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Modern improvised electric music isn’t exactly your father’s fusion. In fact, the genre has expanded exponentially since the pioneering jazz-rock excursions of Miles Davis and his bandmates in the 1960s and ’70s. Four recent releases make that point abundantly clear.
Like the Davis disciples in Weather Report, the members of keyboard trio Medeski, Martin and Wood have repeatedly fused everything from adventurous acoustic music to distorted electric fare without the aid of a guitarist in their core personnel. One of the few things keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood hadn’t done since forming in 1991, however, is record a live album with an orchestra. Omnisphere (Indirecto), MMW’s project with the 20-piece, New York-based chamber-music outfit Alarm Will Sound, scratches that off the trio’s wish list.
[caption id="attachment_15131" align="alignleft" width="300"] Photo by Michael Bloom[/caption]
Jazz and classical music have never fused quite the way they do on these seven tracks. Martin’s free-form middle solo and Medeski’s atmospheric electric piano enhance AWS’ strings and wind instruments on the shape-shifting14-minute opener “Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo).” The trio’s drummer turns percussionist to accent the orchestra’s contributions to his impressionistic “Coral Sea.” Medeski’s 20-minute “Eye of Ra” blends his New England Conservatory training with bombastic, soundtrack-like sections, while AWS cellist Stefan Freund’s soundscape arrangement of MMW’s “End of the World Party (Just in Case)” concludes the recording, which is the next-best thing to having been there.
On the self-titled debut by the Chris Lightcap Superette (Royal Potato Family), the bassist and bandleader primarily fuses jazz with surf music along with guitarists Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring and drummer Dan Rieser. Early tracks feature less-than-compelling solos by Goldberger (panned far right) and Hasselbring (far left), who function better afterward, when the focus is more on teamwork than individual breaks. On “While You Were Out,” the two play point-counterpoint to Lightcap’s pulsating bass line and Rieser’s tribal tom-toms to take the piece from dreamy to rollicking. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline adds to the stringed tapestry on gems like the West African-inspired “Djali” and the acidic “Light Trails” (the latter on electric lap-steel guitar), which also features John Medeski on Hammond organ. The disc closes with a flourishing cover of Neil Young’s “Birds,” on which the principal guitarists alternately soar and roar through harmonized lines and phrases.
Iconoclastic, 66-year-old California-born guitarist Henry Kaiser is the spiritual impetus behind Mudang Rock (Fractal Music), the new release also featuring drummer Simon Barker, bassist Bill Laswell and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Its title refers to the mudang in Korean Shamanism, i.e., shamans possessed by God who have special powers. As its esoteric title indicates, the quartet’s often groove-free fusion of Korean musical traditions and free jazz isn’t designed to suit everyone. The disc’s series of spirited tone poems ranges from the lengthy opener “Orange Kut,” featuring Kaiser’s signature distortion and Australian drummer Barker’s percussive approach to his instrument, to the frenetic Mahanthappa showcase “Logarhythm” to the explosive, fuzz-toned, nearly 20-minute “Yongari vs. Bulgasari.”
Manhattan-based multi-wind instrumentalist Brian Krock’s band on Big Heart Machine (Outside In Music) features an electric guitarist in Olli Hirvonen, but otherwise bears little resemblance to classic fusion. Rather, conductor Miho Hazama guides an 18-piece orchestra — which includes five saxophonists, four trumpeters, four trombonists, a keyboardist, a vibraphonist and a rhythm section — through a mix of big-band jazz and classical timbres that reveal some of the 29-year-old Krock’s progressive rock influences. Arcoiris Sandoval’s gritty synthesizers on the opening “Don’t Analyze” occasionally slide into Keith Emerson territory, while the cascading, five-part “Tamalpais” suite bears threads of Frank Zappa and the closing “Mighty Purty” mimics an orchestral take on one of King Crimson’s improvisations.-Bill Meredith