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March 2009

Biréli Lagrène
Electric Side
Dreyfus Records

Electric Side is a studio fusion session, yet it comes across as one for the road, an exuberant summer festival soundtrack waiting to happen. Plugged in and occasionally evoking his early association with Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Biréli Lagrène scores points not only for fielding a top-notch, genre-blurring septet, featuring French bass phenom Hadrien Feraud, DJ Afro Cut-Nanga and steelpans player Andy Narell, but also for crafting an album that radiates a disarmingly lighthearted spirit.

Not that there isn’t some serious musicianship on display. Witness the fluid improvisations fashioned by Lagrène, Feraud and tenor saxophonist Franck Wolf on “Thimothée,” for example. Or the brightly animated ensemble work that brings Herbie Hancock’s “Jack Rabbit” to cartoonish life and infuses Lagrène’s “Foreign Affairs” with bristling energy. (Credit drummer Damien Schmitt for the frequent rhythmic jolts.) Subtle touches also come into play, particularly on Feraud’s ballad “Clair Obscur,” an atmospheric showcase for Narell, keyboardist Michael Lecon and reedman Wolf, on soprano sax.

Yet beginning with the scratched and sampled “Hips,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Marcus Miller disc, and Babik Reinhardt’s “Incertitude,” with its flatulent funk beats, Lagrène and his bandmates don’t revisit the fusion era so much as playfully retool it. If some of the arrangements are a bit too clever for their own good, no matter. The album’s highlights, including the contorted blues “Josef,” Lagrène’s tribute to guiding light Joe Zawinul, offer plenty of compensation. Come warm weather and tour dates, this music will travel well.

Originally published in March 2009
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