(Concord Jazz Records. CD review by Rob Mallows)
Jeff Lorber is the original gangster when it comes to jazz-funk-fusion and all the variations thereof (indeed, he’s been ‘accused’ of playing smooth jazz, as if it were a crime). If there were a Hall of Fame for funkin’ up the groove, he’d be in it.
This album, Eleven, shows why fusing styles is always worth a go. On it he’s teamed up with ex-Miles Davis Band member and all round six-string whizz Mike Stern, who sits in the small part of the jazz venn diagram where bebop, blues and rock overlap. His more complex melody making complements Lorber’s playing well.
Also on this album are Dave Weckl, jazz fusion’s finest on the skins and cymbals who, when he plays, attracts drummers out of the woodwork from miles around to gawp at his technique; and bassist Jimmy Haslip, founder member of fusion pioneers Yellowjackets who famously learned to play left-handed on an upside-down right-handed bass and in so doing, astounds and confuses bass players in equal measure whenever he plays. Others appearing on the album include drum legend Vinnie Colauita, Dave Mann on horns, Gary Novak on drums, Stern’s wife Leni Stern on n’goni, and Bob Francheshini on sax.
It was, apparently, Haslip who was the catalyst for this particular alignment of the jazz stars, having recruited Stern on a number of Yellowjackets releases and himself having played on a number of Lorber albums. This alchemist has helped created a potent mixture that across ten tracks rarely fails to excite and, like a Twix bar, has both a melodic crunch and a sweet groove-filled smoothness running right through it.
Righteous kicks off fairly inoffensively, with bright horns and staccato piano comping over which a nice, uncomplicated rhythm develops. But, what you notice, is your foot, tap-tap-tapping away. Damn, it’s catchy as hell, and that’s before Lorber’s trademark electric piano sound cuts through the sweetness. It’s not ground-breaking, but just in the quality of how it’s put together you can see why Lorber’s won Grammy awards in the past. Then Stern’s trademark plaintive cry cuts in, and your nerves tingle.
Purists will curl a lip, but hell, Lorber writes some wicked grooves. Nu Som continues the good work of track one, seamlessly blending the astringent sound of Stern’s guitar with the candy-smooth keys into a rich confection which is subtly different to what you’d expect from a Stern solo album.
Jones Street is just pure, uncut Stern, however: blues-y, chiming chords a-plenty and some lovely shuffle grooves from Weckl. Walking pace, but plenty to admire. Motor City, on the other hand, is pure Lorber, with Shakatak-on-steroids chunky piano chords and grooves just running riot. Lay Stern’s more complex playing on top, and it works in the same way as salt and vinegar on chips. They just seem to go together.
Big Town and Slow Change are more of the same – different speeds, different moods, same result, mostly all positive. You get a sense as you listen to this album that Lorber and Stern like playing off each other and, masters in their own domains, enjoy the challenge of the other stepping a little on their turf. Haslip and Weckl just sit back and enjoy the results.
Tell Me is another Stern ballad where his strings just ring and pulse with the brightness and power of a quasar, but it’s Ha Ha Hotel where you metaphorically throw your hat in the air – the first 16 bars are just pure groove, spelled out in 36-foot high neon letters, lit with four searchlights, on fire. And then Stern comes in!
Rhumba Pagan is the most obviously Jeff Lorber Fusion tune, verging at times into that risky (but sometimes rewarding) soft jazz territory, with some odd vocalisation; at other times it sounds like a Mezzoforte-tribute band after taking mescaline. Runner finishes off the album in a nice balanced way: a bit of Lorber (who also doubles up on bass), a bit of Stern, and a lot of smile-inducing grooves.
Stern’s childish grin and Lorber’s more self-satisfied smile on the album cover suggest that both men had a blast on this. The reviewer did too.
Mike Stern & Jeff Lorber Fusion play 229 The Venue in London on 22 November