It was 30 years ago-August 1969-that drummer Lenny White made his first recording date. Turns out his debut was on Bitches Brew, the Miles Davis landmark that opened up the floodgates to a new direction, in terms both of sound and musical production. While other groups and artists had previously experimented at bridging rock and jazz aesthetics-notably Gary Burton, Charles Lloyd, John Handy, Eddie Harris, Free Spirits, Jeremy & The Satyrs-Bitches Brew is generally acknowledged as the pivotal statement, a kind of clarion call that galvanized the movement itself. And 19-year-old White was there, playing alongside Jack DeJohnette as part of Miles’ drum tandem.
Like a supernova, Bitches Brew radiated energy outward in all directions. Direct offshoots from that session included Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Return to Forever-the premier fusion bands of the early ’70s. White had a far more prominent role in RTF than he did on Bitches Brew, unleashing with ferocious power and uncanny precision on the kit alongside his rhythm section mate, groundbreaking electric bassist Stanley Clarke. Together they forged a remarkable chemistry through four searing fusion gems with Return to Forever-1973’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before, 1975’s No Mystery, and the group’s 1976 swan song Romantic Warrior-before embarking on separate and highly successful solo careers. Stanley pursued a more commercial direction through the ’80s with the popular Clarke/Duke Project and later got more involved with soundtrack music in the ’90s. Lenny investigated funk with Marcus Miller and Bernard Wright in Jamaica Boyz and later tackled hip-hop jazz as both producer and recording artist for the Hip Bop label. In recent years he has appeared in a variety of settings from Geri Allen’s piano trio at the Village Vanguard to Wallace Roney’s large scale commission at Lincoln Center to collaborating with rappers on recording dates.
Since their RTF days, White and Clarke have done some playing together, occasionally made guest appearances on each other’s albums (most recently White’s 1997 Hip Bop release Renderers of Spirit). They teamed up in 1981 with Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and singer Chaka Khan for an acoustic jazz outing that White put together for Bruce Lundvall at Elektra-Musician called Echoes of an Era and enjoyed a brief RTF reunion tour in 1983. They were paired again in 1990 on The Manhattan Project, a Blue Note date that also featured Wayne Shorter on saxes, Michel Petrucciani on piano, Gil Goldstein and Pete Levin on keyboards. But nothing that the former RTF bandmates have done over the years, either individually or together, has carried the sheer volatile force and shameless display of chops that was so prevalent in fusion’s heyday. Until now.
Thirty years after Bitches Brew, White has joined forces with Clarke to form Vertu, a bonafide fusion band with a capital “F” that promises to rekindle interest in the long-lost art of wailing at high volumes over difficult changes. Their self-titled debut on Sony Legacy pulls no punches and makes no apologies for its level of intensity or amount of solo stretching.
“We’re trying to bring virtuosic playing back to the forefront in music,” says White of his current fusion project. “I haven’t had an opportunity to play like this in a long time, where everybody is really stretching out on their instruments and playing up to their full potential. And I’m convinced that there is a whole new audience out there that is hungry for this music, just as people were 30 years ago.”
After the idea of forming a fusion band was initially floated by Sony/Epic chairman David Glew, Clarke (an Epic artist) picked up on it and ran with it. “To be honest, I had hung my hat up on that jazz-rock fusion stuff,” he admits. “Anyone who has listened to my last few albums knows that they’re smooth jazz albums, basically. That’s where my thing went because that’s what was available out there to me. But both David Glew and Michael Kaplan at Epic really got me thinking about playing that way again.
“And the thing I really missed about the fusion stuff,” he continues, enthusiastically, “was the composing. You spend time writing these kind of compositions, refining them and really thinking about who you’re writing for as opposed to some of the music that you hear on smooth jazz radio today, which is like musical chairs. Anybody can sit in and play that stuff. It feels nice, it sounds nice and that’s pretty much it. But it’s boring. With Vertu, we have come up with something that is definitely more challenging and on the edge. Everybody had to really dig in and practice this material. It wasn’t something that you could just come into the studio and play. We’re all really pushing and stretching on this record, and I think that makes for exciting music.”
Joined by keyboardist Rachel Z (whose credits include touring and recording with Al Di Meola, Wayne Shorter, and Steps Ahead) violinist Karen Briggs (formerly with Yanni and Straight Ahead), and guitarist Richie Kotzen (formerly of the multi-platinum rock act Poison), White and Clarke have come up with a potent unit that combines virtuosity with the kind of aggressive soloing and involved composing that certainly goes against the grain of what’s been happening on the airwaves lately.
“I would be surprised if the smooth jazz stations embraced this album,” says Clarke. “I don’t think it’s safe enough.”
Indeed, between Kotzen’s furious, distortion-laced guitar work, White’s tumultuous bashing on the kit, and Clarke’s own fleet-fingered flurries on the electric bass, there is absolutely no way that this one will be gaining favor with the folks at Broadcast Architecture. But this unbridled spirit of stretching–a throwback to fusion’s heyday-may inspire and embolden a new generation of young musicians who have been following the lead of the Kenny Gs and Dave Koz-es of the world.
“The business tends to lean on something that’s successful,” notes Clarke. “And when it’s copied over and over again and thrown out to the public, it sends a funny message to musicians…the wrong message. People who have leadership potential to create new trends end up following them. But you don’t have to sound like Kenny G. You may have more success sounding like yourself. So many guys get ruined trying to emulate something that’s popular. But we want to send a message to young musicians that it’s OK to stretch again.”
From the opening salvo of White’s “V-Wave” to Clarke’s bombastic closer, “Toys,” Vertu sets a no-holds-barred course on its very visceral debut. Challenging unison lines, radical tempo shifts, odd time signatures, and furious trading of eights set the tone for this volatile fusion project. But all the heroic soloing and virtuoso turns are underscored by a sense of compositional depth that recalls such fusion classics as Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire or Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior.
Clarke’s suite-like “On Top of the Rain” with its allusions to his own “Symphony for Jazz Rock Orchestra” from his great 1975 solo album Journey to Love, is a great showcase for Stanley’s inimitable electric bass chops. White’s “The Call,” a grandiose workout with challenging stop-time sections, is underscored by the sound of vintage ’70s Fender Rhodes electric piano and some furious fills on the kit. Kotzen, a modern-day guitar hero who continues the pyrotechnic lineage of Jeff Beck and Al Di Meola, digs in with screaming, toe-curling abandon here, going toe-to-toe with violinist Briggs in an aggressive manner recalling John McLaughlin’s heightened exchanges with Jerry Goodman in the heyday of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Briggs offers some release from all the pent-up tension with her beautiful ballad “Anoch’e,” featuring Rachel Z on grand piano and Stanley Clarke contributing a lyrical bass solo.
Clarke’s two-part opus “Topasio” shifts from hard-edged fusion reminiscent of Stanley’s “The Magician” from RTF’s Romantic Warrior to uptempo swing paced by his own furiously walking bass and White’s insistent ride cymbal pulse. The involved suite really puts the band through its paces with quicksilver unison lines and cascading changes. It also probably represents the first time that rocker Kotzen ever had to swing before, and he acquits himself nicely.
White’s “Danse of the Harlequin,” a more introspective, acoustic offering that builds to a dramatic pitch, is easily his crowning achievement as a composer to date. “For me, the biggest thrill of this band is that now I have impetus to write some serious music again,” says White. “It was a big challenge being around great writers like Chick and Stanley, just trying to get my little pieces in here and there. But I feel I’ve grown a lot since those days and have become a better musician. There’s a never-ending quest to becoming a better musician. You should never be complacent with who you are. You should always be striving. And now Vertu is giving me the outlet to strive to become a better composer.”
Kotzen’s “Start It Again” opens with a majestic sweep that recalls early Mahavishnu before settling into a warm R&B vibe featuring the guitarist’s own soul-stirring vocals. “Marakesh” is a funk-driven jam with some Middle Eastern overtones, and Clarke’s aggressively bashing “Toys,” a showcase for White’s considerable drumming prowess, closes the album in dynamic fashion with furious trading of eights by all the principals.
“We are in the last moments of the new millennium and I really believe that this music is pointing a way to the future,” says White. “There are those of us who made this music 25 years ago and then for whatever reason went on to do other things, and it was mainly for the reason that the powers that be decided to dry up the music and make it something else. But we didn’t stop writing this kind of music-dense music, challenging music. Now what we hope to have happen is to have everybody say, ‘Hey, we can do this again,’ to help bring about a return to virtuosity. And this album is our way of staking our claim.”
“Back when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were inventing bebop, there was a sense that they were figuring the stuff out, they were always working, they were always in school. When I was in Return to Forever I was getting schooled on the gig by Chick. There was always a sense of exploring and learning and pushing the envelope. And that is the travesty of instrumental music over the past 15 years…it doesn’t have that at all in it. The smooth jazz stuff…there’s not an iota of that quality in it, with all due respect to those who choose to play that kind of music.
“And the thing about our old records with Return to Forever, you can hear that it took some effort. And each record got a little better. You could hear the growth from Where Have I Known You Before to Romantic Warrior, both in our playing and the overall concept for the band. And I expect that our next Vertu record will follow that same path. Because it’s about working and learning and stretching together, just like we did in the early days of fusion with Return to Forever.”
Clarke, White, and company may indeed be creating a new trend with Vertu, their fusion manifesto for the new millennium.
Stanley Clarke plays Alembic electric basses, standard scale and tenor bass.His strings are Rotosound. He plays through an Alembic amplifier, a Crest power amp,EBS cabinets and Electo-Voice cabinets. His effects include an EMS octave divider and a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal. His upright bass is an German flatback acoustic of unknown origin.