Freeway Jam: To Beck and Back
It’s difficult to pinpoint what made the first three fusion tributes by California label Tone Center work so well, and the last three meander. But A Guitar Supreme (to John Coltrane), Fusion for Miles (Miles Davis) and Visions of an Inner Mounting Apocalypse (Mahavishnu Orchestra) dwarf the subsequent The Royal Dan (Steely Dan), Viva Carlos! (Santana) and the new Freeway Jam: To Beck and Back (Jeff Beck).
It isn’t just because the first three tributes were to jazz-rock fusion icons, and the last three to rock-oriented artists. If anyone straddles the fence between jazz and rock, it’s Beck. Steve Morse solos on the opening title track, with support from rhythm guitarist Jeff Richman, keyboardist Mitchel Forman, bassist Stu Hamm and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (the percussionist of choice for the vast majority of these tributes). Richman is the arranger for all of the label’s tribute material, and himself a guitarist as deserving of wider recognition as many—Jimmy Herring, Adam Rogers, David Fiuczynski—he’s employed.
But on track two, John Scofield makes everyone else play for second on Richman’s brilliantly funky facelift of the Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down.” Afterward, even superior soloists like Eric Johnson (“Beck’s Bolero”) and Mike Stern (“Diamond Dust”) can’t catch up on reverent arrangements, and Rogers and Richman take on tunes that simply can’t be improved upon (“Led Boots,” “El Becko”).
It becomes obvious halfway through the disc that Richman’s arrangements and song selections are the catalysts for success or failure. The series’ best effort, the Mahavishnu tribute, also featured Forman and Colaiuta with Kai Eckhardt on bass. But Richman sounded like he was arranging for the entire band, rather than for the soloists exclusively. Even Beck is more interesting in an ensemble than playing unaccompanied.