In both traditional and smooth jazz circles “Fusion” has become as off-putting as the other “F-word.” By the time Jeff Lorber started releasing albums with the original Jeff Lorber Fusion lineup in the late 70's that style of music had shed most of the more brazen excesses and morphed into a more accessible blend of contemporary jazz, rock, and R&B with wings that weren't entirely clipped. The long tracks, sharp solos, and driving beats remained but the melodic underpinnings made it more listenable for a wider audience. That is the style that Lorber revisits, reinvents, and reincarnates on Galaxy and all I can say is it's about time someone had the guts to do it. Galaxy's arrival at the turn of the year is a very good sign.
The first thing that is going to jump out at you when you play this album is how much fun it is to hear musicians taking solos that don't follow a predictable path. As Lorber said in the press release, when you have world class musicians surrounding you, you let them do their thing, and he has brought in the best of the best for this project.
The core of the group is Lorber, Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets), and Eric Marienthal. Add to that heavyhitter drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, Percussionist Lenny Castro, drummer Dave Weckl, Randy Brecker on trumpet, and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. David Mann did the horn arrangements and the album features a group of L.A. session wizard guitarists – Larry Koonse, Michael Thompson, and Andree Thelander. Jimmy Haslip co-produced the album and co-wrote five of the eleven songs. Lorber composed the other six. Four songs – “The Samba,” “Wizard Island,” “The Underground,” and “City” are updated versions of favorites from early Jeff Lorber Fusion albums. They all sound so current they could have been written last month, which illustrates the timelessness of strong songs played well.
The re-addition of the fusion concept has been a jumping off point for Lorber and his bandmates in a sense, but actually the music here is a progression of what they have always done. It's not a swing to loud in-your-face music. It's more like pure Lorber/Haslip/Marienthal and friends. Even Lorber's radio hits had more energy and momentum than most of what was getting played and there were always longer songs with more soloing on his albums. Audiences have been clamoring for more of the sound they hear when our artists play live and that is what this album is all about. It's an absolute showcase for Lorber, who plays the Rhodes keyboard - the foundation for fusion music going back to Chick Corea's breakthrough albums – as well as piano and guitar. He delivers one jaw dropping solo after another as well as providing the foundation for the other instrumentation, and you can feel that he is having a grand time doing it. The individual songs are hard to describe because they all take off in so many delicious directions. What keeps it in the pocket and makes it so listenable is they all return to their melodic core. All these songs have momentum, even the mellower ones never drag or fade into the background. Listen to the title track – it packs a lot of power while Marienthal's soprano sax and a joyous melody keep it from going over the edge. “The Samba,” with Koonse's sizzling guitar lead, grooves and simmers. “Big Brother” brings a funky swing and a guitar solo to die for delivered by Michael Thompson. “The Underground” is a spirited revision of an earlier song, the proverbial head-bobber and shoulder-shaker, built on the foundation of Haslip's bass line and featuring Brecker's amazing trumpet work. Haslip has more shining moments than you can count. Check out “Rapids,” and “The Underground.” Marienthal, who has done live gigs with Haslip's Yellowjackets, gets to play without the restraint that some of his recent ventures have required.
The bottom line is that if you love the way contemporary/smooth jazz sounds in a live setting you're gonna love this album. This is the exact same kind of music that gets you out of your chairs at concerts and festivals where the musicians get to step it up and really play. It's hard to translate it into the studio because for so long the record companies and radio stations wanted background music. Fortunately, those days are over and artists like Lorber are stepping up and delivering. That makes it a very happy new year, indeed!