While he was far from a household name when he passed away in September, 2003 at the tender age of forty, guitarist Shawn Lane was considered something of a god within fusion circles. Starting out professionally at the age of fifteen in the unlikely context of the '70s Southern Rock outfit Black Oak Arkansas, he quickly refashioned the band into more of a jazz-rock affair by the mid-'80s, more akin to Return to Forever than the Allman Brothers. When the band folded he went on to establish a solid reputation both as a sideman and leader.
While he gained recognition as a no-holds-barred player who could shred his way with the best of them through jazz tunes on Mark Varney's Centrifugal Funk , and a 2003 Guitar Techniques magazine called him "the fastest guitarist on the planet," he was equally capable of rich chordal work and lyrical motifs. His relationship with Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg may have been the most significant of his career; from late '94 through to the time of his passing, Lane worked heavily with Hellborg on projects that ranged from completely improvised jazz-rock to Carnatic Indian fusion.
With a too-small discography, some of Lane's best work was captured live with Hellborg; even before Lane's death Hellborg had begun to reissue some of this material, and with Lane's life cut short now is as good a time as any to revisit some of these important, but overlooked, recordings.
When Lane, Hellborg and drummer Jeff Sipe, also known as Apt. Q258, came together in '95 for a brief European tour, the modus operandi was to improvise freely within a rhythmic context; culled from shows in Sweden, Germany and France and edited into two half-hour pieces, Temporal Analogues of Paradise raises the jam band bar by demonstrating that it is possible to have extended improvisations without resorting to unnecessary pyrotechnical displays or relying strictly on groove to maintain the interest level. When you put together three like-minded musicians who possess big ears and an interest in improvising that extends to creating miniature suites, the results can be magic.
Lane's command of his instrument is clearly impressive, but he relies less on style and more on substance by maintaining a strong sense of melody and development, resulting in compelling stories rather than mindless meanderings. Dazzling displays of technique are evident, but never the raison d'etre.
Hellborg is a player with a big sound who calls himself a bass guitarist rather than an electric bassist, the implication being that he sees himself less of a strict timekeeper and as much a thematic developer as Lane, and this would be true; still, he has the ability to develop said themes while anchoring the groove, demonstrating a sense of invention that sets him apart from most slapping and thumping bassists.
Sipe, for all his chops, is also a melodic player; hard to imagine, but his solos are almost hummable. And while, like Lane and Hellborg, his technique is inescapable, he never places it before the trio's innate musicality.
What is refreshing, in fact, about the whole disk is that while formidable technical ability is on display throughout, the whole thing feels constructed , rather than being simply a chops-fest for guitar, bass and drums groupies. There is an uncanny chemistry, with each instrument being given the freedom to either support or lead the proceedings; while some of the shifts in the movements are clearly the result of astute editing, others are just as clearly the result of three players who are deeply connected.
Travelling through ambling, relaxed grooves to high-speed shredding; from sheer joy to darker intensity, while there are harmonic influences from jazz and world music, this is jazz-rock fusion with a capital "F", and with the emphasis on rock. For fans of take-no-prisoners playing who still want to hear a strong thematic sensibility that rises above the usual pyrotechnical exercise that the genre sometimes suggests, this may be as good as it gets.
Recorded live at various locations the following year, Time is the Enemy takes a different approach, with individual pieces delineated rather than being edited into a continuum. The playing is considerably fiercer; Temporal Analogues of Paradise felt more completely about collaboration, and while the unified efforts of the trio are no less evident here, this feels somehow more Lane's show.
That's not to say the others don't get their chance to shine. Hellborg delivers characteristically stunning solos on "Space Time Continuum" and the closing title track, with some staggering popping and plucking at speeds that rival Level 42's Mark King but with more substance. There seems to be less space for Sipe, who is relegated more to laying down the groove; but he manages to show why he is the perfect drummer for this trio dynamic, powerful, busy at times but never forsaking the rest of the trio for his own purposes.
What is evident about this recording is how much the players have grown individually and collectively since the previous tour, but especially Lane. Demonstrating a somewhat more oblique harmonic sense, especially on "The Kings Letter," where he uses a whammy bar to swell chords and pull legato runs that rival Allan Holdsworth, Lane's conception may have developed but his roots as a rocker are no less clear. His tone can range from clean and funky to blistering, sometimes within the space of a few short moments.
And while these are unquestionably jams, there is more overt structure than on the completely improvised Temporal Analogues of Paradise. The title track may ultimately be a vehicle for extended blowing by Lane, but there are unison passages and themes that are used as introduction, transition and ending points to the piece that demonstrate a group somewhat more interested in form this time around.
This is powerful stuff; for fans of the traditional power trio in fusion there are few groups in recent years that have rivalled their looseness, intensity and sheer density. While there are plenty of dynamic and tempo shifts within these six tunes, the overall feeling is one of pure unadulterated fury. More weighted towards pure shredding than Temporal Analogues of Paradise , Time is the Enemy may be less lyrical; still, it captures Hellborg, Lane and Sipe at a level of interplay that is rivalled by few, if any, in the genre.
In the latter days of their collaboration, Hellborg and Lane became more and more interested in traditional Indian music. Releases like Icon and Good People in Times of Evil teamed them up with Indian musicians including vocalist V. Umamahesh and percussionists V. Selvaganesh and V. Umashankarm, also known as the Vinayakram Brothers, as they explored more extended Indian forms and, in particular, the Carnatic style of southern India. With the release of Paris , a DVD featuring Lane and Hellborg with the Vinayakrams from a 2001 concert at New Morning in Paris France, fans who never had the opportunity to see these talented musicians in person get the next best thing.
As Indo-European fusions go, while the musicians are talented and the playing inspired, John McLaughlin's original Shakti and more recent Remember Shakti groups have done it better. By replacing Sipe with the ethnic percussion and vocals of the Vinayakrams, the flavour is certainly altered, but Hellborg and Lane do not adapt as authentically as McLaughlin. While the ambience is less intense, and Lane has managed to capture the sweeps and bends of the Carnatic style, it feels less in-the-tradition. McLaughlin has fused western harmonies and a certain jazz sensibility with the Indian musicians in the various Shakti projects, but there has always been a certain truth retained. Lane utilizes looping, reverse delays and other effects but the overall feeling is still someone coming from a rock and jazz-rock background dabbling with the form rather than living it. And Hellborg's deep tone may simply be too weighty for this music; he has clearly studies the scales and harmonies of Indian culture, but there is a subtlety that is lacking. While a certain heavy-handedness is not only evident but expected in their more powerful fusion work with Sipe, here it just feels clumsy.
From a technical perspective the DVD is well-recorded, without being too considered. Close-ups of the individual musicians are alternated with wider views of the whole ensemble making it an accurate concert representation. Fans of Icon will absolutely want to invest in a copy of this release, as will any fans of Lane or Hellborg who simply want to watch these players perform. But taken on its own merits, Paris is something less than a resounding success. Whereas the power trio work with Sipe is distinguished by a communicative sense and degree of authenticity, the Indo-European fusion work lacks the interplay and sheer adventure.
Still, with the reissue of Temporal Analogues of Paradise and Time is the Enemy , and the new release of Paris , Hellborg is ensuring that Lane's short life will not soon be forgotten.
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Temporal Analogues of Paradise
Personnel: Shawn Lane (guitar), Jonas Hellborg (bass guitar), Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q258) (drums)
Track Listing: 1st Movement; 2nd Movement
Time is the Enemy
Personnel: Shawn Lane (guitar), Jonas Hellborg (bass guitar), Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q258) (drums)
Track Listing: Heretics; Wherever You Walk; Space Time Continuum; The Kings Letter; Barua a Soldani; Time is the Enemy
Personnel: Shawn Lane (guitar), Jonas Hellborg (bass guitar), V. Selvaganesh (kanjeera, vocals), V. Umashankar (ghatam, vocals), V. Umamahesh (vocals)
1st Set: Who Would You Like to Be; Savitri; Leal Souvenir
2nd Set: Surbahar; Sankarabharanam; Aga of the Ladies