Gerald Gradwohl Trio – Sally Beth Roe
Austrian guitarist Gerald Gradwohl has been making great fusion records for years. A highly skilled soloist, Gradwohl’s style combines the hip lines of a jazz player, with the technical proclivities of a shredder. Though he has loads of session and sideman work in his background, his solo projects – particularly ABQ (Emarcy/Universal 2003), and Tritone Barrier (EMC 2007) – are what put him on the map as a force to be reckoned with in the world-wide guitar community. Those albums featured keyboards, horns, and laudable guests such as Bob Berg, Kirk Covington, and Scott Henderson. For his latest recording, Sally Beth Roe (Gtone), Gradwohl changes things up and goes for a bare-bones, stripped down approach. It’s a pure trio album, recorded with few overdubs, and no guests. The result is one of the rawest, rocking fusion discs I’ve heard in some time.
Right from the opening whammy bar outburst of the title track, the album’s live in the studio feel is apparent. It’s a fun, loose recording, and the chemistry between Gradwohl and his trio mates Farid Al-Shami (drums), and Jojo Lackner (bass) is palpable throughout the disc. If I had to label Sally Beth Roe stylistically, Heavy fusion would be the best moniker to use, though some tracks are closer to instrumental rock (Time to Play), or blues (Blues For Ben, Stevie). Gradwohl seems to shine best on the groove-based fusion material, where he can stretch out harmonically (as a writer and soloist), and lock in with his band for some dynamic group interplay. Tunnel Elevator and Maths are two great examples of this.
No Matter is another standout track that is pure fusion. It features some of Gradwohl’s most legato-oriented playing on the album (though he still throws in some insane Gambale-esque sweeps), a nice bass solo from Lackner, and a great memorable melody. Listening to this track and others, it’s clear that Gradwohl knows well how to arrange this type of material for a trio setting. His chords are often deployed in short staccato bursts, and there’s plenty of doubled lines with the bass. There’s a couple of fine ballads on the disc as well – the acoustic and improvisational closer Joni, and the deliberately paced Hope (which is not the Mahavishnu Orchestra piece of the same name, but it seems to take inspiration from some of that band’s epic ballads).
Regardless of it’s style, every song on Sally Beth Roe is driven by Gradwohl’s guitar. Though he’s got chops to spare (particularly with his picking), Gradwohl’s great strength is how seamlessly he can drop in a cool altered line or triad-based idea in middle of a shred-filled solo. And while he has an original musical voice, he’s not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve either. Pieces like Maths and Viper have strong shades of post-Tribal Tech Scott Henderson, whereas Wayne II owes it’s title and inspiration to Wayne Krantz. And like those great players, he’s not shy about his tonal choices. Gradwohl favors a heavier rock-oriented tone throughout most of the disc, which he sometimes kicks up a notch by adding over-the-top fuzz effects. It’s a very natural tone, however, which enhances the live feel of the entire album.
A lot of great fusion has come out of Europe lately, and Sally Beth Roe is no exception. Definitely recommended.