Jul 18, 2011 l By Richard Murray
On November 20th and 21st 2010, cutting edge jazz and fusion recording label Abstract Logix held their first New Universe Music Festival at the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh North Carolina. This incredible event brought together an array of the label’s top artists to not only perform for a live audience, but to celebrate the music and the label’s vision with them as well. The dream-team lineup consisted of Alex Machacek, Ranjit Barot, Scott Kinsey’s band Human Element, Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz, Lenny White’s band (which included Herring on guitar), and last but not least, John McLaughlin, who was joined by his Shakti bandmate Zakir Hussain. Now Abstract Logix has released a live album featuring a collection of the festival’s best performances. As someone who was on hand for that special weekend last fall, I can confirm this release is a fine representation of the spirit and incredible musicianship of what was hopefully the first of many New Universe Music Festivals to come.
Abstract Logix Live! - The New Universe Music Festival 2010 consists of two discs, each representing a single day of the festival. Each disc includes a selection of songs from that day’s performers, arranged in order of appearance. Disc one opens with “Strafe” and “Very Sad” from guitarist Alex Machacek’s festival-launching set with drummer Jeff Sipe, and bassist Neal Fountain. There’s a rapport in this trio, built from numerous past gigs, which really comes through on these two tracks. With “Strafe,” the band is in bleeding-edge fusion mode as they tear through the song’s complex lines and riffs. “Very Sad,” by contrast, is an airy ballad that includes a gorgeous, lyrical bass solo from Fountain. On both of these cuts, Machacek takes standout, legato-infused solos. In recent years, Machacek's exceptional writing and playing have placed him at the forefront of the next generation of jazz fusion, making him a great choice to open this festival.
“Vignesh Kirtanam” and “Origin” from drummer Ranjit Barot’s performance are great illustrations of what set this festival apart from others you might see, especially in the United States. Barot’s music blends Indian and western influences for a style that is quite unique within the “jazz fusion” genre. That style made Barot’s debut album Bada Boom one of Abstract Logix’s best releases of 2010, and it added a distinctive flavor to the New Universe Music Festival. On “Vignesh Kirtanam,” Barot provides a modern take on traditional Indian music while performing in a duo setting with violinist Bala Bhaskar. Both musicians are burning on this track which includes some programmed synth elements to flesh out the sound. Barot and Bhaskar are then joined by the next band on the bill, Human Element, and guitarist Wayne Krantz, for “Origin” - a Bada Boom song which included Krantz as a guest. As with the studio version of this piece, Krantz’s rhythmic-oriented linear style is the perfect augmentation here. His phrases serve the greater good of the song by darting in and around the groove as opposed to simply laying over the top of it. Hearing Krantz perform with these musicians, in this setting, was a festival highlight, which makes this song’s inclusion on the disc a real treat.
Next up are two songs from Human Element - a top-shelf fusion band that combines forward-thinking modern elements with strong shades of the past (particularly the music of Weather Report and Joe Zawinul). With Scott Kinsey on keyboards, Matthew Garrison on bass, Ranjit Barot on drums, and Arto Tuncboyaciyan on vocals, percussion, and God knows what else, the group took the festival by storm with a set that was seriously grooving from start to finish. Barot was filling in here for original drummer Gary Novak who was unable to attend, and though Barot had little rehearsal time with the band you would never know it. The group digs in on the tribal groove of “Essaouira,” which includes ample amounts of special sauce from Tuncboyaciyan, and great solos by both Garrison and Barot. The intensity gets cranked up on “Sometimes I...” which has Garrison bringing in some of his Shapeshifter-style sonic elements, such as wildly de-tuning the bass at various points in the song. The audacious spirit present in these tracks is not only reflective of the band’s full set - parallels can also be drawn to the festival as a whole, and the Abstract Logix label in general.
Disc one is rounded out with three songs from guitarist Jimmy Herring’s group, who closed the festivities on day one. With Matt Slocum on keyboards, and the double-duty rhythm section of Jeff Sipe on drums and Neal Fountain on bass (who both appeared with Alex Machacek earlier in the evening), Herring’s band was in top form as they were in the middle of a US tour when they made their appearance on the Lincoln Theatre stage. The band’s searing version of “Rainbow” is one of the highlights of this entire album. Slocum’s piano work is top notch on this track, where he provides an extended unaccompanied intro, and a burning solo near the end. Herring turns in a killer solo here as well - fully loaded with his patented 16th note lines - as does Sipe, who brings the song to a triumphant conclusion with his furious outro. On the heady ballad “Gray Day,” the band shows a different, softer side as both Herring and Fountain play some beautiful jazz lines over the changes. The band’s third track on the disc is a stirring rendition of the George Harrison-penned Beatles song “Within You, Without You” - a crowd favorite in Herring’s live shows. The lyricism of the melodies in this tune plays to the strengths of Herring’s touch, and his soaring tone. It’s a great way to end disc one, though it’s not the last you’ll hear from Herring on this release.
Wayne Krantz opened the festival on day two with the incredible Anthony Jackson on bass, and Cliff Almond on drums - both of whom he’s gigged and recorded with in the past. And though “Why” is the only song included here from Krantz’s set, it’s a real doozy. This track has everything you’d expect from a great piece of Krantz-driven group improv - tight grooves, tempo changes that turn on a dime, and an adventurous attitude that throws caution to the wind. That adventurousness is fueled by the near-telepathic connection these players have onstage. When Krantz steers the band into a four-on-the-floor groove, Jackson and Almond know right where to find him. When he directs them back to the head, there they are without missing a beat. The audience was seriously wowed by this singular style of improvisation, which made Krantz’s set one of the most unique offerings of the weekend.
Legendary drummer Lenny White’s band brought an old-school jazz rock vibe to the festival that is well represented on “Door #3” and “Gazelle.” Though White’s band may have a throwback style and approach, the lineup features two guitarists - a rarity among both current bands in the genre, and the bands of decades gone by when White was first blazing the trail with Miles Davis and Return To Forever. In this band, the one-two guitar punch of Tom Guarna and Jimmy Herring is used to great effect for both improvisational excursions and harmonized lines. Guarna and Herring have differing, yet complimentary styles as well, and are both given plenty of room to shine. “Door #3,” for example, has the group navigating an array of tricky rhythmic twists leading up to a lyrical jazzy solo by Guarna, and a grooving blues section that is right in Herring’s wheelhouse. Bassist Ritchie Goods contributes some great stuff to this song as well, especially when the whole band starts trading off. White takes an elegant solo at the end of this tune, prompting an enthusiastic reception from the crowd. With “Gazelle” - a Joe Henderson tune that White recorded on his recent Anomaly album - the band is in pure jazz rock mode. Vince Evans’ great keyboard work on this track lends a strong 70s feel that is right up this band’s alley. Guarna and Herring both take killer solos on this song as well over a cool set of changes. Having John McLaughlin on board for this festival was fantastic, but to have Lenny White there as well - another elder statesman from those early days - was really something special.
Speaking of McLaughlin, his band the 4th Dimension was also mid-tour when they appeared in Raleigh, and two great tracks from their set are included here to close out the second disc. McLaughlin was the natural choice to headline the final day since he all but invented jazz fusion some 40 years ago, and continues to create new and relevant music in the genre for the Abstract Logix label. For their festival appearance, the 4th Dimension included Etienne Mbappe on bass, Mark Mondesir on drums, and Gary Husband on keyboards and drums - all high quality pros who have no trouble keeping up with their iconic bandleader. On “Recovery” - an up-tempo piece from the band’s 2010 release To The One - the whole group shines, but Mbappe steals the spotlight with an extended energetic bass solo. Tabla master Zakir Hussain, McLaughlin’s old friend and Shakti bandmate, joins the band on “Mother Tongues” for an epic jam that pushed the festival, and this resulting album, to new heights. Mid-way through the tune, the band segues into “Five Peace Band” - a song from McLaughlin’s Floating Point album which he also performed with Remember Shakti. This is where things get really interesting. After running through the head, the band yields the floor to McLaughlin and Hussain to do what they do best; play off each other and improvise in the moment. The interplay between these giants is jaw-dropping as they weave in and out of grooves and peel off amazing fast runs in tandem. Eventually the whole band joins in and trades off with Hussain, leading to a mammoth percussion face-off before bringing it back to “Mother Tongues.” It’s a breath-taking and fitting end to two discs worth of amazing live musicianship.
Kudos to Abstract Logix for championing these artists with a stellar festival that not only celebrated the current state of their music, but also enlightened fans to where it is all going, and where it all began. Abstract Logix Live! - The New Universe Music Festival 2010 accurately captures this exciting event, making it one of the best releases of the year so far, and possibly one of the best live jazz fusion releases ever. Highly recommended.
Abstract Logix Live! - The New Universe Music Festival 2010 (Abstract Logix)
Disc 1 - Saturday November 20th
1. Alex Machacek, Neal Fountain, Jeff Sipe - Strafe
2. Alex Machacek, Neal Fountain, Jeff Sipe - Very Sad
3. Ranjit Barot, Bala Bhaskar - Vignesh Kirtanam
4. Ranjit Barot, Bala Bhaskar, Wayne Krantz, Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison, Arto Tuncboyaciyan - Origin
5. Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison, Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Ranjit Barot - Essaouira
6. Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison, Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Ranjit Barot - Sometimes I
7. Jimmy Herring, Neal Fountain, Matt Slocum, Jeff Sipe - Rainbow
8. Jimmy Herring, Neal Fountain, Matt Slocum, Jeff Sipe - Gray Day
9. Jimmy Herring, Neal Fountain, Matt Slocum, Jeff Sipe - Within You Without You
Disc 2 - Sunday November 21st
10. Wayne Krantz, Anthony Jackson, Cliff Almond - Why
11. Lenny White, Jimmy Herring, Tom Guarna, Richie Goods, Vince Evans - Door #3
12. Lenny White, Jimmy Herring, Tom Guarna, Richie Goods, Vince Evans - Gazelle
13. John McLaughlin, Etienne Mbappe, Gary Husband, Mark Mondesir - Recovery
14. John McLaughlin, Etienne Mbappe, Gary Husband, Mark Mondesir, Zakir Hussain - Mother Tongues