critic’s picks 234

Fusion music, maligned as it has been over the ages, has always worked off of jazz tradition in ways many audiences choose to ignore.

For instance, fusion die-hards are often rock ‘n’ rollers at heart, favoring performance flash over compositional and improvisational form. Traditionalists, on the other hand, still view fusion as jazz heresy, even though it is a direct outgrowth of bop and post-bop creativity.

On two new albums, Return to Forever and Pat Metheny use fusion as part history lesson and part progressive catalyst to explore dynamic new music largely rooted in tradition.

Return to Forever, a cornerstone jazz-rock brigade from the ‘70s that tends to work today only in reunion situations, sounds both sagely and youthful on The Mothership Returns, a CD/DVD chronicle of a summer 2011 tour that teamed mainstay members Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White with two new but practiced recruits – violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale.

True, Mothership sometimes luxuriates in fusion excesses that make traditionalists cringe, like Corea’s darting synthesizer rolls on the opening Medieval Overture and the party funk of Clarke’s bass-popping School Days. But chamber-style dynamics fuel Corea’s Romantic Warrior and Ponty’s still-regal Renaissance. And when a piano/violin duet on Concierto de Aranjuez leads into the playful flamenco/bop staple Spain, all links to fusion dissolve.

As such, Mothership is a best-of-both-worlds deal. It reflects the electric might of younger years while regularly referencing jazz inspirations that gave rise to fusion in the first place.

Guitarist Metheny, like Corea, has always been something of a journeyman. He remains best known for the progressively minded electric music he pioneered in the Pat Metheny Group, yet he has continually worked outside that ensemble on projects to embrace bop, free jazz and solo acoustic guitar music.

Unity Band seems like a safe exercise at first with Metheny fronting a traditional quartet for a set of nine original compositions removed totally from fusion. Yet, the instrumentation couldn’t be modern. He often colors Unity Band with guitar synthesizer sounds (especially on the robust Roofdogs) that have so long been part of his musical vocabulary that they are now fixtures within his tunes’ more traditionally minded frameworks.

The difference, this time, is veteran saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Potter. Metheny infrequently records with reed players, although when he does – as shown by recordings with Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker – the collaborations become quite dramatic. Sparks fly again during Unity Band with the mingling of acoustic guitar and tenor sax on This Belongs to You and the darker, denser terrain of the boppish Breakdealer.

Such tunes heavily suggest tradition, but the playing that fortifies the album – be it solo or ensemble – can’t help but sound progressive.

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