Outside of straight-ahead jazz, the two most interesting forms of contemporary instrumental music are fusion and New Acoustic music, both of which either skirt jazz or use it as an important influence. Jazz-rock fusion had its salad days in the mid-1970s when groups and artists like Weather Report, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea's Return to Forever, and Herbie Hancock built on Miles Davis' pioneering work bringing very electric instrumentation into music that was jazz-based. New Acoustic music had its start a decade later when artists like David Grisman used bluegrass instrumentation to play music that was jazz-influenced in its rhythms and harmonic sophistication, but in a rather different way than fusion.
Each genre has developed its own style of composition and arrangement that can even carry over when the instrumentation is altered. By the early 1980s, many of the leading fusion artists including Corea and McLaughlin had grown tired of the amplification and went back to acoustic instrumentation while still maintaining the fusion composition style. Meanwhile, New Acoustic banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck a few years ago went electric with his group the Flecktones, but again there was some carry-over from the New Acoustic style of writing and to the electric instrumentation.
Although for years I have enjoyed both styles, I have always considered them quite separate entities, and hadn't really thought much their compatibility until this week's album came along. It's an acoustic collaboration by a trio of fusion luminaries: bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. The title of their joint effort is The Rite of Strings.
All three players are household names among fusion fans. Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola were half of Chick Corea's best-known version of Return to Forever in the mid to late 1970s. Since then Clarke has had a varied career, ranging from straight-ahead jazz to being part of a rock trio called Animal Logic. DiMeola, since he left Corea has recorded a long series of albums under his own name, both in electric and acoustic contexts. He has also ventured into World Music with South American sounds a strong influence. Jean-Luc Ponty was violinist in the 1974-75 incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Prior to that, he played jazz violin in his native France and was a member of Frank Zappa's band. Since the 1970s he has also released a long series of solo albums, some with strong electric fusion groups, and others with a distinctly synthesizer-based texture.
Even when fusion artists have gone acoustic, they usually do it in the company of a drummer. But when you combine an acoustic guitar, upright bass and fiddle, minus percussion, you have a classic New Acoustic combo that could easily play bluegrass. What Clarke, DiMeola and Ponty do is use their bluegrass-compatible instrumentation to play jazz-rock fusion tunes. In fact, several are compositions previously recorded on classic fusion albums by the respective members. The result makes for interesting and engaging listening that is also instructive in pointing out both the similarities and especially the differences in compositional style between New Acoustic and fusion. It's also a warm, friendly-sounding session that overcomes some of what can sometimes be the cold, detached sound of fusion. And although the album boasts some impressive musicianship by all three, The Rite of Strings never becomes a virtuoso speed race.
Actually, the album is mostly acoustic. DiMeola does yield to the temptation to use his guitar synthesizer from time to time, but it generally plays a small part. DiMeola also does a fair amount of overdubbing, with two guitars often being heard, while Ponty's fiddle takes frequent breaks. All three musicians contribute to the writing, and as mentioned, much of the material consists of remakes of tunes these fusion pickers have previously recorded -- some going back nearly twenty years.
Things get under way with a DiMeola piece called Indigo, a nice musical vehicle for the trio to play their brand of New Acoustic fusion. The track nicely illustrates the combination of the style of composition that would be perfectly at home in an electric fusion band, as performed by instrumentation reminiscent of bluegrass.
One of the remakes on The Rite of Strings is Jean-Luc Ponty's Renaissance originally recorded on his album Aurora during the 1970s. Interestingly, in its original incarnation, it was the only acoustic track on a very electric fusion record. It's a perfect fit for this trio. Ponty especially puts in some nice playing.
A tune that both DiMeola and Clarke played with Chick Corea's Return to Forever is revisited here. It's called Song to John. Dedicated to John Coltrane, it was co-written by Clarke and Corea. With the tune's electric heritage, DiMeola gives in to the urge to use technology through both overdubbing and using his synthesizer triggered by his acoustic guitar.
One of the most interesting compositions on the album is a DiMeola piece called Chilean Pipe Song, which goes through a lot of stylistic transitions in its six and a quarter minutes.
Another outstanding piece by Ponty is Change of Life, a rather contemplative composition that nevertheless features some very creative use of harmonic textures. The trio manages to sound thoroughly relaxed as they negotiate their way through the very complex chord changes.
Both of Clarke's compositions are also on the laid-back side. One is La Cancion de Sofia, which combines a vaguely Spanish texture with a wistful mood, before launching into a rhumba-influenced section.
Although jazz-rock fusion heavyweights Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola and Jean-Luc Ponty have certainly played in an acoustic mode before, their new CD The Rite of Strings is the first time I have heard a group of such figures playing fusion on instrumentation similar to that of the New Acoustic world. Not only is it interesting hearing the results, but it makes for great listening that is simultaneously familiar to fusion fans, and sonically a bit of a surprise at times. The trio sounds as if they are having a good time, and although there is some impressive playing by all three virtuoso-class musicians, the mood is generally breezy, and rarely at the frenetic pace that had characterized some of the work of each of the three in their electric past.
The album boasts excellent sound quality and an nice mix. I might have preferred a slightly richer sound for Clarke's bass, but that's quibbling. Especially impressive is the album's dynamic range. Some of the crescendos from soft to loud can be very impressive when listened to directly from the CD.
If you like classic fusion from the 1970s, and/or New Acoustic Music from the Eighties and Nineties, then Clarke, DiMeola and Ponty's The Rite of Strings will provide some excellent listening.
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