Jeff Lorber Fusion – Galaxy (2012)

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Keyboardist, composer, producer, arranger and bandleader Jeff Lorber has been propagating fusion jazz for so long, the term “Jeff Lorber Fusion” seems almost redundant. Long dismissed by jazz purists and “heavier” fusion fans alike, Lorber has actually provided a bridge from so-called “lite” jazz to more serious, improvisational forms of jazz, as his Berklee-bred chops are top notch, and many of his compositions contain twisty harmonic lines, quicksilver tempo changes and serpentine solos that would confound many musicians of the made-for-radio fare. His gift has always been to weave these complexities into songs that have big, memorable hooks and appeal to a wider audience. This was especially true during the time he led the Jeff Lorber Fusion band from the mid-70s though the mid-80s. Truth is, he might have smoothed-up and slicked-up his sound from 1991’s Worth Waiting For on, but he’s never strayed completely away from the funk-jazz template he cast with his 1977 self-titled debut and has gradually earned a measure of long overdue respect as an elder statesman for original funk-jazz. Along with Herbie Hancock and Joe Sample, there’s no greater master of the Fender Rhodes in that genre.

Lately, though, he’s veered closer back toward those harder, more organic grooves. In 2010 there came an album under the old “Jeff Lorber Fusion” moniker (as opposed to simply, “Jeff Lorber”) for the first time since 1981’s Galaxian. Now Is The Time, as it’s called, was just as significant in who made up the new Jeff Lorber Fusion. Alongside Lorber are two major figures of jazz fusion for almost as long as Lorber himself: saxophonist Eric Marienthal and Yellowjackets co-founder/electric bassist extraordinaire Jimmy Haslip.

Now Is The Time, which, no, has nothing to do with Charlie Parker, featured a few vocal tracks, but most of the instrumental tracks did a better job of living up to the fusion word now reappearing after Lorber’s name than anything Lorber’s recorded in decades. Highlighted by a sharp take on Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveller,” these are tracks that I’d have a hard time imagining being heard on smooth jazz stations.

At the end of this month, the second album by this second installment of the Jeff Lorber Fusion arrives, and it will be titled Galaxy. Similar in name to that last album by the first installment of the JLF, Galaxy delivers on the promise of Now Is The Time, and makes a full return to the ol’ mojo. Fully embracing his old self and the old-school style that’s proved to be influential over time, Lorber set out to make a record worthy of that legacy, and scores.

He went all-out on the personnel, as he usually does. Joining the official JLF band members as session players are Vinnie Colaiuta, Randy Brecker, Paul Jackson, Jr., Lenny Castro, guitarist Larry Koonse (Mel Tormé, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Brookmeyer) and Marienthal’s old Chick Corea Elektric Band colleague, Dave Weckl. Note that not one of these are singers, because just like those old records, there’s no vocals on this one. Jointly produced by Lorber and Haslip, “going back” didn’t mean this album was recorded on an analog tape, and clearly, modern technology was exploited to render a clean and crisp audio product. Instead, the emphasis on revisiting the past was placed where it mattered the most: the performances.

It might not appear things have changed that much from recent albums when the lead off tune “Live Wire” (Youtube above) makes use of loops and programming, but Colaiuta and Castro produced an indestructible, handmade groove and Lorber’s in-the-pocket Rhodes ruminations are followed Koonse’s tasty guitar ones, as the good times chug on for a radio unfriendly seven minutes. Haslip’s bass and Marienthal’s sax first appear on the next cut, “Big Brother,” (Youtube below) a feel-good rewrite of the 1979 tune “Rain Dance” that features Lorber on acoustic as well as electric piano. Dave Mann’s horn arrangements add a touch of big band swing to the funky strut.

With its cool nocturnal vibe, “Singaraja” also delineates from the sly, catchy grooves the original Fusion unit was known for. “Galaxy”, co-written with Haslip, is propelled by Haslip’s slippery bass lines rumbling over Wekl’s steady pace. “Horace,” (Youtube below) a tribute to Horace Silver, won’t draw any comparisons to “Song For My Father,” but it does sport a catchy bop-like theme.

The band clearly stretches out and plays with more of an edge like we hadn’t heard on a Lorber release in a long while. Comparing the version of the salsa-flavored song “The Underground” from Worth Waiting For with the one on Galaxy reveals the difference: the arrangement in the latter is more immediate and less synth-y, and the improvising more intense (including a Latin-charged trumpet solo by Brecker and an all-to-short bass solo by Haslip).

There’s three other remakes of older Lorber tunes, all from the classic era and all done up in the familiar classic Jeff Lorber Fusion style, although “Wizard Island” is bolstered by a new section not heard on the original 1980 recording. “City” and “The Samba” are more faithful to the first renditions. Lorber rerecording his own songs is nothing new, and while it might deprive long-time listeners like me of more new music, it’s a way for his newer generation of fans to get exposed to some primo material from albums that have largely gone out of print (good luck trying to find a cheap copy of Water Sign, Wizard Island or Galaxian).

With Galaxy, Jeff Lorber reasserts his primacy over the smooth—but not too smooth—jazzy groove. That’s enough to make this his best release since another album with a celestial name for its title.

Galaxy goes on sale January 31 by Heads Up International. Visit Jeff Lorber’s website.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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