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Wednesday, 22 November 2006 00:00

Effortless extraction from the days of fusion

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By Chris Cooper

Music, and the artists that make it, have no choice but to evolve as time goes by. For many rock-oriented instrumentalists that came into prominence during the 80s, this has been a difficult thing.

 

In the jazz realm, you have many players that are perfectly content to pretend that Miles Davis never recorded Bitches’ Brew and kicked the whole “jazz” form and vocabulary square in the teeth. And when jazz and rock continued hanging out together on a regular basis, many people were thrilled by the sounds and energy generated by such a fusion.

Yeah, I said it: fusion. But at least as many people were turned off by the pretentiously complicated mess that fusion became, let alone (and I really tried to find less harsh word here) the castration of the music committed by jokers like Kenny G and Yanni and the herd of “dentist’s office waiting room music” perpetrators that ultimately ruined most people’s concept of what the hell jazz, fusion or whatever combination thereof was actually supposed to be in the first place.

Greg Howe is a rock guitarist that gained a fair amount of recognition in the late 80s as a consummate “shredder” with his self-titled release on the appropriately named imprint Shrapnel Records. Even back then, Howe displayed a more developed ear for tone, groove and melody than the majority of the 32nd note slinging metalheads sharing space on the label.

Similarly, bassist Victor Wooten came into his own via his astounding fretwork (and fretless work, for that matter) as a member of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones.

Drummer Dennis Chambers has kept busy sticking the beat into the funkiest places with Parliament Funkadelic, the Brecker Brothers and the bands of jazz guitar visionaries John McLaughlin, Mike Stern and John Scofield. Considering the collective pedigrees of these artists, there’s a certain sense of inevitability to this group of players eventually working together.

So, does Extraction live up to its potential as an album? Does it deliver what fans of these musicians should expect? Well, yes. Of course it does. Notable to anyone familiar with Howe’s earlier work will be his development as a player: he still has a thing for playing at ridiculous speeds, but now he’s doing so over much more complex harmonic and rhythmic landscapes. He’s also finally being backed up by real drums (many of his older albums used electronic drums) and by players that can actually keep up with and even challenge him as a musician.

All you really have to do is jump to track five (a classic fusion tune by Alan Pasqua called “Proto Cosmos”) to get a clear picture of the overall vibe of Extraction. This song was popularized by one of the grandmasters of modern jazz guitar, Allan Holdsworth, and the band maintains much of the original vibe of the tune. Howe’s flowing lines and aggressive phrasing feel a bit more accessible than Holdsworth’s sometimes confounding excursions into the outer realms of harmony, and more so to those ears approaching this album from a rock oriented perspective.

Keyboardist Dave Cook’s solo here plays tonal and harmonic foil to Howe, relying more on dense chordal superimpositions and tightly clustered phrases, delivered with the warm, subtle grit of a Wurlitzer electric piano.

Which presents a question (and probably some comparisons) that might get me in trouble, but here goes: when will the electric guitar actually be an “acceptable’ instrument in jazz? For most jazz snobs the only respectable solo instruments are the saxophone and the piano. For the guitar to “fit in” it typically needs to be played with a clean and fairly muted tone.

Obviously, Howe’s sound comes from a place that’s much more Eddie Van Halen than Kenny Burrell, but in the grand scheme the sound of overdriven, or “dirty” guitar in a jazz context is in many ways merely a timbral approximation of the tenor sax. So why do sax players (as in John Coltrane) get glowing descriptions like “sheets of sound” when they play a lot of notes, but guitarists get lambasted for doing the same thing and labeled as “noodlers?”

Fair? I think not. I’m not at all questioning the historical significance and contribution of a bebop giant like Coltrane; just pointing out an inequity that, to me, has never made much sense.

No, not every song here is going to stick in your head, and Extraction may not go down in history as one of the most important jazz albums out there. But from Chambers’ gravity defying flourish in the opening title track to Wooten’s nimble solo in “Ease Up,” there’s quite a bit to like on the album.

And of the approximately 149 billion notes these guys played, at least 95 percent of them are really, really great notes. So even if Howe named this project as a reflection of the difficulty he encountered in trying to complete it, the final product can only be described as simply effortless.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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