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(SCI Fidelity Records 1022 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/23/2005)
One of the things that makes a jam band great is the interaction among the musicians. The best jam bands not only start with first-rate musicianship, but rise above the instrumental abilities of the individual members to make a something that is more than the sum of the component parts. So it can be interesting to see what happens when a member of a tight-knit jam band records his own album. That has been happening with Phish, since even before the band broke up. And now, we have the solo release by the keyboard player from my personal favorite jam band, The String Cheese Incident, Kyle Hollingsworth, whose CD is called Never Odd or Even.
Formed in Colorado by some skiing fans, the String Cheese Incident brings together everything from bluegrass to salsa, with musicianship which is head-and-shoulders above many on the rock jam-band scene. They have gradually built a huge fan base through their constant touring and their innovative business model, for example setting up a their own travel agency so that fans can go to distant shows, and even follow the band around as rabid Deadheads did with the Grateful Dead a generation ago. They set up their own record company, which has been releasing music by other artists. But mostly, they have been attracting fans through the sheer quality of the performances, which they call "incidents."
Kyle Hollingsworth was originally from the Baltimore area, where he studied jazz piano performance at Towson State University. As a teenager he was a member of a psychedelic rock band called Black Friday, which recorded a CD and came to be quite popular in their home territory. In the early 1990s, he spent some summers in Colorado and decided to move there in 1993. He was a member of a band called Durt [spell], which opened for the then-newly-formed band String Cheese Incident, and was soon invited to tour with the group by String Cheese's mandolinist Michael Kang. Hollingsworth soon became a regular member of the group, and has been with them now for seven years, ever since their first recording.
Hearing a band play, especially one as musically diverse and open to new ideas as String Cheese, it's interesting to think about what influences come from which member. Now we get a something of an idea of what Hollingsworth contributes to String Cheese through his CD, and the answer is that his influences are just about as diverse as the whole band's. Naturally, with a degree in jazz performance, and a tendency to seek out practice spaces to practice in almost any place the band plays, one expects some jazz influence, and that's there. But so is some funk, psychedelia, some African-American Gospel, and even a little of the country twang can be heard.
Hollingsworth is joined by a different band, but basically a quartet in the format of String Cheese, with guitar played by Ross Martin, bass by Mat Spencer and drums Jens Ingber. There are some guests on the CD, including acclaimed jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, plus steel guitar from Gospel and blues steel sensation Robert Randolph. Even the String Cheese's electric mandolinist Michael Kang appears. Hollingsworth does sing on the CD, but not very much. Most of the CD is instrumental. The keyboards Hollingsworth plays are largely the ones he uses with the String Cheese Incident, mostly vintage electric pianos, organs and some acoustic piano, as well as some accordion.
Hollingsworth writes that this CD was a long time in coming, with some of the compositions dating back as far as his high school days. He said he put a good deal of effort into trying to make the CD sound coherent from all the wide-ranging influences that he wanted to bring to bear. And he is largely successful though the use of overlapping pieces and musical themes or what he calls "common tones," to allow one piece to flow into another, sometimes very different one.
After a short, atmospheric introduction called Prevolution, <<>> the CD gets under way with a straight-out vintage-style funky fusion piece called The Crusade, which features the guest appearance by Joshua Redman. The track sounds as if it could have fallen out of a time warp from about 1975. It's very well-done. <<>>
The funk continues on an organ-based piece called Seventh Step. Ross Martin gets a chance to solo on guitar. <<>>
Steel guitar innovator Robert Randolph makes his appearance on a track called The Bridge, one of the tunes that Hollingsworth had around for along time, in this case since high school. With Randolph present, naturally there is some Gospel influence, further underscored by the wordless vocals of Yvonne Brown. <<>>
The Gospel influence continues on a piece called The Preacher, which musically takes a turn toward African or Latin percussion, while a recording of a fiery preacher is heard doing his thing. String Cheese's Michael Kang appears on his electric mandolin. <<>>
Much of the second half of the CD comprises a continuous stream of overlapping tracks, though they are rather diverse. One of the more interesting is a piece called The Arc, which combines the sound of vintage jazz-rock fusion with the frenetic electronic rhythms of techno-rave music. It sets up a great groove for a jam, though most of the jamming is by Hollingsworth himself. <<>>
Also part of that sweep of music is Don't Say, the one piece Hollingsworth himself sings. He said he was one of the first tune he wrote with the String Cheese Incident. The rather sad lyrics, he explained, came in the wake of the death of his mother and an unpleasant breakup with a girlfriend. With all its different musical facets, the track is one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
One of the best things about a String Cheese Incident jam is how they can veer off into Latin influence. I would have suspected that Hollingsworth, as the keyboard player probably was a source for that. And my suspicions were confirmed by the track Not Yet, on Never Odd or Even. The piece launches into a great groove with worthy playing by the whole band. <<>>
Another String Cheese trademark is a kind of frenetic country or bluegrass influence. Hollingsworth serves that up on a track called Boo Boo's Pick-a-Nick. He claims to have brought four cows into the studio during the session to get their performance on tape. Guitarist Ross Martin puts in some great country licks on the track. <<>>
While the String Cheese Incident is a great musical association, whose member interact remarkably well, the band's keyboard man Kyle Hollingsworth shows he is as wide-ranging as the group, and can do some great jams with the other musicians he gathered for this generous 64-minute CD. Taking pains to bring his diverse interests together as coherently as possible, Hollingsworth creates a thoroughly worthwhile, mostly instrumental recording marked by tasteful playing and commendable composing.
Our grade for sound quality is a "B plus." The mix is quite good as is the clarity, and there's a freedom from distortion, intentional or otherwise, but the CD, like most released today, is compressed too much undermining the dynamic range and "airiness" of the recording.
On Never Odd or Even Kyle Hollingsworth shows that he can jam with the best of them, even without his regular band.
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