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UZEB: The Last Concert

John Kelman By

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UZEB
The Last Concert
Norac Records
2006

In its twelve-year run, Canadian fusion group UZEB never cracked the US market, though they were immensely popular at home and in Europe. Between 1981 and 1990 the group released ten records documenting its remarkable growth and maturity. Initially a quartet, it was the last few years when, pared down to a trio, UZEB released its most memorable music, beginning with Noisy Nights (Avant-garde, 1988). While its last release was the double-disc live album, World Tour '90 (Avant-garde, 1990), UZEB would continue on for another couple of years, culminating with a large outdoor show for the 1992 Montreal Jazz Festival.

The Last Concert, recorded at Montreal's Place Des Arts Salle Wilfred Pelletier in 1991, is not literally the group's final performance, but with a more controllable environment for recording, it's a better opportunity to hear and see just how far UZEB had evolved from its early days. Watching the group in concert fifteen years after the fact demonstrates conclusively just how much stronger the group was as a trio, and what a shame it was that UZEB never achieved greater success in the US.

Anyone following UZEB at the time knew just how much it had evolved from a group of brash youngsters often prone to overplaying into a more mature collective for whom groove was paramount and energy a given, with space an equally important component. By the time the group became a trio with founding members Paul Brochu (drums, percussion), Alain Caron (basses) and Michel Cusson (guitars), there was no reduction of chops but considerably more control. While UZEB focused primarily on original compositions, its take on Charles Mingus' standard "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat," from Noisy Nights, remains a classic in minimalist interpretation.

The nearly two-hour set list of The Last Concert draws heavily from the repertoire of the group's last two studio efforts, though there's a smattering of earlier material, including a lengthy take on "60, Rue des Lombardes," the closest thing to a "hit" that UZEB ever had.

One reason UZEB was able to downsize to a trio and without losing texture was the significant advance in technology. In fact, while most people look to guitarist Pat Metheny for his innovative use of technology to expand the sonics of his group, UZEB were no less cutting-edge. Sequencers were not only continuously triggered by each member of the group, but everyone was midi'd up to insure the group sounded much larger than it was.

British drummer Bill Bruford, known for his use of a chordal electronic drum system at the time, was widely recognized for his ability to play chord changes programmed on a series of electronic drum pads. But Brochu was no less inventive playing, for example, the acoustic guitar changes at the start of "Loose" on his pads, elsewhere triggering all kinds of sequences and percussion sounds while still maintaining forward motion on the more conventional kit. Watching the show, in fact, one finally gets to understand exactly who does what in a way that could never be determined listening to the group's records.

Chops abound throughout the performance, but UZEB had grown, at this point, beyond superfluous displays of virtuosity. Caron remains one of Canada's premier bassists, but on this occasion he balances staggering solos like that on the drum/bass duo "Funkaleon" with total allegiance to groove on the greasy "UZEB Club." Cusson may have a rock stance, as comfortable with swooping whammy-bar dives as he is heavy metal bebop lines, but on his Afro- centric "Not Even the Shadow of the Tail of a Lizard" his acoustic guitar playing (blended with a harmonized wind instrument-like synth pad) blends a sophisticated language with lyrical-yet-complex linearity. Brochu's solo on the same track is equally compelling: powerful and exuberant, yet never less than totally focused.

Trumpeter Tiger Okoshi joins the group for two tunes— the funky "Mister Moe" and the more transitional "Loose," which is equal parts contemporary rhythm and potent swing. Okoshi hasn't been heard from much in recent years, and his thematically strong solo work here makes it more the pity.

Fusion is often considered a dirty word by jazz purists, but watching The Last Concert it's hard to deny that a more electric energy does nothing to negate the chemistry that UZEB had evolved by this time. With less to prove and a stronger group mindset, the UZEB of 1988-1992 was a group that had finally begun delivering on its earlier potential. One might wonder what UZEB might have become had it remained together, but perhaps there's equally something to be said for leaving on what was clearly a creative peak.

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