piano melts into Chuck Underwood’s guitar wah on the Davis-penned opener, “Fast Track,” and Merella’s layers firm up the foundation. Joe Zawinul is a key influence, and the keyboardist’s own “Dr. Honoris Causa” gets a fuzzy, funky workout. The third classic, Wayne Shorter’s “Mysterious Traveller,” is of necessity pared down from the larger-than-life Weather Report sound, but Underwood makes a servicable substitute for the vehement saxman.
The remaining selections are originals by the band members. Ozment’s “Pixels” begins as a breakneck outlet for his acoustic piano (presumably played on the synth since no real piano is credited), more in the spirit of Shorter’s pre-electric compositions for Davis’ quintet. Later on he moves to the organ to kick up the heat. “Blue” is a brooding, edge-of-seat wash of tension. The other tracks are free-form jams, faithful to the once-maligned, now-embraced Davis canon. “Zone Nomo” is the furthest out, with Underwood recalling some of Henry Kaiser’s experiments. Merella makes excellent use of space at times, leaving wide gaps for the others to fill in with glowing textures. A most enjoyable experience for Ur-fusion aficionados and chops-hounds.