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Alex Skolnick Trio: Transformation

John Kelman By

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Call me a jazz bigot. When I received Transformation by Alex Skolnick, apparently the ex-guitarist for thrash metal-heads Testament, my first thought was, "Great, another rocker trying to be a jazzer." Things didn't get better when I saw that Skolnick was interpreting material by Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Scorpions, Iron Maiden and—yes—Ronnie James Dio. Sure, plenty of serious jazz artists have approached contemporary singer/songwriters in recent years—Brad Mehldau, Charlie Hunter, even Herbie Hancock. But metal bands? I mean, really.

Well, imagine my surprise to discover Skolnick a fine jazz guitarist, completely capable of getting to the core of songs by a group of artists more associated with classic rock, and transforming them into almost unrecognizable new tunes. Unlike the Bad Plus, who are nothing less than shtick—a group whose supposed reinvention of songs by Nirvana and Black Sabbath do little to honour the originals, and even less to make them interesting and refreshing new mediums for improvisation—Skolnick and his trio of bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski breathe new life into these tunes, transforming (there goes that word again) them into something fresh, while at the same time being reverential to their sources. Judas Priest could never have conceived "Electric Eye" as a lithe 7/4 romp, nor Scorpions their "Blackout" as a swinging jazz waltz, but there you go.

That Skolnick comes to jazz from rock as opposed to the other way around means that while he has a firm grasp on harmony and is capable of navigating odd meters and shifts in feel, there is a certain energy and, in particular, attitude that is missing from your typical fusion player. That's not to say guitarists like Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale lack attitude; it's just that there's something different about the way that Skolnick digs into a solo, even when it's on an abstract ballad like "Fear of Flying." And Skolnick does this, for the most part, with a clean and warm tone that is only affected with a touch of delay, completely eschewing the typical overdriven fusion tone with the exception of a brief spot on the title track and his surprisingly swinging version of Deep Purple's "Highway Star."

If Skolnick has any precedent in jazz, it would have to be Larry Coryell, who has blended a true rock and roll attitude with a far broader reach over the course of his career, demonstrated to great effect at this summer's Ottawa International Jazz Festival . Like Coryell, Skolnick demonstrates that translating the energy of rock to a jazz context can be a more subtle thing, showing that you can imbue more traditional trappings of swing, modal playing and richer harmony with an edge that doesn't spoil their essential purity. Transformation is a surprising record that succeeds on many levels and proves that it is indeed possible to shift gears mid-career and sound like you've been doing it all your life.

Track Listing: Transformation; Electric Eye; Fear of Flying; Money; Both Feet In; Scorch; Blackout; IMV/The Trooper; No Fly Zone; Don't Talk to Strangers; Highway Star

Personnel: Alex Skolnick (guitars, vocals), Nathan Peck (double-bass, vocals), Matt Zebroski (drums, vocals)
Guests: Dave Eggar (cello on "Transformation"), Charlie Hunter (8-string guitar on "Scorch")

Title: Transformation | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Magnatude Records


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