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When jazz meets rock or what-have-you

Stewart Oksenhorn

Yes, the organization is called Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and no, there isn’t much jazz at the Labor Day Festival. (Though there is some, at least in the late-night JAS After Dark series: groove trio Soulive Saturday, Sept. 4 at the Snowmass Conference Center, or Topaz, a soul-jazz combo set for Sunday, Sept. 5 at the Blue Door.)In the spirit of compromise, following are reviews of recent CDs that sport some combination of jazz, rock and what-have-you.Medeski, Martin & Wood, “End of the World Party (just in case)”produced by John King (Blue Note)Jazz/jam trio Medeski, Martin & Wood – whose catalogue includes acoustic jazz, funk and electronica albums – goes in yet another direction on “End of the World Party (just in case).” Bringing in a true outside producer for the first time – the Dust Brothers’ John King, who has worked with Beck and the Beastie Boys – MMW head in the direction of studio collage-makers.Playing with all the tools afforded by modern sound technology, MMW are at their most spacious, often sounding like the soundtrack to a futuristic film. They never lose their avant-groove identity, however, nor do they drop the beat. On the politically suggestive “Bloody Oil,” the trio cooks up a Middle Eastern-influenced soundscape, with dark tones coming from John Medeski’s organ and Chris Wood’s hypnotic bass line. Similar in approach, if not sound, is “Mami Gato,” a Latin-inspired low-fi piece that showcases Medeski’s acoustic piano. Fans of MMW’s more organic groove have not been left out in a cold wasteland of electronic sounds. “New Planet,” with its locked-in bass-and-drum beat, and “Sasa,” which moves from slinky funk to expansive rock, are not so far removed from MMW’s foundation.

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, “Walking with Giants” produced by Reed Mathis (Hyena)Plugging in certainly helps jazz rock. But electricity isn’t necessary; see, for example, MMW’s live acoustic recording “Tonic,” or the recent thrash-jazz albums by the Bad Plus.Or “Walking with Giants,” the latest from Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, yet another keyboard trio pushing the edges of jazz. On 2002’s “All Is One: Live in New York,” JFJO – a Tulsa-born combo of keyboardist Brian Haas, bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Jason Smart – followed the path of electric-era Miles Davis, with linear, sprawling grooves and sound. Here, they take a different approach entirely, pursuing the outer limits on acoustic instruments. (That sound resembling electric guitar on several tunes is credited to Mathis’ “octave-pedal-induced bass,” suggesting some measure of plugging in.)In the mold of MMW’s “Tonic,” “Walking with Giants” forces JFJO to use all of the tools – rhythms, tones, dynamics, group interplay – at their disposal. The group proves up to the task, emerging with an album that grooves, meditates, swings and rocks, without losing its cohesion.Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, “To the Stars” produced by Corea (Stretch Records)Didn’t fusion, that bombastic combining of jazz and rock, die its rightful death 30 years ago? Not entirely, apparently; keyboardist Chick Corea, with his Elektric Band, stokes the ashes of fusion to create “To the Stars.”

The music is as overblown, pretentious and grating as it was in 1972. Corea barely bothers to pretend that 30 years have passed since the first wave of fusion, as he rehashes the shifting tempos, cheesy electronic sounds, icy production and show-offy guitar heroics of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Corea’s own Return to Forever. Giving “To the Stars” its touch de resistance, the album is a musical envisioning of L. Ron Hubbard’s space-travel novel of the same name, with allusions to spaceships and time travel.The Spam Allstars, “Contra Los Robóticos Mutantes” produced by DJ Le Spam (Spamusica)From Miami’s Little Havana come the Spam Allstars, a unit that fuses two influences abundant in the neighborhood: Cuban and club. On “Contra Los Robóticos Mutantes,” bandleader DJ Le Spam – aka Andrew Yeomanson – and his cohorts spin a Latin jazz take on modern dance music, using horns and timbales, drum loops and samples. With its repetitive beats, the album seems more designed for a Miami club, though the flowing rhythms and funk-lite horn solos make for a good listen on the home stereo.Worth hearing is “The Illustrated Band,” a live CD that has the Spam Allstars collaborating with Vida Blue, featuring Phish keyboardist Page McConnell.Patricia Barber, “A Fortnight in France” (Blue Note)

“Did you ever think a piano would fall on your head?” asks Patricia Barber in the first line of “Gotcha,” the opening song on the Chicago singer-pianist’s live album, “A Fortnight in France.” It’s a wonderful set-up, giving some hint of what Barber and her three-piece band do musically and lyrically. In a cool, postmodern voice – nearly as likely to be in French as English – Barber sings jagged-edged art songs about imperialism (“White World”) and the fragmentation of things (“Pieces”). Barber’s music is every bit as idiosyncratic as her words. With her long-running combo – guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnapol and drummer Eric Montzka – Barber has forged an identity that is uncannily diverse and distinct. “Pieces” winds its way from bluesy chord changes to a high-wire space jam that recalls the Grateful Dead on their finest night; “Crash” is a funky percussive instrumental that reveals Barber’s immense imagination on the piano. Her somber version of Johnny Mercer’s “Laura,” featuring an introspective guitar solo by Alger, is probably as close to a traditional take on a song as Barber can handle. After putting her unique spin on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” playing a swirling piano under the altered phrasing, the band takes off for an exercise in anything-goes group swing. Slang, “More Talk About Tonight” produced by Layng Martine III and David Schools (Terminus)I can’t say for sure that “More Talk About Tonight” qualifies as jazz. But I’m not sure what else I would call it either. Led by electronicist Layng Martine III and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Slang melds heady instrumental rock, avant-jazz and all sorts of effects to create a brand of groovetronica not too far removed from Medeski, Martin & Wood. The vast range here runs from the straightforward “Time Is Now,” with the feathery vocals of Lori Carson of the Golden Palominos, to the snaking, free-jazz number “Good ‘N Evil,” to the atmospheric “Champions of Leisure.” The album closes with “Charlie D,” a pulsing remix of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Charlie Dozen.”Groundtruther, “Latitude”; and Spring Heel Jack, “The Sweetness of the Water” produced by Spring Heel Jack (Thirsty Ear)

Percussionist Bobby Previte and 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, two jazz players with decidedly outside tendencies, come together on Groundtruther. The group’s stated purpose is to record three albums, each with a different player rounding out a trio.The first of the proposed triumvirate, “Latitude,” brings saxophonist Greg Osby into the fold. The result is for free-jazz diehards only, as Previte, Hunter and Osby march through a set of improv-heavy numbers where texture is everything. The only sense of organization comes with the titles – all latitude markings, such as “Arctic Circle” and “Tropic of Capricorn.” But don’t expect to be taken very far.Spring Heel Jack’s “The Sweetness of the Water” is maybe a hair more melodic than “Latitude.” But with a wider variety of instruments and guest trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, there is a wider palette of sounds. More significantly, Spring Heel Jack, unlike Groundtruther, has been at this kind of free-form playing for a while, and has a better grip on it. The music can be quite lovely. Not that that will make “The Sweetness of Water” any more appealing to someone with an appetite for melody and harmony.Charlie Hunter performs with his trio, including saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, Thursday, Sept. 9 at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Friday, Sept. 10 at Daniels Hall at the Swallow Hill Music Association in Denver, and Saturday, Sept. 11 at 32 Bleu in Colorado Springs.Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, “Live” produced by Scotty Morris & Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Vanguard)Toward the other end of the spectrum from free-jazz is Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The precisely coordinated neo-swing outfit is prearranged in every detail from the notes to the double-breasted suits and, on their first live album, down to the audience applause, it seems. Still, on “Live,” BBVD manages to overcome the limitations of a scripted performance by being perfectly scripted. The 10-piece band never lets the big beat rest, swinging through versions of the New Orleans-flavored “You Know You Wrong,” “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three (Tonight),” and a take on Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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