In the world of improvisatory music, the releases which spellbind are those which simultaneously are at the cutting edge and hit extremely deep on an emotional level compositionally, while at the same time throw down the gauntlet in terms of the pure technical level of virtuosity on display by the instrumentalist who is the leader of the date, saying to the community of listeners and musicians alike, "I am the baddest!".
In the smaller world of electric bass, even the casual fan knows that such a time followed the 1975 debut of a certain Philadelphia-born fretless bassist who will remain unnamed, given the implausibility- no impossibility, of a single release ever making such a quantum leap in musicianship and composition with bass as the core instrument again. We can only hope for and indeed, have seen, smaller, yet significant steps in this particular evolutionary cycle. The millennium year will be remembered as the year this solo release by Matt Garrison took the evolution of music played on the bass one such step further. Sure, it will be remembered as a wake-up call for bass players the world over that they have a lot of catching up to do if they want to play the longest, fastest, most clearly articulated, motific solos of their day. We can say right off the top that there is no electric bassist, pro or hobbyist, that should be without this recording. But more importantly, this release demonstrates, in ways more profoundly than other significant releases of its ilk, that the instrument can now seamlessly step in and out of the ensemble role, stating a melody here, trading eights with a saxophonist there, providing support and structure to the song chordally as well as with single note basslines in rapid alternation, giving call and response with a vocalist, or in any number of ways that, well, shouldn't have to be enumerated. It's a matter, if you will, of eliminating the discussion in this paragraph from the review itself. This isn't just a ridiculously killer solo record by a bassist (yes,indeed folks it is). It's an incredible jazz record.
There are some serious extremes in the role of the leader here. There are times when the compositions demand he stay totally in a supportive role, or actually, silent, while there are just as clearly others when he says "f$%k it! I must display my prowess!" - a musical pounding of the chest before receiving a high five from the rest of the squad and going back to the other side of the court to play some team D. It is precisely this mix and the exact dosage of boldness in the recipe that, to my mind, catapults it over the "Yin and Yang" displayed on some other, notable recent releases by low frequency specialists.
Some words about the cast of characters. First of all, guitarists Rogers and Gilmore-if there are better guitarists out there who have not yet released recordings under their own name I have yet to hear them. Boardmeister Kinsey has thoroughly absorbed everything Herbie and Zawinul ever offered up, and made it his own in an unabashedly twisted way. As far as credentials go, there are zero degrees of separation between the members of the core band on the cd and the currently acknowledged greatest jazz musicians, in a variety of subgenres, in the world. You can search through this website and match them up with David Sanborn, Trilok Gurtu, Oregon, Tribal Tech, Steve Coleman, Robben Ford, Don Byron, Graham Haynes, Cassandra Wilson, Walter Becker, Bill Evans, John Zorn, Al DiMeola, Bob Berg and both Breckers. Throw in Matt and add the following to the now-staggering list: Gary Burton, Bob Moses, Betty Carter, Pat Metheny, Gil Evans, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Joni Mitchell and Chaka Khan. I will let the following simple fact stand on its own as to the who we're dealin' with here: while on tour with Joe Zawinul in Europe in the summer of 1996, at the age of 26, Matt received a call from Wayne Shorter's management, inquiring as to his availability to tour with that unit as well.
Two band members posses musical pedigrees both underpublicized by the media and underplayed by them individually. Drum phenom Gene Lake is the son of jazz/funk/harmelodic/World Sax Quartetter Oliver, which partially explains why Gene always plays with an eye (or should I say a stick or a foot) toward all that is polyrhythmic. And finally (we would be remiss not to put this out there), Matt Garrison is the scion of that icon of acoustic bass, member of the immortal, classic John Coltrane Quartet, Jimmy Garrison. At this juncture, we find Matt at the point where he has quietly, logarithmically grown into, in this writer's opinion, the most fluid, swinging and versatile player on the scene today. As you can see, while it is generally regarded that reviewers, to maintain some unspoken modicum of respectability, should shy away from superlatives, I unabashedly cross the line drawn in the sand in the case of Mr. Garrison. In sum, no higher marks will be given out to other members of the class.
On to the sounds. The musics of India got sexy (again) in 1999-2000 as Alanis, Madonna and Sting, one-namers all, incorporated a healthy dose of it into the vibe of charting hits, while electronica auteurs Talvin Singh, the Asian Dub Foundation and Karsh Kale's Futureproof enthralled the drum 'n' bass community. Matt's chosen to focus more than half the recording on these sounds, and fortunately for listeners, there's no bandwagon jumping here - Matt had world tours under his belt with Joe Zawinul's Syndicate off the "My People" project as well as the pioneer of the jazz/Indian synergy, John McLaughlin, before any of this stuff caught the current wave of popularity. He's plucked Sitar player/vocalist Amit Chaterjee from Zawinul's band, and master percussionist/vocalist Arto Tuncboyacian out of the chair in Oregon vacated by living legend Trilok Gurtu. Karina Braunstein and Sabina Sciubba are also on hand to provide ethereal ethnovocalisms to the proceedings. Bottom line - this stuff is gorgeous, emotive ,deeply evocative music meant to touch the soul, that also happens to lend itself beautifully to the sonic palette of the bass guitar. Just one listen to ten seconds of the song "Time," when Matt plays a fleet, repetitive, trance-inducing figure over a sitar drone, at the moment when you actually hear the air move under his fingers, will infuse you with the curiosity to thoroughly examine every nook and cranny of the remaining 50 minutes of this remarkable recording.
"Duet" begins as a classical Indian raga flowing into a lovely chord progression. The raga is revisited as something to which our ears are more accustomed, and is broken by a searing 10 second bass break at the two minute mark. Literally, in the first 2 seconds of the solo, 16 notes fly by, a 2 second pause is followed by 64 notes in 6 seconds, a level of execution, on this instrument in particular, simply not able to be carried out by other players. This is one of many tools Matt calls on at will; think of it just one weapon in a stockpiled improvisational (piece-keeping) arsenal. As a matter of technique, the sounds wrought from the instrument are astounding and imposing, but technique always serves the tune while drawing listener interest to stated melodies or solo fragments, and comprises only a small piece of the complex puzzle comprising his singular voice. As if to emphasize the earlier point made about making transparent transitions, one is made back to the chord progression, adding some cadences, and out.
"Family" is the compositional gem of the record, and when taken with the rest, should solidify Matt's position as a virtuoso songwriter and instrumentalist of "world fusion." In the tune's first minute, the bass sets up a chord progression, as the evocative chant of Sciubba floats over the top. This sets up a unison line voiced by Sciubba and the bass, in turn, setting up a different unison line with the mystically enchanting Braunstein. A 5 second breakdown, in fact a quote from "Havona," follows, and the vocal passage is repeated, with the breakdown replaced by a single eerily dissonant synthesized chord. A deeper more complex theme emerges, accompanied by an ascending fretless line, setting up the tune's solo section at the 2:30 mark. Over a series of twelve bar progressions, 3 chords each, with each bar underlain by a 2-note bass pulse, Garrison and Rogers swap breathtaking, liquid, solos. The solo section breaks into a what seems for a few seconds to be a calming bridge begun on bass and immediately countermelodied on acoustic guitar, but it keeps going while another bass solo kicks in, interweaving and dancing with a different, otherworldly vocal. Reading this description of the series of transitions makes them seem as though they happen too rapidly and abruptly, when in fact, they are accomplished seamlessly, as is the next, into a live drum 'n' bass section. Resident alchemist Kinsey enters the fray, with a solo mixing equal parts infectious phrasing with an inventive sample that mixes in Karina's previous vocal, somehow adding an angel's breath to a vintage analog synth sound. This emphasizes the effect, exhibited just-previously, of the vocalist intertwining with the soloist, this time pulled off in technological rather than organic fashion.
"Time," equally as intricate, is more haunting, featuring a plaintive vocal by Braunstein . A bass raga sets up a short but jam-packed bass solo, followed by incredibly fleet repetitive bass figures over a sitar drone, leading into Adam Rogers' spiraling solo that doubles back on itself while Matt supplies chordal support. The support turns from chordal to a more spare, processional line that allows Gene Lake to supply his wondrous brand of near-cacophony under a four minute Rogers solo, which fades, as if Adam could go on for hours, at song's end.
"Dark Matter" begins by taking us further out in our travels with Kinsey's deep inner and outer-space travelogue that serves as the intro, dropping us smack dab into a rock riff. This one starts with one of those slides up and down the neck that guys like Marcus do in a funk context, but Matt hits us with his own version here, one that frets a bunch of notes on the way-all the right ones, using his patented, rapid four-finger picking technique on the right hand. The riff becomes underpinned by a jungle groove, again showcasing drums under a 50 second guitar solo that exemplifies the 100 successive such intervals comprising the cd. Alone, this pass by Rogers is easily worth the price of the disc, a fluid, seemingly legato tour de force that is actually voiced by alternate picking at blinding speed, imparting a palpable feeling of busting out of your skin, bulging at the seams, indeed dark, yet a perfect fit.
"Manifest Destiny" is a duo interlude with Amit Chaterjee chanting over a beautiful bass raga which turns chordal, setting up the harmony for a theme played in unison with the vocalist. On "Lullaby," the most "current-state-of-jazz-radio friendly" cut on the disc, a clave sets up African drumming, with a deep bass pulse accompanied by a higher part that sounds looped backward in Fripp-esque fashion, over which comes an exquisite chord cycle voiced on electrified nylon string guitar, giving way to a nuevo-samba head. Gilmore's solo is so authentically latin-tinged that we forget he is best-known for his acidic, electric side. Just when you are reminded that Spain is separated from Africa by a relatively small gulf, a sweet groove is set up with chordal bass swells for Binney to blow over before tune's end.
"Shapeless" is a bossa, a vehicle Matt has previously exhibited his flair for improvising over on record. His solo here is nothing short of bop-perfect, displaying all the precision, motific development and harmonic depth of any number of bebop guitar masters from Benson to Martino. As the string of ideas fly by effortlessly you'll realize its that good, and so is Gilmore's turn, again on nylon-stringed acoustic.
"Solitude" is another multi-layered Indian hybrid featuring a more rejoiceful-sounding vocal passage. The solo section is wonderfully conceived, a tribal percussive section by Tunboyacian accompanied by sitar drones , literally a bed of sound to wail over. Matt does just that, beginning with a terrifyingly precise sequence of notes, which spell out a deftly articulated arpeggiated version of the song's vocal line. The solo is, again, crystalline. Each note is distinct. Each note is round. No notes run together. No phrase is without purpose. To borrow a soundbyte (I steadfastly refuse namedropping), there is no wiggling of the fingers happening here! As the progression and the notes flitting about on top of it become more emotive, one is led to ponder the speed at which the brain behind them is not working - the speed at which there is no time for thought, only feeling, where the synapses between the heart, head and hand become tansparent- where all improvisers want to transport themselves. Matt giddily brings us all along with him.
Finally, "Say What?" clocks in at a short 2:40, but must be heard repeatedly to allow it to be absorbed. THE throwdown salvo and centerpiece on the cd, it features a mind-numbingly brilliant fretless-sounding solo that is actually performed on his five string fretted bass. The fretless sound is derived by loosening the strings on the bass-that is detuning - randomly. That's randomly - and yes this means the Matt merely unwinds the tuning pegs until he feels like stopping! The manner in which cascading volleys of all the right notes result, simultaneously engaging the listener while toying with microtonality, especially in the deeper registers, is somehow enigmatically entertaining to ears accustomed to the western twelve-tone scale. Fittingly, all this happens over a bass line played on, not just any acoustic bass, but the Garrison family acoustic bass (yes, the instrument used on Ballads, My Favorite Things, Impressions and A Love Supreme, among other incalculably colossal recordings). The instrument itself can be thought of as akin to a sacred tool, formerly used by the all-knowing ones to record and preserve, for future generations, music which is the cultural legacy of their society. The tool has been passed down to a most suitable recipient in that lineage, one who has seen fit to apply his prodigious talents to new tools of the day, while working diligently to break some new cultural ground, bringing that legacy into the future, in a way, courageously, all his own.
Simply one of the finest solo releases by an electric bassist- ever-the fact that this one is going the indie route speaks equal volumes about the status of fusion on the corporate musical landscape and the inexorable will and vision of its auteur. With our highest recommendation, get it now at www.fodera.com, or www.audiophileimports.com. And make sure to check out Matt's self-published website at www.garrisonjazz.com.