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Sonic Fiction: Powerful Medicine

John Kelman By

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Sometimes location is everything. Vibraphonist/percussionist Daryl Pratt was originally born in the States, but he relocated to Australia in the '80s, where he has enjoyed a full career as performer, composer, and educator. But while he's well-known in his part of the world, he's less so elsewhere. One wonders where he'd be today had he remained in the US. Certainly, based on his breadth of musical exploits—from contemporary classical to improvised music—and his many strengths, one would assume that he might have achieved greater visibility.

Still, one makes one's choices, and Pratt, who has remained in Australia ever since and is chair of the Percussion Department at the Sydney Conservatory of Music, clearly maintains an active schedule. Examining some of his work for Australia's Tall Poppies label, one gets a true picture of Pratt's versatility and his ability to find musical truth in a variety of places.

Take his group Sonic Fiction, known to international audiences for its '99 release on Naxos Jazz, Changing With the Times, and including other sadly underexposed players like drummer Andrew Gander, bassist Adam Armstrong, and, in particular, guitarist James Muller. Sonic Fiction, a forum for combining detailed composition with space for improvisation in a context that some might call fusion, also deals with broader concerns and eschews the kind of meaningless displays of technique so often associated with that genre.

What most listeners outside of Australia don't know is that Changing With the Times was the group's second release, and that Sonic Fiction's '96 debut on Tall Poppies, Powerful Medicine, is equally worth scoping out. In 1994, when this record was made, Muller had yet to join the band. And the two guitarists who split duties on Powerful Medicine—Carl Orr and Steve McKenna—may be somewhat less distinguished, but they are both capable players, with McKenna going for a more overdriven and classic fusion sound, while Orr is a cleaner player with a generally more economical approach.

While eight of the ten compositions on Powerful Medicine are either Pratt's alone or in conjunction with others—the other two pieces are by Orr—and Pratt's vivid presence on MIDI vibes is felt throughout, he's a democratic leader, leaving plenty of room for everyone. The tunes range from the straightforward and funky "Pendulum" to the convoluted, irregular-metered title track, the occasionally swinging "Evening's Greeting" and "On the Crest," which combines a certain African Highlife triplet feel with a distinctly bluesy complexion. There's an unmistakable hint of Gary Burton in Pratt's playing, but along with an ability to navigate the most complex of rhythmic and harmonic changes, is a style that is influenced by world music concerns, making him a voice unto himself.

Pratt, along with Muller, would be recruited by drummer Chad Wackerman for his recent albums Scream and Legs Eleven, further proving that the vibes can be uniquely viable in a fusion context; but Powerful Medicine is a fine early look at why Wackerman would ultimately find Pratt so compatible with his own musical aesthetic.

Track Listing: Powerful Medicine; It's Only a Matter of Time; South-Westerly Change; Rock Garden; On the Crest; Evening's Greeting; Blue Thing; J.F.P.; Pendulum; Lost in the Translation

Personnel: Daryl Pratt (MIDI vibes, percussion), Andrew Gander (drums, percussion), Adam Armstrong (electric and acoustic bass), Carl Orr (guitar on

Title: Powerful Medicine | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Tall Poppies


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