Zen Tornado, as the name alone might imply, is a tempestuous brew of jazz fusion with moments of almost transcendental tranquility. The eponymous ensemble, a semi-conventional five-piece unit, is led by guitarist Rik Wright, and the resulting debut full-length has a distinct thrust and direction that suggests Wright was able to get precisely what he wanted out of the group (some performers, like drummer Simon Grant, are longtime friends and collaborators of his) without suppressing individual initiative or spontaneity.
Wright has been gigging in and around Seattle for a number of years now, appearing in and heading other fusion outfits such as Disjunkt and, earlier still, the Jackhammer Trio. Those two in particular inclined toward the more muscular rock part of fusion, while this latest ensemble aims for an element of finesse in the form of violin and Eastern-sounding melodies. "Hummingbirds Don't Sing," which opens the album, intros with violinist Alicia Allen establishing the gypsy-like motif that punctuates the song. This same motif gives the players brief opportunities to deliver amusing little quips and jibes before Grant slides the whole undertaking toward dissonance and near collapse.
"Blue Streak" experiments in its early stages with irregular funk, headed by saxophonist James Dejoie; the second part, which begins following the de rigeur chaotic climax, puts the strings at the helm. Wright and bassist James Whiton have their instruments channeled through digital audio devices, the former getting a rubbery, hollow twang, the latter a punchy synthesizer effect.
The eye of the storm arrives with the meditative ballad "Sunrise Pixels" (Grant and Whiton sit most of this one out), succeeded by the smoky, groove-tinged "Boogie for Buddha." After Dejoie's down-and-dirty two-minute lead, Wright takes a modest bluesy solo before giving the nod to Allenit's her presence that really sets this disc apart stylisticallyand her swoops and flutterings.
"Paradiggum" revives the gritty party funk of "Blue Streak," with nearly every instrument getting the twisted electronic treatment. "Scratch Ticket" returns to a calmer vibe. Dejoie plays flute here, which is as unexpected as James Spaulding doing so on Hub-Tones, and equally as beautiful. The album closes on a rumbling, swinging note with "Clickstream."
Zen Tornado is not the place to go looking for jaw-dropping solos; but then, Wright clearly states that this project isn't about that. This disc is more concerned with bringing popular and exotic genres into the context of jazz while remaining accessible and enjoyable, and in this it undoubtedly succeeds.
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