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Steve Gadd Band: 70 Strong

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Nearly every listening experience involves expectations based on scenario, instrumentation and personnel. When the occasion is supreme studio drummer Steve Gadd’s 70th birthday recording-with trumpeter Walt Fowler, guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Larry Goldings and bassist Jimmy Johnson-those expectations become understandably high. Perhaps unfairly so, because 70 Strong comes across as surprisingly one-dimensional considering these musicians’ work with artists like Allan Holdsworth, Michael Brecker, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and Frank Zappa.

It doesn’t start out that way. The opening “Foam Home,” co-composed by the entire quintet, features Gadd’s impeccable midtempo funk artistry-a staggered lockstep with Johnson that drives Goldings’ throwback Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer tones and the evocative solos by Fowler and Landau. The subsequent playful, New Orleans-tinged take on Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” features an anchoring Johnson bassline that Gadd and his mates dance around. Goldings’ “Written in Stone” then begins a series of compositions by individual band members. The shift to a slower pulse that occurs here, with Goldings on accordion and Landau providing Americana twang à la Bill Frisell, would make for effective sequencing if the remainder of the CD was more diverse.

Goldings’ “Sly Boots,” during which Gadd plays a shell game with tempo, and Fowler’s ballad dedication “Duke’s Anthem,” to his former Zappa bandmate George Duke, are the infrequent exceptions. If only this unit had fleshed out ideas together more, like on “Foam Home.” Chico Buarque’s “De Volta Ao Samba” and Jan Hammer and Fernando Lamas Saunders’ “Oh, Yeah?” lend a modicum of rhythmic spice near disc’s end, but Landau’s closing “Blues For…” sounds, like its title, unfinished. Not being a songwriter Gadd can only work with the tools given to him, and this birthday party deserves stronger material.

Originally Published