Spectrum Road is not the first group to pay homage to Tony Williams’ band Lifetime—Trio Beyond, with Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings and John Scofield, put out the excellent Saudades in 2006—but it may be the rowdiest. This all-star quartet (named for a Lifetime song) is made up of four folks who keep one foot in jazz and one in rock: Cream bassist Jack Bruce, who actually played with Williams in Lifetime; guitarist Vernon Reid, an improviser who became a rock star as part of Living Colour; keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood; and Cindy Blackman Santana, a jazz drummer who backed Lenny Kravitz for a decade and released a Williams homage under her own name in 2010. Their self-titled album is very often raucous and loud: Reid, sounding a lot like his hero (and Lifetime vet) John McLaughlin, shreds throughout; Blackman Santana batters her skins and cymbals restlessly; Medeski creates giant walls of sound; and Bruce—well, Bruce’s contributions might blow out your speakers.
If these ingredients suggest the thing is a mess, it’s anything but. The 10-song program, consisting mostly of early Lifetime material dating 1969-1971, is vicious but well plotted. In addition to jazz-rock fusion, there are elements of prog-rock, funk, metal and blues in this stew; depending on the moment, one particular style may rise to the fore. The quartet threatens to burst eardrums out of the gate with “Vuelta Abajo,” Blackman Santana drumming maniacally, Reid ripping at his strings and Medeski stabbing at his organ.
Medeski plays with more intensity here than he does in his famous trio. Toying with the drawbars, he quickly turns his organ’s sound from bubbly to metallic and back on the jazz-rock boogie-woogie of “Allah Be Praised.” The soaring melodies of “Vashkar” and “Wild Life” are played respectfully but harshly. Bruce takes a shot at delivering some subdued vocals in a few spots, and they’re almost tolerable (which is doing better than Williams did). The disc’s one long piece, the nearly 13-minute “Where,” is a monster of a fusion cut: wild guitars and drums over a simple two-bar chord pattern. Midstream, Blackman Santana alters the rhythm and the whole feel of the tune switches to straightforward rock. It’s crazy good. Even the listener needs a rest when this album is over.