Tag Archives: Brandon Ross

For Cassandra Wilson’s 60th Birthday, a Jazz Times Feature From 2012 and a Downbeat Feature from 2008

To mark the 60th birthday of the great singer Cassandra Wilson, I’m posting a pair of feature articles I’ve had the opportunity to write about her — first a long piece for Jazz Times in 2012, next a feature for Downbeat in 2008.

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Cassandra Wilson, ‘Jazz Times’ Article (2012):

On Memorial Day, as afternoon turned to evening and the barbecues wound down in the brownstone back yards next to Complete Music Studios in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights district, Cassandra Wilson convened her band for a five-hour rehearsal to prepare for a one-week run that would launch two days hence in Bergen, Norway, continue in Lviv, Ukraine, and conclude in Moscow. Ensconced in Room 4 of the sprawling converted warehouse, they worked methodically through the set list, postulating frameworks for such older Wilson standbys as “Fragile” and “Time After Time,” and newer repertoire like “Red Guitar” and “Another Country” (both from Wilson’s June release, Another Country [E1]), and a stark, intense arrangement of “The Man I Love” by harmonicist Gregoire Maret, Wilson’s current musical director, and a steady presence in her bands since 2003. They sat in a circle, Maret to Wilson’s left, and then, proceeding clockwise, guitarist Brandon Ross, drummer John Davis, bassist Ben Williams (filling the chair for Reginald Veal, who would join the troupe in Europe, as would percussion Lekan Babaola), and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

The final song was Wilson’s “A Little Warm Death,” which she debuted on New Moon Daughter, her 1995 chart-topper. Wilson was navigating the concluding vamp (“One little warm death/Come have one little warm death with me tonight”), denoting the time feel with gracefully calibrated arm swoops, when, suddenly, she interrupted the flow.

“It’s a lazy rhythm,” Wilson said casually, looking at Davis, a recent addition to the band. Her blondish dreads hung loose, and she wore a diaphanous earth-toned blouse, white capri slacks, gray espadrilles, and clef-shaped earrings. A red Telecaster guitar stood to the right of her chair; a closed Mac-Pro was on the floor to her left. “In Bahia, they’ve got a thing, too, where they’re way behind the beat. Most instrumentalists want you to push it. But most singers, like me, we want to lay back—we’re lazy.” She offhandedly referenced several rappers. “They got some serious swag way behind the beat.”

After a final runthrough of “A Little Warm Death,” Ross asked Wilson to try the Lennon-McCartney song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I don’t really know it yet,” Wilson responded. “Can you sing it?” Ross complied; Wilson listened attentively, smiled encouragingly, beat the rhythm on her knees. “Nice,” she said after Ross’ quick Polaroid of his intentions. While Ross and Davis established the changes and key, she opened the Macbook, and, scrolling with her big toe, talked out the lyrics from the screen. In due time, she closed the computer, sat erect, planted her feet, and claimed possession with a completely realized interpretation, bobbing and weaving within the rhythm, her infinitely flexible contralto conveying nuance and unveiling implication.

“I think they were dropping acid then,” Wilson said dryly after this textbook display of what it means to practice like you play. She exhaled and shook her head. “I’m running out of power.” But she recouped for a stomping “Come Together,” skipping registers with the ease of a bird in flight, even soaring into the soprano range for a quick minute. Then the evening’s work was done.

[BREAK]

“I’ve witnessed that for many years, and it always amazes me,” Maret remarked the next morning on Wilson’s ability to instantly alchemize a song into her own argot. “She has no limits. She goes into the moment, and interacts with whatever the whole ensemble has created for her.”

For Wilson, first and foremost, to be daring is a matter of musicianship. “The gospel that I’m trying to get out is that, ok, it’s fine to have a beautiful voice, but it will be even finer if you are able to communicate with that instrument as a musician,” she said over the phone from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, a week before the rehearsal. “In jazz, I think that is the connection you have to make before you even step foot into that world.”

“Cassandra does things that most singers should do,” Ross confirmed. “She’s more out of the Miles Davis realm of dealing with a melody. In an understated way, she takes things in a direction that doesn’t necessarily give you a lot of extended information, but can change the path of what you’re doing, which makes it can sound wide-open.”

Still, Wilson acknowledges that a certain ineffable, intuitive mojo also shapes her interpretations. Speaking to me several years ago, she analogized it as akin to “trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits; I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story.”

In a separate conversation, Ross elaborated on that metaphor. “When I was Cassandra’s Music Director,” he said, referencing the years 1993 to 1996, “I always looked at rehearsals as like a fitting session. I get the thing set up, do a tuck here or pin it there, then she’d come in and say, ‘Yeah, let’s go that direction,’ then maybe take a break or be out on some business, and then come back in and hook it up. She doesn’t tell anyone exactly what to do. She lets people find the best things that can be played with her music. Maybe it takes a bit of time to get to that point. But once you get there, it’s magical.”

Time is not an infinitely available commodity on recording sessions, where Wilson, when functioning as her own producer, has occasionally found it problematic to achieve magical results on deadline with a hands-off creative process. “I am probably the worst when it comes to organization,” she told me a week before the rehearsal. “I procrastinate until the last minute to do things. I tend to give musicians too much freedom. I don’t like to tell someone how to play something. I have gotten to the point where I do express my feelings about how I want something translated, But in the past, I’ve been pretty laissez-faire. I just let the music unfold. Sometimes it comes out great, sometimes not so great.”

Perhaps for this reason, Wilson has decided on various occasions to rely on a producer’s vision to create the frame in which she operates. Craig Street oversaw the transitional mid-‘90s recordings Blue Light Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter on which, as Ross states, “she claimed all of her personal experience, and molded it into a statement of who she is as a human being and as an artist,” removing her voice from the plugged-in frames of funk and hip-hop and modern jazz that she had navigated over the previous decade, and placing it in a spare, elemental strings-and-percussion context drawn straight from Mississippi roots, specifically her apprentice years as a singer-guitarist around Jackson, where she was born and raised.

In 2000, after eighteen years in New York, Wilson, needing time off to “get my bearings” and also wanting to keep an eye on her aging mother, began the process of resettling in Jackson. In 2002, she made the 150-mile drive up Highway 61 to Clarksville, to record the nostalgic, self-produced Belly Of The Sun. For most of the aughts she also kept a residence in New Orleans, 185 miles due south; there, in 2008, she made the drumcentric covers date Loverly, a Grammy-winner, and, in 2010, put together the studio segments of Silver Pony, which documented the kinetic mojo her then-constant working band with Sewell, Veal, Babaola, pianist Jonathan Batiste, and drummer Herlin Riley, could generate in live performance.

She stayed in Jackson to make Thunderbird (2004), for which she recruited T-Bone Burnett to conjure a zeitgeist-appropriate version of the blues-and-roots trope that underpins her mature tonal personality. On four Wilson songs, keyboardist Keith Ciancia constructs complex and detailed sonic landscapes—entextured layers of samples, loops, programming, beats, various vocal effects—that serve as couture to her timbre and illuminate the metaphysical subtext of her autobiographical lyrics. They effectively counterpoint less dressed-up vernacular-oriented repertoire to which guitarists Marc Ribot (Burnett’s “Lost”), Keb Mo’ (Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved”) and Colin Linden (“Red River Valley”) respond with more explicit blues connotations.

Vibrations of place are equally palpable on Another Country [E1], conceived in New Orleans in February 2011 and recorded six months later in Florence, Italy. It’s a joint venture with producer-guitarist Fabrizio Sotti, a son of Padova whose c.v. includes hit tracks by, among others, Dead Presidents, Q-Tip, Tupac, Ghostface Killah, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, as well as several jazz albums with world-class improvisers that feature his luminous sound, impeccable chops, and lyric imagination. Performed by Sotti on acoustic guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Nicola Sorato on acoustic bass, and Lekan Babalola and Mino Cinelu on percussion, the program, suffused with Mediterranean flavor, includes seven originals, six of them co-composed with Sotti, an extraordinary rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and two solo miniatures by Sotti.

They met in 2003, when Wilson, not thrilled with the fruits of several recording sessions for the follow-up to Belly of The Sun, was looking “to experiment, to find different textures to play with.” Their simpatico was instant. “We became friends quickly,” she recalls. “It was really easy to work with him.”

The end product, Glamoured, to which Wilson contributed five originals and idiosyncratic renditions of Sting’s “Fragile,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” was the singer’s most personal, self-revelatory album of the ‘00s. Seven years later, freed of caretaking responsibilities after her mother’s death the year before, and having fulfilled her obligations to Blue Note, her label since 1993, Wilson found herself again focusing on “constantly playing with and exploring ideas—I felt ready to start writing songs again.” Late in 2010, she and Sotti, with whom she had stayed in touch, began serious talks about a new record. A few months later, around Mardi Gras, they got to work in her French Quarter house.

“For a couple of months, we’d been tossing around ideas, frameworks, and chord progressions or songs, and Fabrizio already had ideas,” Wilson recalls. “I sat at the piano, he’d play and record the changes, and in the process we’d have conversations about how he felt when he wrote the music. From that, a couple of tunes on Another Country—for example, ‘When Will I See You Again’—were formed based on those emotions.

“There is a strong, sympathetic energy between us. Fabrizio is detail-oriented and meticulous. Everything is in place in his universe. His nails are always cut. His guitars are clean. He doesn’t like to touch a guitar whose strings are too old. That organizational side of his personality matches me well. Also, we’re both guitar lovers, and we communicate very well based on that. Through the way he plays his guitar, he’s able to tap into certain basic emotions, places in my memory that are powerful and evocative.”

Armed with a half-dozen or so melodies, Wilson let the information marinate. She gradually conceived lyrics over the next several months, but didn’t complete them until August, when she and Sotti reunited in Florence for a fortnight to make the recording. “Passion,” a tango, is her response to “the beautiful apartment we had in Piazza della Signoria—you’ve got the David there, the museums, the fountains in the street, the balconies, the foot traffic, people eating out.” Wilson relates that she came up with “Almost Twelve”—an idiomatic street samba that Sotti positions as “a modern version of what Gilberto and Ella Fitzgerald did with Abraca Jobim”—after “traveling back from the studio one night, not being able to find our way back to the hotel, and going around in circles in the maze of the old city of Florence for about an hour-and-a-half.”

Wilson adds that she found the melody and the lyric of the title track not long after the idyllic sojourn, while in Woodstock, where she keeps a residence. “I’m still trying to decipher the meaning,” she says. “It’s about experiencing life in different stages and in different times, and experiencing love, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, seeing their world—which is what I did when I went to Italy with Fabrizio. I experienced Italy in a totally different light. We tend to identify ourselves as the other whenever we go into a culture. But once you’re inside it, you begin to make a connection.”

Sotti remarks that the songs bear a tone parallel to those of Glamoured, which addressed subjects of love, loss, and betrayal. “It’s a similarly transitional time for her, and these are clearly quite personal, a lot of stories of things she’s actually going through,” Sotti said. “Cassandra’s voice is a unique instrument. She’s an originator, not only in the style she plays, but in the sound of her voice. There aren’t too many other comparable voices out there—prior or after. We respect each other, and trust each other deeply. Either of us could say that something was ready, and we’d follow the other’s lead. It was a total collaboration between two musicians who totally speak the same language. We talked about chord changes, forms, even beyond just the poetry of the words and everything else. There no boundaries, no stigmas of any kind. We just said, ‘Let’s try to write the music we feel now, and do it the best way we can.’”

It was Sotti’s idea to use the accordion, which seals the Mediterranean ambiance. “I associate the instrument with the emotion that the Italians call malinconia,” Wilson said, savoring each syllable. “It’s in the lyric of ‘O Sole Mio.’ Malinconia is melancholy. Saudade is another great word—it’s the same emotion. The Irish love melancholy, too.

“I think I’m a melancholy specialist. It’s a sweet—or bittersweet—emotion. There’s always this condition of the human heart to long for something that it imagines it would need. It’s not a bad feeling. For me, it’s a rich feeling. I think it’s a beautiful part of being human, to have longing, to always search for something, to always seek to make the heart whole.”

[BREAK]

On tour with her band in Italy before her fortnight in Florence, Wilson performed a concert “at some Etruscan ruins or an archaeological dig.” She researched the subject, and found “interesting connections between the Etruscan culture and the Yoruba people—the way they created their courtyards, the architecture, the spiritual stuff.”

She references this connection on the coda of Another Country, a lilting track titled “Olomuroro,” a Yoruba word that directly translates into “one with droopy breasts,” but also denotes a mythological monster who stole a boy’s meal while the boy grew thinner.

“We’re drawing upon the former story,” Wilson said when she stopped laughing. “The song is about the women in the village who come around to care for the children when their parents are not there, because they need feeding, they need milk. The breasts are drooping because they are the breasts of the wet nurse. The Yoruba people don’t have any issues singing about the beauty of big, drooping breasts.”

Herself the mother of a son who is past his majority, Wilson—who draws deep sustenance from Mississippi roots—attends closely to matters of heritage. “The first five years of your life, your personality is formed,” she remarks. “The place where that happens is significant, and it holds a lot of powerful emotional material that you can draw upon.”

It is not surprising that, in the second half of her sixth decade, Wilson would conclude an album of love songs with one that directly signifies a matriarchal world view from an ancestral perspective. Her mother, Mary Fowlkes, was a Ph.D and professor of Spanish at Jackson State; her grandmother, to whom she was particularly close in her own early childhood, was a conjure woman figure.

“Her habits were mysterious and unusual,” Wilson recalls. “She would wear an apron, which had two pockets in which she carried seeds, and had a wonderful smell. I have some of those seeds still. She was a woman who had moved from what would be called rural Mississippi to the city, and she kept a gun. Even in her seventies, she loved to go off into the woods and gather. She was an herbalist. She could make medicines. She used to take a cup and raise it above her head and circle her head three times. Lekan Babaola told me, after I described it to him, that it’s a Yoruba gesture. Three times over the head before leaving something, casting it away.”

Although Wilson hasn’t cast away her Harlem apartment or her New York connections, she states that she is now “out of New Orleans” and spending most of her time in Jackson. “Making this the base has completely turned my thought processes around,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what I need to do in New York to further my career, or to get the message out, or to create the music, I’m doing that here. The way that I look at my career now is based on my community, and the work that I do in this community. I look at this stage of my life as being mine to make, and my decisions are based on what I think my path is.”

Part of that path will include hewing to Abbey Lincoln’s suggestion that “it’s important for singers to write songs about what’s happening in their lives, not to focus on the songs and the stories of other people’s lives. Abbey explained to me that it’s great to sing a standard—and of course, it is, if it’s your own story—but it’s so much more important for you to add to that your story, and to constantly stay in touch with that story, that narrative.”

Towards that end, Wilson states, “I’m going to work on developing a core of musicians to play with, and making sure that core is strong enough to interpret the music on its own. Then, once you get to the live part, you begin to create the other life of the song. The song doesn’t just stay where it is. It has to go through all these permutations and changes. That’s exciting, too, because you can stumble across something else entirely new that then, again, will lead you to the next project. It can be scary. But it’s a good scary.

“I love the mistake, and I love that feeling of stepping out and doing something that will cause a mistake. In order to get to that point, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to make music that engages the audience on the level that you want them to be engaged if you remain in your comfort zone. I change my policy every day. Who knows what’s going to happen next time?”

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Cassandra Wilson, Downbeat Critics Poll Article (2008):

“I felt I’d come to an emotional wall,” Cassandra Wilson said over the phone from Jackson, Mississippi, describing her state of mind after completing Thunderbird [Blue Note] her rootsy, quasi-poppish 2006 release, and also explaining in part why her latest, Loverly [Blue Note], comprises ten songbook standards, a Robert Johnson blues, and a Yoruba praise song.

“I couldn’t find my footing,” the 52-year-old singer elaborated. “I’ve decided to backtrack, simplify, learn the blues, REALLY learn the blues. Which is not that simple.” Asked whether her reference point is the hometown version of the blues-as-such or the blues as a world view, she opted for the former. “It’s something more particular to Jackson,” said Wilson, who has spent much time there in recent years tending to her aged mother. “There is a sound here. It’s halfway between the Delta and New Orleans, so it swings.”

“A certain amount of narcissism goes with being a vocalist—a jazz vocalist, or whatever you want to call what I do,” Wilson continued. “Songwriting as well. You have to let go of something in order to take care of people.”

Still, by deciding to wear the producer’s hat on Loverly, after collaborations with Americana guru T-Bone Burnett on Thunderbird and Top-40 (Mariah Carey) craftsman Fabrizio Sotti on Glamoured from 2003, Wilson returned to the methodology that generated both Travelin’ Miles and In The Belly of the Sun, her highly personal cusp of the 21st century releases. As on those occasions, the process was collaborative.

“I don’t really think about categorizing what I do, but going into this project, of course we knew that we were going to revisit standards,” Wilson said. “The treatment came about from a confluence of events.” While mulling a list of “maybe 30-40 songs” generated by Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall, Wilson took input on repertoire selection from bassist Lonnie Plaxico, her one-time musical director, and from Nigerian drummer Lekan Babaola, whose rolling grooves, articulated in synch with trapsman Herlin Riley, frame a complex rhythmic flow that Wilson traverses with surefooted grace. For the first time since Rendezvous, a label-arranged 1997 encounter with Jacky Terrason, she deploys the tonal personality of a pianist—in this case, native Houstonian Jason Moran—to signify on her narratives.

“Lekan stepped up and reminded me about the importance of the drums,” she said. “That’s a no-brainer for me. I’m deeply tied into rhythm, so it made perfect sense to approach these standards with a focus on the rhythmic bed that the music is lying on.”

Several years ago, Moran cut his teeth with Wilson for a brief, unrecorded stint. “I met him through Steve Coleman,” Wilson said. “The way he plays feels great to me. You don’t always find pianists who are strong soloists on their own yet are able to accompany a singer. I’ve worked with pianists where it’s difficult to find a space, but Jason seems to understand my phrasing really well, maybe because his wife is a singer.”

Only the Robert Johnson-composed, Elmore James-associated blues “Dust My Broom” was in Wilson’s repertoire during the months leading up to the August recording date, which made inhabiting the songs, many of them canonical, a tricky proposition. Indeed, for the most part, Wilson has eschewed such fare since Blue Skies, the swinging 1988 recital that placed her in the conversation with such empyrean divas as Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson.

“Certain songs have been done over and over, and some have definitive versions,” she said. “Unless you completely tear it apart, there’s not much you can do. But certain songs. I don’t care if there’s a definitive version or it’s been done to death. I’ve found a path inside it, a way to sing it that’s true to my life story. Sometimes you know instantly when it feels right. It’s like trying on clothing, when you walk in the store and find something that really fits. I dance in a certain way with it. Musicians in my band have told me I move a certain way when I feel really at ease inside of a song.”

Both as producer and bandleader, Wilson, by her description, embraces a Venus-lets-Mars-think-it’s-in-charge approach. “I’m probably the least proactive leader,” she said. “ I tend to walk away from the musicians. Maybe it has something to do with the way women feel around men—I don’t know why I feel that, but I do. Some sort of male bonding thing happens in jazz when cats come together to work on a project. So I tend to come in and out, disappear, come back, see what’s happening, and just let them flow. I don’t try to direct them. I let the stream find its own way, instead of trying to create its path.”

One such moment occurred on “Til There Was You,” the Meredith Wilson love song made famous by both the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, on which Wilson proceeds through an allusive web of rhythm-timbre comprised of Herlin Riley’s New Orleans streetbeats and Babalola’s hand drum and cowbell, stabbing blues phrases from guitarist Marvin Sewell, and apropos chording from Moran.

“Lonnie asked if I knew it—it was not on the list,” she said. “I started singing, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Then I left the room, and Herlin and Lekan and Lonnie came up with that feel.”

A visit from Babalola to Wilson’s Jackson studio a few months before the recording generated the Afrocentric treatment of “Dust My Broom.” “Lekan said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and asked me to play some blues on the guitar,” Wilson related. “I started playing the regular 12-bar blues, he played rhythms under it, and said, ‘This is sakhara. This is one of the genres of blues music that we have in Nigeria. If had had the drum in Mississippi at that time, and if Robert Johnson were playing with the drummer, I think that he would have been playing this rhythm.’”

African rhythms saturate “Arere,” a Yoruba praise song to Ogun, the warrior god. The word also refers to a tree that emits a powerful, uncontrollable, odor so offensive that a Yoruba proverb cited in the book Rethinking Sexualities in Africa—type “arere” and “Yoruba” into Google Search, and it comes right up—states “any home where a woman is vocal, loud, influential through self-expression, will have the arere tree growing in the courtyard.”

The piece emerged in January 2007, when Wilson and Steve Coleman, her musical mentor and domestic partner during the middle ‘80s, presented a concert at the Stone in Lower Manhattan. The mandate was to create music for the 16 principal Odu, or stations of the human condition, represented in the Ifa system of divination.

“Lekan was going to Nigeria at the time, and I asked if he could get me the song for each major odu,” Wilson recalled. “I didn’t get them on time, so Steve winged it. He took it into Egyptology, made correlations between the numbers, the colors, the directions, the astrological things, went deep into it, and devised a system for the music to be created.

“At the time I met Steve, I wanted to get out of a certain comfort zone, and he encouraged me to do that. He told me that if I could hold my own within his system—cycles of rhythm, hearing cues in the rhythm instead of chords, the layering of rhythms—I would have something else to bring to the standards. He was right about that. I had to develop a certain swagger with his music, to pump myself up, find some confidence, find a way to sing over it that would make sense. I guess that was the very beginning of a distinctive sound that I knew was something that I had that no one else had. When you learn to improvise over odd time signatures, 4/4 becomes very relaxing. You develop a certain elasticity in your phrasing. You can do something outside of the box on the standards, play with it, let it stretch, because you’re always certain about your time.”

Wilson had to call upon that swagger during a March tour of Europe with David Murray, a fellow 1955 baby, who called her to sing two Ishmael Reed lyrics on his own 2007 release, Sacred Ground [JustinTime].

“I thought I’d just get up and do the songs from the record, but David sprang three or four new tunes on me, and I had to learn them quickly,” she said. “The music is very thick, not terribly porous, and there’s always a struggle, a tension inside it. The changes move in strange ways, as do the melodies, and you have [to] weave these complex melodies around this complex environment. I had to rise.”

Wilson expresses even more enthusiasm about her own band, which over the summer will consist of Sewell, Riley, Babalola, bassist Reginald Veal, and the young New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste.

“I’m in a working mood,” she said. “I get so excited to go on stage, because it’s a great group of very strong musicians. Everybody has something to bring to the table, when needed, on the stage. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’m hitting my stride.”

 

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Filed under Cassandra Wilson, DownBeat, Jazz Times, vocalist

Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

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1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named “Ron Carter.”] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

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