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by George Graham
(Tone Center Records 4038 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/13/2005)
The rise in the popularity of jam bands might logically be expected to be the catalyst for a wider audience for instrumental rock and fusion. So there has been a bit of a resurgence in the number of releases in the genre. Jazz-rock fusion enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, at the same time that art rock was attracting stadium sized audiences. Music fans seemed to have a longer attention span then, and there was a greater receptivity to instrumental music. The rise of punk rock helped to kill most of that in the late 1970s, with music videos destroying any attention span young fans might have had. Fusion, nevertheless, has survived as a kind of niche genre, and enjoyed some commercial success with Pat Metheny and Béla Fleck. But the jam band scene, in which younger audiences are re-discovering that you don't have to have vocals and lyrics on all your music, has helped to pave the way for a bit of a fusion renaissance, with a steady trickle of worthwhile recordings from both established artists and some up-and-coming bands.
Fusion and instrumental rock has had a tendency to follow the pattern of jazz and involve musicians collaborating on one-off projects, and just getting together to jam, in the real jazz sense of improvising among each other.
This week we have an album that is one of those collaborative efforts by established musicians convening to make some music that they obviously enjoyed doing, and at the same time putting in some impressive musicianship. The players in question are bassist Rob Wasserman, guitarist Craig Erickson, keyboard man T Lavitz and drummer Jeff Sipe, who call their project Cosmic Farm.
The group's de facto leader is Erickson, a guitarist from Iowa who has released a number of projects under his own name, and also collaborated with ex-Deep Purple bassist and vocalist Glenn Hughes. Erickson grew up in a musical family and started playing in bands at age 13. He spent much of the 1980s teaching rock guitar to students in his father's music store. But except for some time off in the late 1990s, Erickson has kept up a steady stream of both solo albums and recordings as a sideman, and has toured with a variety of mainly hard-rock performers. Erickson composed most of the music on this CD.
The other figures in Cosmic Farm may have wider reputations, with bassist Rob Wasserman known for his work with everyone from New Acoustic pioneer David Grisman to members of the Grateful Dead. Wasserman concentrates on the upright bass, though decidedly electrified. T Lavitz is well-known for his years playing keyboards with the great Southern Rock fusion band the Dixie Dregs. Jeff Sipe, also known as "Apt. Q238" was a founding member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, another great Southern fusion and jam band.
Cosmic Farm started when Erickson and Wasserman met, and the latter agreed with the idea of doing a record together. Lavitz and Sipe, who Erickson describes as two of his favorite players were added when they gathered in a studio in the San Francisco area, and decided consciously not to spent a great deal of time rehearsing to keep it as spontaneous as possible.
The CD does have a jam-like quality, with the compositions not highly structured, but the writing by Erickson is respectable, and does allow the band to explore different musical colors and rhythmic grooves from straight-ahead rock to reggae, sometimes within the same piece. An interesting twist is the addition of a bassoon player on a few of the tracks. All of the musicians are given the opportunity for substantial solos, and they put it to good advantage with worthwhile musical ideas dispensed, rather than just noodling, a tendency which has so often befallen a jam band.
Things get under way with a piece called Steel Rider which starts out in a fairly conventional rock mode, but gets more interesting as it goes along. <<>>
The following track, Attitude Cat is one of the highlights of the album, with the piece going a lot of different directions for the solos by the various members, but it all sounds remarkably coherent. <<>>
Somewhat more laid-back is a piece called The Fine Scenery, on which Erickson is featured on slide guitar prominently, though he also gets to overdub some heavy-metal style guitar backing. <<>> The piece veers off into reggae from time to time just to make things interesting. <<>>
There are three short interludes on Cosmic Farm. One has the appropriate title Interstellar Interlude. Paul Hanson adds some other-worldly sounds from his bassoon. <<>>
Another piece with an apt title is Heavenly Love, which hints at African American Gospel music at times. <<>>
Strange Train is one of the more jam-oriented tracks. The band sets up a great groove for Erickson's extended guitar solo. <<>> It also features a relatively rare solo by a bassoon run through a guitar distortion box. <<>>
About the jazziest track on the CD is one called Forecast, which features a solo by T Lavitz on a not-very-good sounding acoustic piano. <<>>
The CD ends with another of its short interludes, Jupiter West again featuring Hanson's bassoon, sounding a bit more like an actual bassoon this time. <<>>
Cosmic Farm, by the musical collaborative of the same name, is one of those associations that works well, combining first-class musicianship with decent writing and a great spirit of communication among the quartet assembled by guitarist Erickson. They don't exactly explore entirely new musical territory -- guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums are a certainly not an unconventional lineup -- but they bring just the right combination of jam ethic with musical discipline to create a CD that is not too heavy on musical complexity, nor too loose with the solos. And for those who are familiar with the work of the individual players, like Rob Wasserman and T Lavitz, it's interesting to hear them in this musical context, allowing them to highlight their versatility.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." This is definitely an electric record, so there is not a lot of sonic subtlety to be captured, but the CD has everything in the right place with commendable clarity. The drums are especially well recorded. The music does not have a great deal of dynamic range, but the recording is better than the abysmal heavily-compressed average on CDs these days.
Back in 1970s, jazz-rock fusion helped a generation of rock fans to discover jazz. Perhaps the jam-band trend will have a similar effect on a younger generation as an entree to fusion and eventually to jazz. Cosmic Farm is a good place for a jam-band fan to start, and it's also a CD likely to be well-received by long-time fusion fans.
(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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