critic’s pick 233

Just as Miles Davis set his aim on the electric frontiers of Bitches Brew at the close of the 1960s, one his most esteemed alumni was conjuring a plugged-in sound of his own. The musician was drummer Tony Williams and his band, the more elemental and rockish Tony Williams Lifetime, became one of the forefathers of the pagan jazz sound known as fusion.

A new, cross-generational ensemble called Spectrum Road (after Spectrum, one of Lifetime’s earliest compositions) fashions itself after Williams’s landmark sound on a very spirited, self-titled debut album. The record is both a tribute with some serious cred and a groove collective that explores how Williams’ electric music might flourish today.

The Spectrum Road lineup is a workmanlike celebrity crew. John Medeski (of avant jazz/jam band fave Medeski Martin & Wood) approaches the spacious keyboardist duties carried out in the original Lifetime lineup by organ great Larry Young, Vernon Reid (of Living Color) assumes the Lifetime guitar chair of John McLaughlin, Cindy Blackman Santana (known best for the furious beat she kept on Lenny Kravitz’s best records) picks up where Williams himself left off and, manning Jack Bruce’s bass role in Lifetime is, amazingly, still Bruce. Nothing gives credibility to a Williams tribute like re-enlisting one of the chief architects of the band’s initial sound.

Leading this revivalist charge is Medeski and Reid, who resurrect Where and Vashkar, tunes from Lifetime’s 1969 debut album Emergency! – a record cut when the band was an organ/guitar/drums trio. Where is faithful to the atmospheric keyboard intro and guitar set-up of the tune’s original recorded version. Then Reid and Santana drive the music straight through the cosmos with a fuzzy guitar blast that is more indicative of Frank Zappa than McLaughlin and percussion that honors Williams’ youthful vigor without outright aping it.

Bruce has a field day throughout Spectrum Road. His vocals on There Comes a Time (originally from 1971’s Ego, an album cut after he departed Lifetime) reflect a robust playfulness that falls between blues and psychedelia. And on 1970’s Allah Be Praised, the whole band ignites, first with blasts of earthy boogie and then with lighter, more ambient interplay.

Spectrum Road occasionally extends beyond the initial Lifetime repertoire. Wild Life is a spruced up version of a 1975 rocker from a later, prog-funk Lifetime lineup while Coming Back Home, a tense swing vehicle for Reid, was pulled from Williams’ neglected 1979 solo album The Joy of Flying. There is also one original – a nimble jam called Blues for Tillmon. But Spectrum Road is most expressive when it stays the original fusion course plotted by Williams. Over 40 years later, the sights and sounds this quartet discovers along that path are endlessly engaging.

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