Scott Henderson, Jeff Berlin, Dennis Chambers - HBC
When you first scout out this album, it'll tell you it fits in the genre of Jazz fusion, but really it's a whole lot more. The diverse stylings of these three musicians coax the tunes in every direction imaginable, yet never do they stray completely from the improvisational, inspired feel of their mother Jazz. It's either a blessing or a curse that I know little of these men's previous works, or the places whence they draw their inspirations. Though extra insight and knowledge would make me a more experienced listener, it would spoil the pure, child-like wonderment I feel every time I listen to something that's being released this deep into an already long-standing musical history.
Hey, I'm just a listener.
At over ten minutes in length, Actual Proof is definitive fusion. Berlin's bass and Chambers' drums argue in excitable staccato rhythm with each other. Henderson's sharp, raunchy guitar takes the opening song to the edge of prog rock. Just after six and a half minutes into this piece, Berlin's rapid-fire bass stops you in your tracks and turns your ears to the speakers like a puppy when someone picks up a can opener. Something you need, something you hunger for has just come to life. As lovers of bass, we're all going to be stopping to pay attention when the scent of this special treat fills the air.
Mysterious Traveller easily stands out as my favourite right from the get-go. It's ethereal, sweeping, thunderous, cosmic, experimental, all the things I love in music. Add to that some real hard-nosed riffs and rhythms, and I'm right there; wherever this Traveller wants to go, cut me a ticket and let's ride! Berlin's bass is scary and growly, and makes you a little anxious of the destination, but you'll still dive in head first. Once again, Henderson gives us a lot of serious howl from his guitar, and Dennis Chambers lays down some big, bad drums. Think of this one as the Jazz trio's answer to Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein". At the end, it steers into the stars and lays you to rest in its wake. Nice.
Footprints is much softer than the two previous songs. It almost has the feel of a Holiday song. Hey, it's the most wonderful time of the year. Hotcha! Smooth, gentle, thoughtful, and, yes... Christmas-y. People might think that's a strange analogy, but the comparison popped into my head from the first note, so it must be stored somewhere there in my music memory. Of course, this one's not a waltz, so I simply relaxed and bopped along in my seat. Wonderful featured solos all around! Chambers blows it up with his drums. Chops aplenty!
D Flat Waltz. Big and dangerous! Bass that thunders to the heavens! A twelve minute odyssey that reminds me that you don't always need a whole bunch of instruments to create full sound. The spaces here are filled out and busy with plenty of flavours to keep those ears happy! Three men, each occupying the perfect place. You say, "I hear bass, I hear, guitar, I hear drums." But the whole ends up being so much bigger than the sum of its parts!
The Orphan is on whole 'nother plane to the rest of the songs. At just over three minutes, it's also one of the shorter tunes. But in that small space, Jeff Berlin's bass sings a melancholy tune that stirs serious emotions in the listener. The sad, pleading voice in the middle is accompanied by clapping (or slapping); as this song ends, you wonder what becomes of the Orphan. And you worry.
Sightseeing. After blinking away the situation of The Orphan, we are whisked back into the jazzy tunes. I wondered why The Orphan was placed in the middle of the roster like that, but as I listen to Sightseeing, I can almost understand it - Sightseeing sounds different when you listen to it on its own than when listened to right after The Orphan. It's like an extension. It fits. After Sightseeing was over, I noticed that I hadn't listened to bass, drums, and guitar; I had listened to a story. That's when you know an album is reaching you - when you let go the notion of listening critically, and start listening with your soul. There's a lot of skill in this project, both as music, and as a story told in a specific order. I am very appreciative of that effort.
Wayward Son Of Devil Boy is a sizzling groove that sends you into a basement lounge somewhere in the middle of the night. Smoke filled, low lighting, maybe a few dangerous hood-types lurking in corners. Scott Henderson owns this piece with his guitar. Bass and drums serve as complement to his limelight. And what a showcase it is, too! Talk to me, Mr. Six-string!
Threedom, the other short piece on the project, is a rich bass solo that boggles the mind in its depth and intensity. Only skill and a real musical heart can make a bass sing like this! My only criticism (and yes, it happens) is that I've never been a big fan of a lot of zipping finger noise on bass strings. It's real and it's natural, but it kind of distracts from my enjoyment if it's too loud in the music. But zipping aside, it's an absolutely beautiful bass number!
Stratus. The closing number brings us back to the trio at its finest. Rock, Jazz, Prog, it's all on stage for the finale. I get a little "Ball Of Confusion" off this one, bass-wise. And that's good. Dennis Chambers' drumming is subtle and encouraging, and then goes wild toward the end. A superb finish to a tasty meal.
All in all, this was a remarkable outing. So, is my naivete about the music and history of these men a blessing or a curse? All in all, I think it turns out to be a blessing. Now I can go find more to listen to!