Spirit Fingers – Spirit Fingers
(Shanachie Records. CD review by Rob Mallows)
When an album liner notes helpfully lists the time signatures for each track (and each solo within each track), you know you’re in for a jazz-fusion adventure. So it proves with the polyrhythmic groove of Spirit Fingers, the new vehicle for US keyboardist and composer Greg Spero, where every track on this eponymous album is as challenging as a puzzle of an Antarctic snow scene.
Spero is a new artist to me, but if you judge a man by the company he keeps, then he is – as Vince Wilburn Jr of the great Miles Davis Electric Band says in the press release for this album – “the real deal”. He was mentored by Herbie Hancock and has played in the Buddy Rich Big Band as well as worked with saxophonists Frank Catalano, and Kamasi Washington and drummer Thundercat.
The 32-year-old Spero has fingers in a number of musical pies including jazz, hip-hop, modern classical and pop. This creative outburst arose, his notes say, from sitting around on the tour bus during a tour with singer-songwriter Halsey. Rebelling against the simplicity of the music Spero was playing night after night, he went to the other extreme and sought solace in overlapping time signatures and the myriad possibilities they offer a composer.
The results of his rhythmic epiphany are clear on this album. Opening track inside (12/8 time) – has a visceral intensity and propulsive quality that makes for challenging listening as there are few easy melodic hooks to grab the listener. As Spero himself says in the notes: “My music can be hard to immediately dive into.” It will, therefore, challenge jazz fans looking for hummable melodies or uplifting chord changes. This is hard music to concentrate on at times, as there’s so much going on. But, with persistence, it rewards.
Helping him create his musical vision are bassist Hadrien Feraud, drummer Mike Mitchell and guitarist Dario Chiazzolino. Together, they bring to mind the spirit and intensity of a Weckl-backed Chick Corea Elektric Band – lots o’ notes – with the virtuosity and boundless imagination of Mahavishnu-era John McLaughlin, or the funk-fuelled jazz rock of Weather Report and maybe even Spyro Gyra.
Fourth track for (17/8) starts off straight-forwardly enough with a simple piano arpeggio, but grows in complexity as Mitchell’s cymbal work hints at more to come, after which Chiazzolino’s guitar solo breaks out and generates momentum as it grows in intensity.
There is a delicious relentlessness to everything on this album. The band rarely gives the listener the chance to breathe and take stock. Fifth track find (13/16) right off the bat is intense high-hat, pulsing bass and repetitive, evolving arpeggios from Spero under which Mitchell’s drums whirl and gyrate, at times matching the tonal complexity of someone like Magnus Öström in what he can do with one set of drums.
Each successive track provides a new – in Spero’s words – “jagged rhythmic landscape”. This album is the musical equivalent of listening to the Andes – high peaks, deep troughs, huge ranges of temperature and atmosphere. It’s not for the average jazz Sunday stroller.
But it’s not all just about the complexity and the speed – there is a lot of delightful harmonic colour. Spero’s keyboard playing brings to mind players like Gary Husband and Jeff Lorber.
There is also simplicity. Like a strand of DNA running through eleventh track, the pop-jazz-infused you, there’s a simple chord progression used in hundreds of everyday pop tracks which Spero modulates out of all recognition to create a rather lovely composition that, finally, gives the listener a chance to rest.
There’s a lot to reward a good, intense listen of this album. At times it can – as jazz-fusion is prone to do – just get too complicated, but for most tracks Spero and band stay on the right, listenable side of complexity and propulsiveness.
All the track titles, for some reason, have no capital letters and feel a little uninspired. It’s as if Spero, after the tremendous energy spent on both composing and record these tracks, gave all of five minutes to naming them. A shame, as a great track name can tell you so much about what the composer is aiming to say.