Jazz fusion supergroup Niacin, composed of star rock bassist Billy Sheehan, keyboard guru John Novello, and funk rock drummer Dennis Chambers, has both returned fusion to its roots with the resurrection of the venerable Hammond B-3 organ and given it a shot in the arm with an injection of hard rock sensibility. Formed in the mid-1990s, the group has continued to produce albums and tour into the 2000s, racking up accolades along the way—even as its members nurture solo careers and contribute to other bands.
Niacin was formed in the middle of the 1990s when rock bassist Billy Sheehan teamed up with keyboard player John Novello to create a vehicle for their work in jazz fusion and progressive rock. The duo brought in drummer Dennis Chambers to complete the trio. All three musicians were well established in rock and jazz circles at the time of the group's formation, crossing easily between the two musical styles. The centerpiece of the band is the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument that has graced many a jazz and progressive rock recording and, until the late 1970s, was almost as essential to rock and jazz as the guitar or drum. The instrument also lent the group its name; niacin is also known as vitamin B3.
The man behind the Hammond B-3, John Novello, cites as his major influences rock greats such as Deep Purple, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Led Zeppelin. Asked to sum up his band's sound in a sentence, he told the Boston Globe's Steve Greenlee that Niacin is "sort of a progressive retro fusion band" and that it was "guaranteed not to play elevator music." By all accounts, the group has more than succeeded: critics have raved about the group's high energy sound, unusual for a trio. Music critic Jeff Miers, for instance, wrote in the Buffalo News that the group is "blazing, passionate, virtuosic and groovy as all get out."
True to form, Niacin's concerts are typically a workout for the musicians. "When we get on stage," Novello told the Boston Globe's Greenlee, "we just let loose." In fact, some have mistaken the trio for a quartet; Novello doubles on guitar synthesizers, prompting at least one record executive to ask the band members for the name of their guitar player.
Niacin signed with famed jazz man Chick Corea's Stretch label to release its eponymous debut in 1997. The group followed up the next year with High Bias, which features a composition by Corea called "Hang Me Upside Down." Corea also plays keyboard on the track. The rest of the album, with the exception of a cover of Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," was composed by Novello and Sheehan. Critics lauded High Bias's cohesion, with Mike Joyce of the Washington Post singling out Dennis Chambers's "sleight of hand finesse." Following the release of High Bias, the group launched a world tour to promote the album, with dates throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.