Last fall – the weekend before Thanksgiving, to be exact – two generations of prog, fusion, Eastern, jazz and jam minded players convened in Raleigh, North Carolina for a summit called the New Universe Music Festival. The event was the brainchild of the indie label Abstract Logix, which has been blurring the boundaries (and age restrictions) regulating various musical genres for years. Its music has been primarily introduced through recordings. On these two November nights, however, such sounds were allowed to bump heads onstage. Through an engaging double-disc live album, Abstract Logix Live! The New Universe Music Festival 2010, those performances now become part of the label’s recorded mission.
Among the elder participants: pioneering guitarist and Mahavishnu Orchestra founder John McLaughlin, past and present Return to Forever drummer Lenny White and the landmark Indian percussionist (and one-time McLaughlin bandmate) Zakir Hussain. From the younger camp come Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring, Indian drummer and film score composer Ranjit Barot and the extraordinary Oregon-born guitarist Wayne Krantz (whose has collaborated with Steely Dan and Billy Cobham, among many others).
The music ranges from suitably eccentric – as in the busy funk and fusion passages that mingle between Barot and synth-happy Tribal Tech keyboardist Scott Kinsey on Sometimes I… – to the elegantly cool Very Sad, where Austrian guitarist Alex Machacek nicely channels the spaciousness and tone of one of the Abstract Logix stable’s most obvious influences, British prog and fusion stylist Allan Holdsworth.
Given the prominence of guitar heroes on New Universe Music Festival and the frequent Eastern underpinnings within their music, it seems only natural that the spirit of George Harrison would pay a visit. On a cover of the late Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper classic Within You, Without You, Herring opens with contemplative atmospherics respectful of Harrison’s original before building to a fusion boil with longtime drumming pal Jeff Sipe.
Krantz opens the second disc with a limber trio excursion titled Why that features the rubbery support of veteran six-string bassist Anthony Jackson while White revisits Gazelle, a tireless fusion romp he first recorded over 40 years ago alongside the tune’s composer, Joe Henderson.
McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension band, augmented by Hussain, brings the party home. On Recovery, they set up a concise electric bounce that relies as much on Cameroonian bassist Etienne M’Bappe and drummer Gary Husband as the two featured soloists. But the 21 minute Mother Tongues fully unleashes Hussain’s rigorous tabla rhythms and a surprisingly playful guitar lead from McLaughlin.
It’s a merry confluence of styles, sounds and ethnic strategies. And like the bulk of New Universe Music Festival, the resulting music is best appreciated for its improvisational ingenuity. In short, dig these glorious instrumental live performances for what they are rather than for where they came from.