NEAL SCHON – The Calling

Although familiar to almost all as the ex-Santana guitarist and driving force behind melodic rock giants Journey, Neal Schon’s instrumental solo records are hugely overlooked in comparison.  Working within complex rock and jazz styles (often leaning farther towards jazz and jazz-fusion than rock), the instrumental approach on those releases has always allowed him to stretch his talents farther than on any recordings made with his regular band post-1978.

His seventh release ‘The Calling’ isn’t without its fusion inspired jams, but it comes with a stronger rock bias than some of his previous works.  One of the album’s rockiest tunes, ‘Back Smash’, finds Schon attacking with an incredibly hard riff, with suitably aggressive drum compliment from sometime Journey colleague Steve Smith.  The riff dominates almost throughout, but just at the point Schon feels it could start to sag, he changes tack and plays an acoustic solo with almost a gypsy guitar influence, just before his pal Jan Hammer wades in with a huge noodly keyboard solo.  Rock fans need not worry; despite a little bit of indulgence, it’s not long before the riff and melodic rock tendencies reassert themselves – the end result isn’t too far removed from something you may find lurking on a Derek Sherinian solo album. Slightly more accessible, the title track comes loaded with a groove-laden rhythm, while the lead work moves between long, soulful notes and quasi-aggressive soloing, both made more interesting by various multi-tracking techniques.  There’s a fine balance here between metallic riffs and almost bluesy leads, but whichever Schon chooses to play, the results are always wholly melodic.

Another of the album’s most jazz oriented pieces ‘Fifty Six (56)’ fools the listener into thinking it’s going to be very rock rooted via a slightly chuggy guitar riff and busy (almost circular) drum groove, but it’s not long before everything kicks off.  Schon throws in guitars with and Eastern flair while the keys sound like sitars; the drive behind the tune gathers pace quickly, and soon, everyone’s playing like they are trying to blow each other out of the studio.  It would be intense enough with its strong leaning towards jazz fusion as it is, but keyboard player Igor Len bashes out a piano solo that’s firmly in the improvised jazz category.  It kind of fits with the carefree abandon of parts of this tune, but it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes – especially not those approaching this album with the ears of a rock music fan.  In terms of fusion, though, bits of it sound fantastic.

‘The Calling’s two absolutely unmissable tunes are also two of its quietest.  The slow ‘Blue Rainbow Sky’ is simply lovely.  With a mid-pace, Smith’s drums joined by a blanket of organ, meaning Schon is given ample room to fill the space however he chooses, and wisely, after a slightly Hendrixy intro, he chooses to fill most of the three and a half minutes with long, soaring notes, its cinematic style leaning towards the epic.  In terms of brilliance, it’s up there with the intro to Gary Moore’s ‘Parisienne Walkways’, or any number of tunes of a similar elegance.  Soft and bluesy, with fantastic clean toned guitar work throughout, ‘Song of the Wind II’ has a very laid back and rather simple tune; this allows Schon scope to lay down a selection of atmospheric notes, while calming keys (leaning slightly towards the lounge) provide excellent accompaniment.  Schon’s playing is a world away from his Journey “day job” here, much closer in spirit to the more ambient side of Santana’s 70s jams (of which, this song’s title is partly in tribute).  Thankfully, on this gentle nod to his former employer, Neal chooses not to shift things into “samba mode” for a big finish…

A huge chunk of the album falls between these two extremes, with the guitarist sounding in fine form throughout, whichever mood or tempo takes his fancy. ‘Irish Field’ is a short piece, where in solo mode, Neal lays down a wistful, yet slightly clangy melody that’s evocative of solitude and expansive, rolling hills without ever being tempted to wander into any Celtic clichés, while ‘True Emotion’ captures a soft rock guitar performance set firmly in ballad mode…at least to begin with.  The overall tone of the latter brings to mind the best feelings of Gary Moore in slow blues mode (once again), with perhaps a touch of Jeff Beck creeping in, while it’s louder moments are unmistakeably the work of the Journey six-stringer.

The lengthy ‘Tumbleweeds’ is a heady mix of jazz-rock and funk, dished up with a slightly distorted guitar line. Reminiscent of some of Michael Landau’s recordings, the multi-tracking of clean-ish guitar rhythms, dirtier leads and occasional aggressive tendencies results in a busy arrangement that is perhaps this release’s most indulgent.  The eventual split between edgy guitar and another Hammer keyboard solo is very effective here and, surprisingly, the seven minutes seem to fly by – the tune busy enough to thrill the more muso-oriented, while staying (just about) accessible enough to entertain the more casual listener.  Schon’s guitar playing on this track is so full sounding and well arranged, it becomes easy to forget that ‘The Calling’ is an album recorded without the involvement of a bassist.

With most of its tunes impeccably crafted, if you are looking for a decent guitar instrumental record, then ‘The Calling’ should hit the spot. Its busy nature can mean it is possible to enjoy different aspects of the performances with each play, but that is potentially a good thing).  If you are happy enough to step a bit farther into the world of jazz fusion and are keen to find out more about his extra-curricular recordings, dig deeper and you’ll quickly find Schon has recorded material that’s potentially just as interesting than this.  If you’ve never heard it, seek out his 1997 double set ‘Electric World’; therein lies a whole world of great jazz based music often quite far removed from the Neal Schon most people know…

October 2012

GREYBOY ALLSTARS – What Happened To Television?

This third studio set from The Greyboy Allstars is a gem.  DJ Greyboy and his collective give you eleven slabs of acid jazz and funk of a timeless quality.  Meshing the late sixties chic of James Brown, with a dash of seventies attitude and the nineties revivalism of Brand New Heavies and Galliano, ‘What Happened To Television?’ is an album that’s near impossible to dislike.

The title cut demonstrates everything that’s great about Greyboy and his all-star crew, hitting a groove which feels like classic late 60s funk, but beneath that, often has a playfulness evoking the quirks of 1970s incidental music from Sesame Street.  While the drum lays a more than pleasing easy shuffle incut with busy fills, and the Grant Green inspired guitar leads carry most of the tune, Robert Walter’s organ contributions shouldn’t be overlooked.  Beneath the more obvious elements, he’s there almost permanently beneath everything laying down some solid foundations with his Hammond. ‘Left Coast Boogaloo’ is equally tight.  A jazzy guitar groove from Elgin Park paves the way for some excellent interplay between Walter and Karl Denson on sax.  It’s a little softer all round than ‘Whatever Happened To TV?’, though still far too busy to ever be lumped in with any lounge jazz, despite the fluid smoothness of the brass elements.  The over-riding feel is that of a fantastic acid jazz band.  The guitars lean towards more muted chords and wah-wah pedals, but the brass and organ more than fill the arrangement, never faltering.  That’s not to say the piece doesn’t give Park much to do – his featured solo is just as superb as his playing had been on the title cut.

‘Still Waiting’ really hits the mark, and with its use of Marva Whitney/James Brown styled beats, it’s a number which refuses to let the listener go from the outset.  Here, with tight rhythms, courtesy of drummer Zak Najor and bassist Chris Stillwell – coupled with more excellent Hammond B-3 work – that The Allstars really hit their stride.  The addition of a vocal gives The Allstars an extra dimension, but it’s not essential; this hard-edged tune could have provided as many thrills as an instrumental workout.  Better still is the fantastically busy ‘Old School Cylons’ which marries hard beats and a little DJ scratching with classic sounding acid jazz flutes and funk drumming to create something which could have been lifted from Jamiroquai’s ‘Return of The Space Cowboy’ release.  If you’re into either the more jam-oriented side of acid jams or have a passing fancy for those Beastie Boys funk instrumentals, chances are you’ll love this.  Topped off with a busy flute solo, it’s one of the album’s real winners.

For harder old-school funk, ‘Knowledge Room’ has fewer smooth edges.  Its hard drumming brings some very off kilter rhythms against which Walter channels jazz organ greats of the sixties.  Once again, Denson’s flutes take a somewhat dominant role, managing to blend their soft, effortless patterns against drumming which can, at times, be pretty intrusive.  These hard edges – at times bording on a jazz rock freakout – naturally work better once the sax steps into the spotlight.  The brass wanders a fine line between improvisation and pre-planned playing, lending an atmosphere reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s 1967 jazz-fusion masterpiece ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’.    Similarly in the old-school, the bones of ‘V Neck Sweater’ showcase a love for James Brown, featuring a sassy organ line, some very rhythmic guitars and a rousing voice which calls to the crowd.  Throw in some parpy baritone saxes – and a rather parpier solo – and you have a track that’s lots of fun and always expertly delivered, even if it doesn’t always equal the Allstars at their compositional best.

Although throughout most of this disc Elgin Park’s guitar work moves between Grant Green-esque softness and just plain understated, for ‘Back In The Game’ he gets a little more time in the spotlight and turns in a very commendable guitar solo, slightly more angular than his playing elsewhere.  Despite this, it’s both Walter and Denson which appear to drive the piece, exchanging riffs which are simple, but totally right for the mood.  Across five minutes, this track rarely breaks from its initial groove, but the organ flourishes and occasional flute loops maintain listener interest with such ease.  While there’s a huge array of talent on show within Greyboy’s chosen Allstars, in many ways both Walter and Denson are the real stars of this album.

Midway through the disc, the band launch into a cover of jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson’s ‘How Glad I Am’ featuring three-part harmony vocals supplied by Eleni Mandell, Inara George [of The Bird and The Bee] and Becky George [of Lavender Diamond].  The older style jazz doesn’t appear to blend in with the other chosen tunes on first listening, but subsequent spins prove this to have plenty of charm.  The harmonies aren’t always as smooth as they could have been, largely due to Mandell having such a distinctive tone – one which doesn’t blend well with others – but despite this, it’s still fun.  Musically, the band appears more than up to the task, with Zak Najor’s drums taking the lead.

Released almost a decade after ‘A Town Called Earth’, this really raises the bar in comparison to the Allstars’ previous couple of outings and marks a more than welcome return.  With nothing which could be remotely considered filler material, fans of funk – particularly those keen on stuff with acid jazz leanings – will find this an indispensible disc.

January 2010/December 2011

GLEN DROVER – Metalusion

glenGlen Drover will be best known as having been the guitarist with King Diamond and Megadeth, as well as having been a touring member of Testament. As its title suggests, Drover’s solo debut moves away from the purist metal stylings of his previous employment and into a world of metal guitar meets jazz-rock fusion. With a selection of guest performers, Drover offers five original cuts and also puts his mark on tunes by Al Di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty and the legendary Frank Zappa, often with mixed results.

The rather aggressive ‘Ground Zero’ works its main riff around some decent staccato work with a tune which is closer to jazz fusion than metal. Things soon fall apart when the lead guitar section presents itself. The main bulk of the number features furious (and often ugly) three-way showboating between Drover and his featured guests – in this case, UFO’s Vinnie Moore and sometime Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland. While guitarists may marvel at the level of metallic fretboard wankery on show from the three performers, for anyone else, it’s not always so interesting. While some guitar instrumental stuff is great, for non-musicians the best stuff is often about tunes as opposed to flashiness – and if it’s a tune you want, you won’t find it here. The second half works slightly better once the guitars settle into chorus style harmonies (overlaid by a busy piano, courtesy of Saga’s Jim Gilmour), but overall, it’s hard work. ‘Egyptian Danza’ (originally by Al Di Meola) opens with a superb, eastern sounding riff, it’s off-kilter jazz rock qualities bring out the best in Drover’s guitar style. With a slightly edgy style, Drover weaves a riff that’s jazzy in a progressive metal way, his occasional use of whammy bar adding extra interest. This would have make for an okay track alone, but the middle section is rather more interesting. With a soft, clean guitar tone, Drover plays a busier eastern sounding motif, which gets faster as it goes building excitement and a little tension. Chris Sutherland’s complex drum part alternates rock and jazz, occasionally settling for a playful shuffle. While Drover’s playing is more aggressive in places than Di Meola’s original work, the end result is great, demonstrating a clear understanding of the piece’s intended mood.

That’s more than can be said for his take on a couple of Zappa tunes. While it could be argued that it takes a very brave rock musician to take on the works of Zappa, Drover’s often metallic approach to his instrument kills both the Zappa pieces almost instantly. A minute’s worth of ‘The Purple Lagoon’ (used as an intro) takes cheeky fusion style of the original, takes one of its riffs and then hammers it into a heavy metal stupor, before Drover launches into a particularly uninspired, heavy-handed take on ‘Filthy Habits’. The dual guitar parts are ugly and the widdly-widdly (technical term) parts are even worse. It’s only by the time we get a couple of minutes in things start improving, but even then, any improvement is slight. Obviously, Zappa had a very unique style which it would’ve been wrong for Drover to attempt to copy, but one would suspect that Zappa would not necessarily approve of this jazz-rock freakout being overlaid by very metallic soloing. The keyboard laden free-form section which closes the original is reproduced here in an uninteresting manner; while Jim Gilmour is a great musician, his keyboard skills are a world away from those of George Duke. Since much of Drover’s chosen guitar tone seems far better suited to metal as opposed to jazz fusion, Jean-Luc Ponty’s ‘Don’t Let The World Pass You By’ could have easily suffered the same ham-fisted approach. However, the piece is ultimately saved by a blanket of keyboards from Gilmour and a staggering bass part courtesy of Paul Yee. Throughout most of the number, the bass lays down interesting, busy funk lines which never fall short of amazing. Even the crystal clear rhythm guitars work well within the arrangement; however, once Drover and Opeth’s Fredrik Akesson exchange showy guitar leads, it suffers the same fate as ‘Ground Zero’ in that it’s often just too much to take in. A take on Ponty’s ‘Mirage’ is preferable thanks to an easier melody, but once again, the subtleties of Ponty’s 1977 original are often lost here.

The self-penned ‘Colors of Infinity’ presents the best side of Drover’s playing. A much cleaner tone and use of vibrato lends plenty of atmospherics on a number which, in places, hints at Gary Moore’s mid-eighties work. He still has a tendency to lean towards metallic playing in places (but then, that’s his forte), but in all, the softer side presented here makes far more interesting listening. Just as you think you know how the rest of the piece will sound, Drover throws in a jazz-funk-metal refrain over the mid-section which at first throws the listener off a little; he then returns to a more standard rock arrangement where multi-tracked guitars provide some great chorus sounding work. The layers of keyboards and off-kilter rhythms driving ‘Illusions of Starlight’ are a dead ringer for Dream Theater’s softer, more accessible works; Drover appears very comfortable playing in a progressive metal style and while the sweeping notes get overtaken by showmanship on occasion, the six minute piece makes fairly smooth listening. A special mention must go to Saga’s Jim Gilmour guesting on keyboards here; he provides some great atmospheric accompaniment throughout.

In general, Drover’s metal-fusion works well on most of his own compositions; these are tunes which, naturally, are very sympathetic to his playing style. Bringing the metal aspect of his playing to numbers by Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa doesn’t always seem appropriate – the heavy guitar style smothers the quirkiness which should be found within the works of two highly original composers. With that in mind, it’s hugely surprising Drover managed to capture such a good performance of Al Di Meola’s ‘Egyptian Danza’, but even so, it’s certainly one of this album’s standouts. Despite help from the aforementioned guests (plus Nevermore’s Jeff Loomis and Forbidden’s Steve Smyth), ‘Metalusion’ is a hit and miss affair, and one which may have been stronger if more of Drover’s own compositions had been included.

April 2011