Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jazz/Rock Collides Again: Lenny White's First CD of Original Material in 10 Years Due in the Stores This May

Drummer Lenny White is set to open the bomb bay doors next May and drop his first CD of original material in 10 years. When Anomaly (Abstract Logix) detonates there will be a big, LOUD technicolor explosion of musical colors. It won’t be quite what anyone expected next. But with Lenny, it never is.

“It’s back to what I used to play. But it’s a little more… rockin’ than anything I’ve done. If people thought Astral Pirates was rock… this is rock. The CDs that are made today are usually more funky oriented—fusion… it’s close to R&B, that kind of vibe. I didn’t want to do that.”

Anomaly is decidedly not fusion, but jazz/rock, with the emphasis on the rock half of the conjoined form. In fact, if jazz/rock is jazz with rock sensibilities, this is rock/jazz, rock with jazz sensibilities.

“It’s a little more of an experiment for me to really go back to playing rock. Roots. It’s got other things, too. But the rock really is… rock,” he continued, his face breaking into a wide grin. “It’s called Anomaly...”

How much of an anomaly is it?

“This album is angular,” he said in his thoughtful, measured way. “It goes in different directions. I was just making music I like to make. It’s probably the first recording I’ve done just of things I like to do.”

Which means rock, as you will soon discover. Unlike many jazzers who came up strictly in a jazz tradition, White grew up steeped in rock and roll as well. It means that when Miles Davis needed another set of drums added to Jack DeJohnette’s to provide textural colors for Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), he used Jackie McLean’s 19-yr.old drummer, Lenny White.

It also means opera. Opera? An extended piece on Anomaly is based on a selection from an opera he had been writing for several years. But it isn’t your mother’s kind of opera. He says the passage he performs was written when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. “It woke me up. The idea is that it’s time to be accountable.” Titled “The Wait Has Lifted the Weight,” he characterized this symphonic work, which features everything from him doing a spoken word introduction to the talented Bernard Wright using his magically wired keyboards to play one of the most inspired “guitar” solos I’ve ever heard, as “a spiritual that is about my roots.”

Another track called “Water Changes Everything,” featuring impassioned vocals from R&B diva Nicki Richards in some exotically glistening world music, means to transport the listener to a new level of understanding, a state of grace, and succeeds.

Another track is a fairly straight rendition of a composition done by White’s old collaborator and friend, saxophonist Joe Henderson, “Gazelle,” done as the purest kind of jazz/rock, an even 50-50 mix reminiscent of those great early 1970s CTI sessions, with hard bop space and rock repercussions.

Yes, the key concept on this recording is the way it keeps coming back to a sharp, rock-centric focus, a hard-hitting kind of rhythmic drive that pushes the listener along, tune after tune, in a visceral, heart-pounding, headlong rush.

Remember the feverish, exhilarating excitement of hearing Sly and the Family Stone’s Woodstock performance of “I Wanna Take You Higher,” or the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter?” Remember the first time you were propelled pell mell through the musical universe created by Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love?” Remember the seismic energy of the bass as it pummeled you and took over your breathing, and the drums as they overtook your heartbeat?


Like a great number of jazz fans, I’ve been listening religiously to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) for many years. When he made this revolutionary recording with White and DeJohnette, guitarist John Mc Laughlin, bassists Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks, pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, and all the other great musicians, Miles had referred to them collectively as “the best damn rock and roll band in the world.” Like a few, I’ve repeatedly listened to the box set of the complete recording sessions, plus every other recording of that virtuosic ensemble that I could lay my hands on. And I’ve listened to a great deal of the music it has spawned. But as profoundly as I love so much of what Miles and many of the others did, I’ve never really thought of it as rock and roll.

But it's undeniable there was a renaissance in jazz that began with those Bitches Brew sessions, after Miles had gotten a running start on Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia, 1968) and In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). For a dozen years afterward, jazz and rock collided to produce sublime kinds of music no one had ever heard before, music heard only rarely since. The collision of the two forms produced what was eventually labeled Jazz-Rock.

White soon joined his friends Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea and played with Return To Forever, one of the seminal bands that sprang from the Bitches Brew matrix. The new music had the power and volume of rock and roll, but the harmonies and rhythmic approach of jazz. Mahavishnu Orchestra rocked it a little harder. Weather Report improvised it more, and the Headhunters funked it up. All were magnificent artists playing brilliantly.

But, with no disrespect intended for Miles or anyone else involved, I’d never thought of it as rock and roll. So when Lenny had said “it’s rock,” the reality of what he was saying didn’t quite hit me. Not that I didn’t trust him to tell me the truth. Lenny White places great value on communication and is among the more honorable people I’ve ever known – the first time I ever interviewed him I told him to feel free to retract any statement he later regretted making, and his response was: “It’s okay. I don’t say anything that I don’t mean.”

No, the reason his statement wasn’t registering is that I had redefined rock & roll in my own mind as it relates to jazz. Over the years I had developed an idée fixe, a fixed idea, about what constitutes rock and roll, much in the same way some jazz purists tolerantly accepted jazz/rock as an art form but say it is not jazz. On one level this is just wordplay, because the music exists as itself no matter what it is called. The musicians play it well or not. You like it or you don't. But the music is called something and it is discussed. The discussion that blew up when Bitches Brew was released in 1970 became an argument over not only what to call it, but whether it was jazz. Or rock. Or neither one.

Or both. It is jazz/rock. Going back recently to the "cold sweat" beat of Filles de Kilimanjaro and the straighter rock beats of Bitches Brew, I've already discovered a lot of room inside the the word "rock." And thanks to this new recording of Lenny White's, I'm going to keep listening.

Anomaly was recorded last year whenever Lenny had a few hours to spend in the studio. It was a busy time for him, culminating in a world tour with two of his old Return To Forever band mates. Corea, Clarke & White, as they eventually billed themselves (instead of the original Power of Three, which implied that their name was really Return To Before Forever or the Power of Four Minus One) had opened their tour September 2 at the Hollywood Bowl shortly after a brilliant, wildfire-orange sunset. Ten weeks later he and the boys had taken a short break over Thanksgiving, and during a 12-hour layover at LAX on his way to Tokyo to begin the Asian leg of the tour, Lenny opened his laptop and cued up the first tune, “Drum Boogie.” Then he handed me a pair of headphones, put on a pair of his own, and turned up the volume. I was immediately struck by the fattest bass line I’ve heard in years, an ominously dramatic Victor Bailey funk riff that feels like he’s gunning a dangerously hot engine. The explosion that follows goes from zero to 60 in a couple bars and takes off like a nitro-fueled dragster, all tightened and powered up by White’s driving drum kit rhythms. When guitarist Nick Moroch (a veteran of Adventures of Astral Pirates band and several other of White’s recordings) blisters his distorted attack like he’s pouring it through a supercharger, I could scarcely believe my ears.

I looked over at Lenny, who was watching my reaction.

But before I could say anything the next track, “We Know,” had started. The only way I could ever have known this was music produced by Lenny White is that he was sitting right next to me. What I was hearing had the hard, low-frequency bottom of a James Gang or Bad Company recording. Anchoring the rhythm section with him is his friend and frequent collaborator, Stanley Clarke, a very rare bassist whose training on upright bass has enabled him to employ the electric instrument as a guitar and not just an amplified washtub, a bass guitarist who plays his axe like it’s a Stradivarius. Clarke is soon joined by Moroch playing a blazing guitar solo with chords voiced in ways only a jazzer could conceive. A second guitar solo comes from another veteran of White’s collaborations, David Bendeth (known more these days as the producer for bands like Paramore and Breaking Benjamin) who picks up where Moroch left off and puts on a shredding exhibition that goes until the tape stops running. At the end of the tune I took off the headphones and just stared at Lenny for a minute. My astonishment must have been obvious, because he laughed at me. “I told you it was rock!” he said.

So make that clear in your mind. “Drum Boogie” and nine of the other tracks on this CD are the most inspired, hardest driving rock anyone has done in years, recorded by a master jazzman who knows how to hit a down beat. It is also fresh and new. It is not Fusion. It is not updated Prog Rock or sweetened Grunge Rock. It is not re-tooled Metal or juiced-up New Age. It is cranked up, grab-you-by-the-balls Rock played with jazz sensibilities and values.

Jazz-Rock collides again

In fact, this music collides with a force you’ve never quite heard jazzers play before. This is hot, hissing explosiveness, much closer to Jimmy Page or Brian May than Django Reinhart or Pat Metheny. Like a real racing engine, the bone-jarring thunder created by White and his various guests will pin you to the back of your seat.

What makes jazz/rock jump is the rhythms. The key to the unusual musical hybrid is contained quite literally in the drum sticks, so it’s probably quite logical that the genre’s next great recording would come from a drummer. In no other form do the timekeeper’s acute engineering skills play a bigger role in the music’s locomotion, the way the other band members set their clocks. Every member of a rock ensemble hears that downbeat in his head like a hammer on an anvil, but a jazz player is always challenged to play his sophisticated changes over the top of it, and even leave it behind. The band know that any one of them can have a bad night. But if it’s the drummer who is having a bad night, everyone else is in for a bad one, too—no band can be any better than its rhythmic foundation.

Conversely, if he’s having a good night, the gig has a chance to be a good one. It is how the music is built. John Lennon's story of the Beatles' formative period when he and McCartney knew they needed a seasoned professional on the drum kit and went after Ringo Starr, speaks directly to the point. To form rock’s first real supergroup, drummer Ginger Baker recruited a bassist and guitarist to form a trio with people famous for their mutual dislike for each other, but through his leadership and single-minded determination was able to overcome the attendant obstacles and keep Cream together long enough to make history. A short while later it was another drummer, Billy Cobham, who joined forces with jazz’s premiere electric guitarist to create Mahavishnu Orchestra's very rock-oriented jazz. It was soon after that when Lenny White’s phone started ringing.

In late 1972, Chick Corea was mulling the idea of forming an electric band with a rock and roll rhythm section and called White from Japan. He asked his friend from the Miles Davis sessions if he was interested in joining him and Stanley Clarke, to replace Airto Moreira (who needed to return to New York with his wife, Flora Purim, and their newborn child) for an upcoming engagement at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. White jumped at the chance to play what he knew would be (and has since characterized as) a week of “fantastic music… really great.” On the last night of that fortuitous gig, three other local musicians sat in with them: guitarist Barry Finnerty, plus two players who were soon offered spots in Corea’s newly formed electric edition of Return to Forever, ex-Santana percussionist Mingo Lewis and guitarist Bill Connors. Corea also offered the drum chair to White.

Who respectfully turned him down. He liked the band he was playing with, the large Latin rock band Azteca. Formed by ex-Santana percussionists Coke and Pete Escovedo, this talent-rich group employed 17 musicians, including bassist Paul Jackson, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and ex-Santana guitarist Neil Schon, and had recorded an excellent debut LP for Columbia, Azteca (GNP Crescendo.)

Then a few months later another juicy offer came his way. This time from Herbie Herbert, who was managing some groups around the Bay area and had an idea for a new band he wanted to form with Neal Schon and bassist Ross Valory. What Herbert had in mind was a supergroup, a power trio, and he needed someone on the drum kit with rock and roll power. White was part of the Santana circle, part of the swirl of talent that flowed through that organization and through the band Azteca. White accepted the invitation to rehearse with them, but when it was time for a decision, he said he had to decline. White’s accountant may never forgive him for not taking the job with the band soon to be called Journey, but as the poor bean-counter must know by now, Lenny White has always listened very closely to his Muse.

He’d gotten another call from Chick Corea. Airto was gone. Upon their return to New York, Corea had hired his old friend Steve Gadd, but despite Gadd being a talented and well-regarded drummer, he was not a perfect fit. What was needed for this band was a unique combination of jazz sensibilities plus rock and roll power, precisely the kind White could supply. What he wanted was the drummer he had offered the job to in the first place. Clarke, who was creating the band alongside Corea, also knew White’s wide range of capabilities from the work they had done together in Joe Henderson’s band. Corea had written new material that he wanted to record. This was electric jazz that needed rock’s rhythmic concussion and bluster. And the young guitar player, Bill Connors, was playing like he wanted to un-seat John McLaughlin and Eric Clapton from their thrones. Was he interested?

Lenny White stood at a crossroads. He was in high demand as he stood at the precise point in time and space where Jazz and Rock were converging. It was unlikely that Chick Corea had spent much time listening to the Beatles, or that Neal Schon had heard Kind of Blue more than once or twice. What is important, however, is that Lenny White had.

Soon after arriving in New York, he joined Corea, Clarke and Connors in the studio and they recorded the seminal Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polygram.) Together with Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire (Sony) recording, these two recordings invaded the airwaves and shook the musical universe. The kids may have been listening to Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but they were listening to Return To Forever. The bar had been raised to an all-new level of virtuosity and power, and the second phase of jazz/rock, what might be termed Power Jazz/Rock, had begun.


I’d like to suggest that with Lenny White’s Anomaly, a third phase may have begun. Yes, it’s true that Progressive Rock could legitimately have made that claim. But that was then. This is now. This is new music. Call it Phase IV if you like.

A few quick takes on the different tracks:

1) Drum Boogie – As stated in other words elsewhere, this is high-pressure, rip-it-up funk that Sly Stone and George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins will be listening to. I can’t get enough of Victor Bailey’s opening riff and Bernard Wright’s beefy, in-your-face organ work. This tune went straight to my top 10 all-time favorite opening tracks.

2) We Know – Described earlier, but wait till you hear the sublime guitar choir of Nick Moroch and David Bendeth, with Stanley Clarke on bass. There’s great electric guitar, and then there’s electric guitar played by journeyman jazz musicians who can play anything, and have chosen to play rock.

3) Forever – Song stylist Nicki Richards has written the lyrics and stirring vocal arrangement here, and then used her powerful vocal instrument to sing them on this tribute to Michael Jackson. White’s composition and orchestration demonstrate, once again, his skills with writing music for the human voice.

4) Dark Moon – Guitarist David Gilmore’s lilting, swinging guitar work suits his writing on this tone poem, which finds everyone in the band in a kind of expansive, uptown Saturday night mood, ready to hit it and take in the night.

5) Gazelle – Easily one of my favorite tracks on this CD, this has a killer groove that lopes and prances along with the energy and grace of the African antelope it is named after, and features one of Lenny White’s rare drum solos that does just as intended: without presenting a distraction from the other musicians, he advances the song’s concept with rhythmic figures that dance along inside his composition with his signature sense of poly-rhythm and counterpoint.

6) If U Dare – This Tom Guarna composition is played by the same personnel as are on “Gazelle” – White, Guarna, Bailey and talented keyboardist George Colligan. These guys have a naturally complementary sound that seems to allow them to find and hit their stride almost instantly. Featuring Lenny’s one other drum solo on this CD, this tune and “Gazelle” create such a classic jazz/rock sound that they beg to be stretched out in live performance.

7) Election Day – Written in 2008 on election day, this is another metal monster like “We Know” that is a group of untamed jazzers in a rock-and-roll blowing session that just builds and builds, Lenny stomping out endless bass drum variations under the chorus’s guitar bridge that is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” until Moroch and Guarna come in with their Tabasco-hot guitar solos. Along with a triple keyboard attack from Wright, Colligan and Vince Evans, the wall of sound would overwhelm if it weren’t swinging so hard.

8) Coming Down – Just what it sounds like, this is a musical interlude that eases the listener down from a great height, firmly if not always quietly. Tom Guarna’s expressive guitar solo sizzles and Victor Bailey’s fretless bass solo smokes like the embers of a slowly dying fire. This time the White-Guarna-Bailey-Colligan quartet are joined by Bernard Wright and Vince Evans on keys, amplifying one of the nicest jazz/rock sounds in a long time.

9) Catlett Out of the Bag - Lenny White pairs up here with legendary Headhunter drummer Mike Clark for a crazy rhythmic interplay that every funk drummer in the world will listen to and study like a drum clinic. It starts innocently with a straight snare and cymbal figure, but then turns abruptly into a rippling back-and-forth exchange between White and Clark that layer-by-layer adds elements, first with Vince Evans’ keys and then Bernard Wright’s slowing rolling synth bass. When Danny Walsh’s sax comes in with Jerry Z’s organ, and then Tim Ouimette’s trombone, you’ll hear a sweet sound unlike anything you’ve likely heard since those old Headhunter days, and finally when Guarna comes in with his fire-breathing guitar, he blows the lid off and the slow-cooking stew boils over (if you listen closely you’ll hear Guarna play a lick that Jimi Hendrix first did and that Skunk Baxter later did a variation on with Steely Dan...and which he multiplies times ten.)

10) Water Changes Everything – The sounds and textures of far-off thunder and the cleansing downpour of pure water that it ushers in, make this strike a humanitarian chord for me that goes far beyond politics. More fundamental than money, easier to drill for than gold or silver, pure drinking water is the difference between life and death, the make-break point between civilization and barbarism. Writing with Sammie Williams and Rennie Hurst, White employs six vocalists and creates a wall of aural sound that is at once light air and more than big enough to fill the room.

11) Anthem – The title says it. Part heavy metal grandeur, part spiritual, part stadium rock that would look and sound great with space opera light-and-laser show to open a live concert in a big venue.

12) The Weight Has Lifted the Weight – This is an extended blues performed orchestrally and operatically to convey Lenny White’s thoughts about his roots, and his reflections on the cultural paradigm shift that occurred with the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Many times a blues composer will fall into the abundance of clichés we have come to identify with this musical form, but not so here. It is firmly in the tradition without being tied to it. I have seldom heard a composition that struck me with such emotional impact, in large part because of an extended guitar solo -- which, I learned after hearing it, is actually being played by the fantastically talented keyboardist Bernard Wright, on some combination of keyboard sampler/synthesizers that I don’t technically understand. But if perception is reality, what I hear Wright playing whenever I listen to this piece is as much a guitar as it would be if he were plucking strings. Lenny told me he had originally thought of a number of different guitarists for this, Eric Clapton among them, but that from the beginning he had thought Wright would be the best, provided it could be done. Let me assure you, it can be done. This is an inspirational, heart-rending work, best understood in its own terms, as is all great music, and best experienced simply by listening to it. Lenny White and I are both citizens of arguably the last free nation in the world. It is the only nation in modern history to ever have fought a civil war in order to emancipate an enslaved population and then freed them; the only nation to ever have fought successfully to preserve the rights and personal freedoms of anyone granted citizenship, regardless of race, creed, property or station; the same country which, all these years later, elected a black man to the most powerful position of leadership in the world. May God grant that it remain so.

Personnel in addition to Lenny White:

Bailey, Victor – electric and acoustic bass

Bendeth, Davidelectric guitar

Blackman, Donald – organ piano

Clark, Gregg – lead and backing vocal

Clark, Mikedrums

Clarke, Stanley – electric bass

Colligan, George – keyboards

Evans, Vince – keyboards

Fambrough, Charlesupright bass

Gilmore, David – electric guitar

Goods, Richard – electric bass

Guarna, Tom – electric guitar

Herring, Jimmy – electric guitar

James, Irenebacking vocal

Moroch, Nick – electric guitar

Ouimette, Tom – trumpet, trombone

Richards, Nickilead and backing vocal

Thomas, Vaneese – lead and backing vocal

Walsh, Danny – alto and tenor sax

Weeks-Reynoso, Michellebacking vocal

Williams, Chris – lead and backing vocal

Wright, Bernard – keyboards

Z, Jerry – organ

1 comment:

ASCOTTYG said...

"...And a drummer shall lead them into the storm that is Phase IV" - that is the stream of consciousness title that springs to mind after reading this passionate preview of master drummer/producer/composer/engineer Lenny White's latest.

Several releases in differing musical genres have reaffirmed for me the importance of taking one's time in sculpting true works of art. That Lenny White's last recording, Edge (dedicated to the great Tony Williams) was such a towering monument of the swing, funk and rock that Mr. White is capable, appears to have made it inevitible that he take some time before following it with the next statement.

Now, after touring the world with a reunited Return to Forever, wrestling with writing an opera, co-producing Nicki Richards' brilliant first CD in 17 years, working in an acoustic jazz trio with Stanley Clarke and Hiromi, and getting over the criminal indifference that met the all-star Vertu project, that Lenny is returning to his rock roots is a real "thriller" to imagine - especially with the expansive compositional ideas that have been put forth in this review.

I will be preparing my mind and ears for the onslaught with intensive reinvestigations into Bitches Brew, No Mystery and Edge - my favorite White works - along with the Nemperor years stuff, the Joe Henderson pieces, Azteca and, of course, ASTRAL PIRATES...and then I will wait. Though I was already knowing, this piece has confirmed that White's forthcoming Anomaly will be well worth my TSA - time spent anticipating.

Kudos to Carl Hager.

- A. Scott Galloway