There are more than a few jazz fusion bassists out there with outstanding dexterity, who’ve mastered every Jaco Pastorius lick and made some fusion record full of endlessly serpentine melodies. The six-string bassist from Newcastle, England named Tony Grey demonstrates on his fourth album Elevation how to accomplish virtuosity with a high degree of listenability.
A guy who graduated from Berklee with honors after picking up the bass at the relatively late age of eighteen, Grey has a lot of musical smarts that go beyond merely mastering an instrument. He writes strong material that, get this, consists of real melodies and hooks. His bass playing reflects the same outlook, remembering the oft-forgotten key ingredient of Pastorius, which is to make it sound melodious. Grey doesn’t have to go fast to impress (although he can be a speed demon when he’s feeling that way) since he has a great sense of harmony and rhythm.
That’s not just my opinion, it’s one shared by the exhaustive list of musicians he’s performed with. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dennis Chambers, Gary Husband, Brian Blade, Wayne Krantz, Steve Lukather, Branford Marsalis, Hiromi, Dave Holland, Russell Ferrante, Ava Rovatti and Lionel Loueke are just a sample of that illustrious list.
The plot for Elevation is refreshingly uncomplicated for a high minded jazz-rock album: keep the production smooth, clear but lean, and most songs are performed but only a bass/guitar/drums trio; background keyboards grace only three of the ten tracks. It’s world fusion by virtue of there being a multinational cross section with the heavyweight rotating cast of guest guitar foils, seven in all. David Throckmorton provides all the drumming.
The plan Grey had for this album executes from the get-go: the Nir Felder pairing “Guiding Light” is set into motion by a nice four chord riff with a chiming, thematic line performed by guitarist and bassist together. Grey plays like a lead guitar, tradeing jazzy licks with Felder over a chugging groove. Grey gets together with fretless guitar champ David Fiuczynski for three cuts, with the choice one being “Floating River Yangtze.” A dreamy segment consisting of beautifully graceful bass playing in the intro transitions into an East Asian microtonal melody, which of course plays right into Fuze’s strengths.
“Galactic Samurai” with Japanese guitar ace Hotei Tomoyasu is a juicy slice of funk rock. Tomoyasu’s soaring classic rock pitch contrasts nicely with Grey’s low end, and he solo like Jeff Beck on ‘roids. “Elevation,” a song with some fancy riffing over an agitated 5/4 beat, features Whitesnake axe player Reb Beach. Grey solos soulfully over the bridge, while Beach’s flashy chops owes some debt to Eddie Van Halen.
The biggest treat comes with “Chicks Chums,” where Uncle John McLaughlin meshes well with his nephew and his signature style guitar is unmistakable on this tune. “Chicks Chums” is also McLaughlin’s song which he composed for Chick Corea, but is making its debut here. A reflection of its composer total mastery of two music worlds, it rocks and swings at the same time. There’s also no mistaking the instantly recognizable guitar style of Mike Stern, who sits in on the syncopated, angular tune “Walking In, Walking Out.”
A tranquil ending to the album comes via “Someday My Prince Will Come” performed by only Grey and Fabrizio Sotti at the same lightly swinging tempo of Miles Davis’ famous version. The lilting melody is played in unison by both, after which Sotti solos over only Grey’s “rhythm” bass before Grey overdubbed “lead” bass over Sotti’s guitar and that timekeeping bass. Both play tasteful, jazz articulations.
After absorbing all this, I’m pretty sure that the album title came from the elevated approach Tony Grey took to this record. Virtuosity abounds on Elevation, but the diversity and uncluttered sonic footprint left behind means that that virtuosity isn’t some bitter pill to be swallowed. Instead, it goes hand-in-hand with the part about music that makes you feel good to listen to it. Imagine that.