I’m a firm believer that we’re products of our environment. I find it fascinating how our surroundings can dictate so much in regards to our creative voice. The now is precious, who are we to run? The decision not to embrace the right now with honesty can be a debilitating conclusion for not only the artist(s) but for the beholder as well. I don’t know about you, but I want a win-win situation.
If honesty is the best policy, then Dojo’s third offering, Studiojo, is their best to date. By allowing life to mold the music, they’ve created the aforementioned win-win situation. The music presented in Studiojo is not just “look ma, no hand” music, these songs have life’s fingerprints all over them. Just as a lump of clay must stay on the potter’s wheel until the time is right, Dojo yields its voice to one greater until the time is right. The reward is great songwriting, soaring melodies and righteous virtuosity that are as wide open as the golden rolling plains of the Midwest.
The album starts with “One Key” which immediately jumps out towards you with its refreshing melody. Clocking in at a little over 2 ½ minutes “One Key” doesn’t wear out its welcome, but glides along gracefully begging you to make this song the lead-off in any road trip mix CD.
Within the first seconds of the next song “Dojo” the rich musical canvas the trio creates impresses! Tucked away nicely amid a beautiful line played by bassist Chris Handley is Brian Baggett’s acoustic guitar. A gorgeous balancing act that includes supple bass, acoustic guitar sprinklings, and a sax-like guitar lead. These elements shift the anthemic “Dojo” into delightful territory by way of a thunderous workout from drummer Luke Stone. The group does a marvelous job leading you on a thrill ride that’s both enigmatic and pleasantly urgent.
Establishing the theme by himself, Brian Baggett begins “New Years” with shimmering illumination, before Handley and Stone join in on the groove. With a clean but muscular tone Baggett hovers over the chord melody driving the song to make it a memorable one. Against a watery wave of distortion his guitar solo comes in with the perfect mix of taste and speed. The first part of the solo is for all you legato lovers out there while the second part shows Baggett’s precision picking.
Where “New Years” started with the guitar first, “Demented” begins with a haunting bass solo. The band displays stellar interplay by pushing the beginning of “Demented” with machine gun-like punctuation anchored by Stone. The listener is then swept away into an hypnotic groove highlighted by a thought provoking second solo by Handley. It’s beautiful solos like this and the following offered by Baggett that have my rewind reflex joyously working overtime.
Slowing things down a bit “Something She Said” is the type of song you want to live in. It’s comfortable and very conversational. Dojo took their time to establish the mood, without becoming too pedestrian. There’s just enough going on to keep the listener involved, without taking away from the song.
Dojo lays the groundwork for the adventurous “Muscle Shirt” with bassist Chris Handley performing an unaccompanied solo that has enough twists and turns to leave you dizzy. That’s just the beginning, because Luke Stone adds a pulsating dense layer of tribal beats that will work your neck muscles into a frenzy as you nod along. Baggett belies this sexy beast of a song with a snarling rockabilly guitar riff and ambient vestiges only to have an unexpected harmonized guitar line push things into a further dimension.
The song ends with one more solo by Handley and one by Baggett. Both shred with equal aplomb making this song an adventure you’re glad you experienced.
The tour de force that is “Fusion Blue” is a groove that throws the gauntlet down. With a relentless theme, monstrous unison lines and challenging solos, Dojo sets the house ablaze. This song should come with a disclosure because it’s not for the faint at heart. All three members make the most of their solos. Starting with Chris Handley whose angular, fleet fingered solo makes anybody who listens to it a believer. Somewhere out there in the Holdsworthian land of legato and the speed of light stratosphere where the late great Shawn Lane once soared, Brian Baggett knocked on the door and was welcomed in. Playing as if there was no tomorrow, Baggett again shows us his mastery of legato and speed picking with an incendiary solo that’s nothing short of jaw-dropping. Just when you thought that was it, Luke Stone digs deep and unleashes an inspired solo. He moves in and out of time as if chasing something familiar but finding something new at every turn — confronting the challenge handily and in the process being reborn again.
“The Ball” closes Studiojo with a great slice of songwriting. Aided by Ken Lovern’s lush organ, Dojo remains consistent with their delivery. Listening to a brief David Torn-like soundscape, you understand the important use of space in music. The sonic salutation isn’t long in time but the ethereal quality it possesses offers a subtle stroke of suspension that’s otherworldly. Dojo has an ability to keep you guessing, and that’s not a small feat. Because you’re forced to participate you can really take the song in and relish the picture perfect pastoral images. This is no ordinary jazz-fusion group. Close your eyes and you can see the countryside beckoning. From the down-home rhythmic sensibilities to the unpretentious musical motif, you can’t help but feel good while listening.
This phenomenal jazz-fusion trio from Lawrence, Kansas has grown with each release. With each listen you’ll discover a newness that comes from quality songwriting and exceptional musicianship. Dojo is not afraid to let life sit in the director’s seat and call the shots, which in turn gives us music for the mind, body and soul. Studiojo has something for everyone and will stand the test of time as a matchless work of art that’s moving in the right direction.