It may be an all-acoustic affair (with the exception of electric bass), but School of the Arts bristles with fusion energy. That will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with even a few of the names on this project spearheaded by pianist T Lavitz, who first came to attention in 1979 when he joined The Dixie Dregs, guitarist Steve Morse's country-tinged progressive fusion group that released a string of outstanding albums between 1975 and 1982, and still reconvenes on rare occasion to this day.
Featuring guitarist Frank Gambale, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, Lavitz has a core group of virtuosos capable of this largely high velocity set. With the three spending considerable time together in Chick Corea's Elektric Band, Lavitz has also recruited built-in chemistry. This is immediately evident on the album's opener, "Fairweather Green, a complex chart sporting mind-numbing unison passages between Lavitz and Gambale, as well as a moving target of a pulse that still manages to groove viscerally, as Patitucci and Weckl navigate a tune that covers more territory in five minutes than some albums do in forty. Filled to the brim with ideas, it manages to avoid feeling overcrowded.
With Patitucci bringing out his electric bass and violinist Jerry Goodman joining in on "No Time Flat (one of three guest spots for the Mahavishnu Orchestra alumnus), the energy level rises a notch on another track to pack a lot into a small space. Soloing is kept to a minimum on this largely through-composed piece, but the interaction keeps things looseall the more remarkable since this group never played together in the same room at the same time. It's a particularly strong exampleeven in this day and age of artists sharing files over the internet so that other tracks can be recorded in different locations, as in this case, Massachusetts and Californiaof how preproduction and clear conception can create an album that feels like it was recorded live, even if it wasn't.
Lavitz's old Dregs-mate Steve Morse joins in for "On Fire, a fiery tune that, with its knotty head, rapid-fire bass line, blues tinge and touch of country, could easily have fit into the Dregs' repertoire. Again, while there's no extended soloing, Lavitz, Morse and Patitucci get the opportunity to push and pull in a series of trade-offs that, again, belie the piecemeal construction of the disc. Morse is also onboard for the Spanish-tinged Portrait, delivering a solo towards the tune's end that, despite being on acoustic guitar, can only be described as rocking.
On a set of challenging tunes by Lavitz that includes the impressive solo closer "Maybe Next Time (Gambale contributes the waltzing "Gambashwari and the brighter, more clearly jazz-centric and solo-heavy "Teaser), the pianist is the real revelation here. His cohorts' reputations are all well-established, but with School of the Arts Lavitz finally emerges as an inventive writer, pianist and bandleader. Hopefully there'll be more to come.
Fairweather Green; No Time Flat; On Fire; Portrait; Like This; High Falutin
T Lavitz: piano, bass (3); Dave Weckl: drums, percussion; Frank Gambale: acoustic guitar; Jerry Goodman: violin (2, 5, 8); John Patitucci: acoustic and electric bass; Steve Morse: acoustic guitar (3, 4).