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Steve Wiest And Phröntrange: The High Road

Dan Bilawsky By

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You don't encounter a lot of trombone-centric fusion dates these days. But then again, you also don't encounter too many musicians like Steve Wiest, the unabashedly enthusiastic veteran trombonist fronting this project. He's a true polymath, respected as a performer, educator, science fiction author, cartoonist, and composer-arranger. But he also clearly knows how to let rip and have a good time. That much is made clear on this powerful date.

The High Road was born out of a change of professional circumstances and scenery. After spending more than two decades in Texas, where he first established his sterling reputation as an educator and later directed the world-renowned One O'Clock Lab Band at The University of North Texas, Wiest accepted a teaching position at The University of Denver's Lamont School of Music and relocated to the Colorado Front Range. The new homestead inspired him to put together the wryly spelled Phröntrange, a fiery and feisty outfit that simply uses fun as its credo.

Wiest's dead serious skills are counterbalanced here with his humor and good-natured personality. He proves to be a commanding soloist, ably traversing the tricky ground that he himself laid out on these hip and incendiary charts, but his strong statements are often spiked with levity. It's that willingness to don the mask of the warrior and the garb of the humorist that makes for such an appealing mix on this album.

The majority of these seven pieces—five Wiest originals along with his takes on Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" and Fred Rogers' "Please Don't Think It's Funny"—serve both as labs for experimentation and vehicles to pay homage to a number of important figures and influences. "The Vinnie Paradox" is a nod to drum virtuoso Vinnie Colaiuta and his mastery of metric sleight of hand, "Cantaloupe Island" capitalizes on Hancock's comping skills and moves away from the all-too-recognizable original, "Violet Iris" is a colorful trip back to Wiest's childhood days in the garden at his great grandmother's Missouri home, and "A Stern Talking Too" is an edgy rocker that salutes guitar-slinger Mike Stern. Then there's the slinky "Miles Slide," a hybridized tribute that merges '80s Miles Davis with Slide Hampton's "Frame For The Blues," and the balladic "Please Don't Think It's Funny," a performance that honors Rogers by touching on his purity of spirit. By the time you arrive at the album closer—the raunchy and funky "Shred Or Shred Not (There Is No Try)"—Wiest has already made his mark with this band and made a case for this music.

The jazz police and the nose-in-the-air crowd may see this as atavistic art, redolent of fusion's past and full of its trademark excess(es), but those groups rarely see the fun in anything. Let them go elsewhere and let those open to a good time and great music keep this one all to themselves.

Track Listing: The Vinnie Paradox; Cantaloupe Island; Violet Iris; A Stern Talking Too; Miles Slide; Please Don't Think It's Funny; Shred Or Shred Not (There Is No Try).

Personnel: Steve Wiest: trombone; Mike Abbot: guitar; Eduardo "Bijoux" Barbosa: bass; Art Bouton: EWI; Eric Gunnison: keyboards; Mike Marlier: drums; Carmen Wiest: violin; Matthew Wiest: cello (3).

Title: The High Road | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Blujazz Productions

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