Unity: JazzTimes Superband
In drummer Rafi Zabor’s remarkable book, The Bear Comes Home (W. W. Norton, 1998), there is a part in which the hero of the story—a talking, alto saxophone-playing bear—is making his debut recording, for fictional Tin Palace records. It is a live date, and while the Bear is playing, he is simultaneously worrying about various situations in his life, not least of which are his troublesome status within society as a talking, jazz-playing bear and the fact that he is on the run from both the police and the dogcatcher.
Stressed, and highly conscious of the red recording light, the Bear tries with all his might to live up to what he thinks he ought to sound like on his first recording. In the moment, the ideal of selfless musical communication seems out of reach, so he falls back on what he knows, the years spent in the practice shed. In one of the best written evocations of improvisation under less-than-perfect conditions, the Bear is seen actually struggling to “simulate” his own playing style. In spite of the Bear’s misgivings, the recording turns out to be both a musical and a moderate commercial success, and serves to elevate the Bear to the next level of his challenging and difficult career.
Although it would have made for a publicity coup, the Bear does not appear on the self-titled debut by the JazzTimes Superband (Concord). However, the musicians who do appear—trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, organist Joey DeFrancesco, drummer Dennis Chambers and guest guitarist Paul Bollenback—show an equally high level of ability to think on their feet creatively, resulting in a blowing date that aficionados of high-powered mainstream jazz will want to add to their collections. And there is always the chance that the Bear will be able to work it into his schedule to appear with the JazzTimes Superband when they make the rounds of the international festival scene this summer to help celebrate 30 years of publishing by the band’s namesake.
“We took our inspiration from records like Larry Young’s Unity,” explains Nick Phillips, Concord Records’ Vice-President for Artist Development, referring to the late organist’s landmark 1965 quartet date for Blue Note with Elvin Jones, Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson in the front line. The comment gives a clue as to the importance of DeFrancesco within the band. Originally, a bass player was scheduled to be on the date, according to Phillips. When the bassist canceled, he did not need to be replaced, on account of DeFrancesco’s soulful skill at playing the bass pedals.
“People like Larry Goldings and Joey have made the organ popular again,” saxophonist Berg observes. “You hear it on records all the time now. It was a popular sound when I was coming up, in the ’60s, but then it really waned after Lifetime and all that stuff. But Unity is still one of my favorite records, and that sound really is quite contemporary.” (Lifetime was an early fusion trio led by drummer Tony Williams from 1969 to 1971 that included Young and guitarist John McLaughlin.)
While Berg has played fusion—his big break came with Miles Davis in 1985 and he later co-led a band with guitarist Mike Stern that included Chambers—he is essentially a forward-looking traditionalist after the fashion of “sheets of sound”-era John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon. On his own composition, “Friday Night at the Cadillac Club,” his snaking lines climb summits to unfurl swing-era and bebop phrases like flags before zigging off in yet another direction. He is a good foil for trumpeter Brecker, the most lyrical improviser in the group, who delivers a seemingly endless stream of melody wrapped in an appealingly compact, round trumpet sound.
Chambers played with P-Funk for eight years before coming to prominence with the John Scofield Band of the late 1980s. In the late 1990s, he played with DeFrancesco in a John McLaughlin-led trio that he said was similar to Lifetime in that “it was about swing, but a fusion or ‘edge’ type of swing,” Chambers says. “I grew up with Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all of that.”
Chambers does not try to disclaim or disprove the existence of boundaries between musical styles. “When I played with P-Funk there was no way in the world that I could have played like I later played with Scofield or John McLaughlin,” he says. “Or, when I’m playing with the Superband, there’s no way in the world I could play like I did with McLaughlin.”
In the Superband, Chambers’ duties mainly revolve around keeping a straight-ahead groove. Nevertheless, he plays with a power and muscularity that he said partly derived from his fusion experience. It bothers him that so many musicians are reluctant to acknowledge the impact of 1970s fusion on their music for fear of being labeled. This is unfair to the musicians who contributed during that time period, he says, some of whom are not getting the recognition they deserve from the people they influenced. When asked if the high intensity of his playing has to do with the fact that it is 2000 and not 1970 or 1965, he agrees:
“Anything else, other than what we did, would be like making a record that has already been done. That is why some of us go into it trying to create a different vibe about it. The instrumentation, and also the style of music, has already been done. We just approached it the way we felt it, and tried not to step on anybody’s toes—which we didn’t—and that’s what we ended up with.”
Over 10 years ago, Concord, under the leadership of the company’s founder, Carl Jefferson, released several recordings by a group called the Phillip Morris Superband. This was an expanded, Count Basie-style big band headed up by the late block-chord specialist, pianist Gene Harris, and named after the tobacco company that financed its tours (an advertising practice that has since been outlawed in the U.S.).
“There is no similarity between that Superband and this one,” Phillips says, “because the styles of music are totally different.” The JazzTimes Superband project is an indication of the more contemporary direction Concord has taken in the few years since Jefferson’s death.
The JazzTimes Superband album is a successful blowing date in that there were no rehearsals, and everything seemed to fall into place of its own accord. In fact, the success of the recording is not mere serendipity, but has to do with the fact that all of the musicians could be considered top athletes of their respective instruments. That a pleasing aesthetic balance can be achieved by five men playing difficult music, uptempo and at loud volume, may astonish the layman, but is par for the course for truly dedicated jazz players who have paid their dues, as these ones have.
The physical and mental commitment to play such exacting music, especially on the road, can be grueling, even painful at times. Thankfully, as listeners we do not have to endure, or even be conscious of, all the mental machinations that might enable each note to be played.
The Bear would be proud.
Originally published in June 2000