Jimmy Herring/Project Z – Lincoln Memorial
Bill Bruford once told me in an interview during his last tour with Yes (for the album Union) that chamber or group free improvisation has been a tradition and joy among classically trained European musicians, and that formally scheduled open jam sessions were widely in practice during the time of J.S. Bach and likely long before. As jazz and rock forms in music derived from a blending of European and African musical traditions and elements—free and open improvisation from the very beginning provided a means for musicians to communicate on multiple levels simultaneously, in the absence of spoken queues or any pre-determined forms. Project Z to my ears embodies a milestone among recorded sessions of free improvisation, and in an electric setting picks up where some of the great “free recordings of the 60s and 70s by the likes of Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Anthony Braxton left off.
Lincoln Memorial offers anything but the sort of music crafted for timid listeners or commercial breaks, but what sets Lincoln Memorial apart is the context and musical experience of the musicians. Jimmy Herring is perhaps the most talked about talent on electric guitar who’s gained notoriety with both jazz and rock audiences in recent years, having gained attention touring with the Allman Brothers, Aquarium Rescue Unit, and more recently Phil Lesh, and The Dead. Two other well known leading younger players that are consistently dropping jaws at festivals and gigs are saxophonist Greg Osby and drummer Jeff Sipe. Not as well known are two other players that lock in to make this a special—if not overtly telepathic—quintet: the late bassist Ricky Keller and keyboardist Jason Crosby.
And the notion that this is fully five musicians locking into a myriad of spontaneous journeys is at once scary, ridiculous, a
nd awe inspiring. The selections run the gamut from the introspective, the quirky and hilarious (“Ol Bugaboo), to the controlled hyper-burn of multiple hydrogen stage harmonic boosters (“Departure’). Throughout Jimmy Herring works wonders on guitar—he has a full rich tone that at times evokes the melodic turns of Allan Holdsworth, and just as often blistering runs that are entirely his own. Drummer Jeff Sipe, who has collaborated on numerous recordings with ex-Mahavishnu bassist Jonas Hellborg—demonstrates his mastery in both listening to his cohorts, and edging them forward into unexplored new vamps. Sipe’s playing and originality here—as in many other settings—is gaining him a reputation as one of the rarest of drum talents today—who can establish a voice and sensibility in the most challenging musical settings imaginable. Osby’s performances are equally amazing with his free-flowing inventions always seeming to bring exactly the right contrast to Herring’s guitar.
Certainly many tracks on Lincoln Memorial require the listeners patience as modal explorations start out as musical conversations, and then morph and evolve into the synergistic plasma of five-engine freight train hurtling down one perilous musical track, with a new twist around every corner. These are musicians of the caliber that listeners will want to hear how they interact in the most daring and vulnerable setting possible—and there are very few if any deliberate or false steps in the mix. It’s never going to see a spot on the “Smooth Jazz charts. Lincoln Memorial dishes out over 70 minutes of music originally edited out of more than three hours of expertly recorded jam sessions. Musicians and listeners who inherently understand the potential of great jam sessions will not want to miss this one, and jamband fans who think they’ve seen God at a Phish concert, will want to think again after this. Hopefully this recording will find its way into the hands of an audience that can appreciate both the interplay, musical risks, and delights that happen along the way, but I suppose listeners who crave a neat and tidy compositional structure may flee the scene screaming. Few recorded electric band excursions into free improvisation since Weather Report or King Crimson have produced such a powerful and whimsical result.