2000

After YESTERDAY'S DREAMS and MOONSHADOWS, SPELLBOUND is Alphonso Johnson's third and, unfortunately, last album (to date) as a leader. Whereas MOONSHADOWS featured a lot of famous guest players, such as Bennie Maupin and Patrice Rushen, SPELLBOUND features a band consisting of relatively unknown musicians: Kevin Shireve (guitars), Clyde Criner (keyboards), and David Igelfeld (drums and percussion), with Pat Thrall adding some guitar solos to some tracks. The record is a great showcase for Johnson's bass playing, alternating between soloing ("Nomads"), lead bass ("Face Blaster"), and supporting duties. The band delivers a very solid performance, though they never get as much spotlight. For all of Johnson's technical brilliance, he seems to be more concerned with the songs themselves and their respective moods, though, and so he restrains himself quite often from showing off, which helps a lot. Most of the tracks are jazz-rock pieces somewhere between Romantic Warrior and Goblin, but there are a couple of ballads added for good measure. On four occasions, Johnson also sings, and while he has a rather weak (albeit pleasant) voice, it actually fits the songs very well: even the faster pieces on this record always retain a quiet aura of melancholy, and Johnson's tender voice and peculiar melodies add to the charm. The pensive "Moonlight Conversations" is a gem, while the six-part "Earthtales Suite" shows the artist's ambitions, as it ranges from almost classical impressions (his bowed bass playing nearly passes as a whole string section) to synth noise effortlessly. Actually, the whole album works as a suite, especially since the last track reprises the first one, and while it is not a must-have, it certainly shows ambition and originality. Unfortunately, SPELLBOUND is not available on CD.




This review was written for the All-Music Guide on October 30, 2000.

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SECURITY, the second recording released by Cypher 7, a project "created and encoded" by session keyboardist Jeff Bova and engineer Alex Haas, is actually twice as good as their excellent first CD, DECODER. Like the debut, SECURITY credits Bill Laswell for "navigation and ground control" (presumably code for producer).

The first track, "Message Important," sets the mood for the entire album: otherworldy, trance-like sounds that transport the listener into a peaceful world of mystique and mysticism. With its soft rhythms, the dubby bass playing by Laswell (his only performance on the album, and an excellent one), and some subtle organ accompaniment, the piece creates a beautiful groove to flow underneath the orchestral keyboard arrangements. The second track, "The Suspicious Shaman," owes a bit to German electronica, with Tangerine Dream-like sequencer patterns and rhythmic sounds reminiscent of Kraftwerk (although here the industrial leanings are, for the most part, only hinted at). Then comes "Tokyo A.M.," a pure ambient piece that combines the sounds of rain and distant rumbling with gloomy, mysterious keyboards. "Benares (Open Secret)" is even more fascinating. With guest musician Jaron Lanier, the track uses distant sounds of percussion and singing as a backdrop against an orchestral composition in the style of the first track; it almost seems like a depiction of an absolute and pure beauty or truth to which one can only respond with humility. "Nothing Lasts" almost seems like a short interlude; it features rhythm like the first two tracks, and a female voice contemplating love and passion ("passion is destructive [...], love is a constant."). The final track, "Falling Backwards," is the longest one at 16-plus minutes. Back in ambient territory again, it sounds like the soundtrack of a parachute jump, with synthesizers rumbling like the passing wind. Again, however, the piece quickly starts to transcend this realism and introduce spacier effects, providing a hypnotic conclusion to the album.

There are few albums to which the term "cinema for the mind" can be applied more fittingly. Still, for all the fascination with mood, sound, and atmosphere, Bova and Haas never forget to instill emotional resonance into their music.




This review was written for the All-Music Guide on April 24, 2000.

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I wrote the following concert review a few days after attending Herbie's show on April 12, 2000 in Munich. It was originally sent to the now defunct Hancock mailing list.

On Wednesday, April 12, Herbie celebrated his 60th birthday, and of course I was one of his guests ... OK, not really. He gave a concert that day in the Philharmonie in Munich, which I couldn't miss, of course. There were quite a lot of people (including Klaus Doldinger) who congratulated him before and after the show - I think even some newspapers announced the fact that the day of the show is also his birthday.

Herbie played with his current Gershwin's World band - which features Ira Coleman on bass, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, Eddie Henderson on trumpet and Eli Degibri on saxophone. He introduced all of his band members right at the beginning of the show; the best part of that was when a guy from the audience yelled "sexy drummer!!", and Herbie said "Yeah, no doubt, we're glad there's someone in the band who is sexy," then turned to introduce Cyro and said "On the other hand ...". Cyro grinned, and Herbie said "No, I'm sure the girls find you sexy," and Cyro replied "My mom finds me sexy."

The performance was awesome; they played Gershwin tunes (with two exceptions - "One Finger Snap" and the encore, "Cantaloupe Island") and turned them into a kind of suite since there was no talking or chatting between the pieces. Herbie seemingly listened to a whole lot of freejazz CDs before this concert, as the first piece was unusually abstract and free, with Eddie Henderson eager to remind everyone that he played trumpet on CROSSINGS. The other pieces (I think I've heard a snippet of the melody of "It Ain't Necessarily So" at some point, other than that I didn't recognize the tunes) were less free but still much edgier than the versions on the GERSHWIN'S WORLD CD. Often enough, Henderson and Degibri did some fierce soloing with a high 'squeak factor'. Carrington played well - quite frantically, actually - and had not only one but *two* long drum solos (both excellent, but I could have done without the second). Coleman didn't have as much of a spotlight, but he was excellent, too, holding everything together with precise and calm playing. Baptista was the star of the show - at least for the first few songs - since he kept on switching instruments every 3 seconds; he seemed like a child who wanted to show all his new and exciting instruments, seemingly afraid that after these 3 seconds the audience would lose interest. After a while, of course, the instruments became familiar, but during the first piece the focus was definitely on him. Anyway, his playing was excellent and he added an interesting flavor to the music - and he was an interesting contrast to Bill Summers.

Herbie's playing was (I guess I won't have to say that it was excellent, but hey, I just said it anyway) interesting. He's seemingly developing towards a more abstract, edgier style, as much of his playing was quite hard - the usual high runs came less often, instead he concentrated on low and sometimes dark chords. I noticed hints at this development in earlier concerts and sometimes on the newer CDs, but now it's coming much more to the forefront. Fascinating.

Well, I guess that's all I can report. You all know that I really enjoyed the concert, and hey, if I sound biased, so be it.

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For the third manifestation of Praxis, Bill Laswell returned from the cut-and-paste trash metal of the second album, SACRIFIST, to a band approach, as on the first, TRANSMUTATION. Concentrating on the core band of Buckethead, Brain and himself, he created an album which is close in spirit to the first one, but covers very different ground, and is also much weirder. From the touching opening ballad "Wake the Dead," we are in for a ride through everything Praxis has done before and much more: slow death metal riffs with damaged soloing on "Skull Creek," dub explorations on the relaxed "Cannibal" and the creepier "Warm Time Machine/Low End Transmission/Over the Foaming Deep," or mind-blowing shred guitar on "Turbine" and "Triad (The Saw Is Family)" -- the latter track toying, just like "Meta-Matic," with the listener's expectations by employing one killer riff after another without ever developing the way one expects. Calm interludes like "Cathedral Space" (hints of COLMA) and the haunting "Double Vision" are included, as well as mysterious voice samples ("We Are Not Sick Men!") and some doses of Buckethead's typical silliness -- "Armed (TSA Agent #5)" has him playing the melody of "Jingle Bells" with a hilariously distorted sampler guitar, while "Warcraft (Bruce Lee's Black Hour of Chaos)" features kung fu screaming (an interesting connection to Yamatsuka Eye's performance on SACRIFIST). On "Inferno/Heatseeker/Exploded Heart," Buckethead switches to electric bass and delivers a fascinating duel with Laswell. Throughout the album, Buckethead is awe-inspiring, playing not only with lightning speed and enormous precision, but also with dangerous intensity. The other two musicians are excellent as well, but the spotlight is clearly on Buckethead. The production, however, is the record's second star: there are interesting sounds abound (drilling sounds, oscillators, wind etc.), and each track (and virtually every guitar part) has a sonic identity of its own. METATRON is an incredible album (although beginners should start with TRANSMUTATION) and easily one of Buckethead's best showcases.




This review was written for the All-Music Guide on March 9, 2000.

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