One You Missed: Spectrum Road

From where I sit, fusion has never gotten its just due. Jazz purists revile it for its use of electric instruments, and rock fans (outside of Prog) resent the tricky time signatures, improvisation, and the sheer volume of notes being played. But if not for fusion (and my father’s ability to spot his son’s musical weak spots), I might never have started and maintained my love affair with jazz. Forty years later, I’m still in love with fusion, and nearly all that comes with it.

My go-to artists are usually Return to Forever, Jean-Luc Ponty, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Miles Davis. With the release of In a Silent Way in 1969, Miles is often credited with giving birth to fusion. That’s not entirely accurate. The real credit should be shared with the drummer in Miles’s band, Tony Williams. In addition to his work with Miles, Williams formed his own band called The Tony Williams Lifetime. The group featured John McLaughlin (guitar), Larry Young (organ), and on their second album, Jack Bruce (bass).

Lifetime’s music broke new ground. Still, their music — while revolutionary — sounds almost quaint by modern standards. And like any other innovation, the music made by other artists evolved over the years, providing ornate musical elements to the foundation Williams and company established.

Nearly 45 years later, Spectrum Road (a band named somewhat after one of the songs on Lifetime’s first album, Emergency) emerged to pay tribute to Williams and his innovation. The band featured Vernon Reid (guitar), Bruce, John Medeski (keyboards), and Cindy Blackman-Santana (drums). They released a self-titled album featuring updates on Lifetime songs and band originals. The music they created was extraordinary.

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I was only vaguely familiar with Lifetime when I bought Spectrum Road. While I’ve always respected Williams, I actually bought the new CD out of loyalty to Reid, whom I’ve admired since Living Colour. I was also a fan of Jack Bruce’s work with Cream, John Medeski’s work with Medeski, Martin & Wood, and I saw Blackman-Santana perform with Lenny Kravitz. All four in the same band? How could I possibly pass on that?

Even though I was familiar with the musicians, there is NO WAY I could’ve been prepared for the sonic tsunami that came through my speakers after pushing the “play” button. I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years, and the sound of this band hit me like a ton of bricks.

I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the efforts of Spectrum Road to that of the artist who inspired them. To my mind, it’s like comparing a luxury car from the sixties to a modern day vehicle of the same make and model. Both will get you there in style, but one will have a few more modern bells and whistles, and will thereby seem “better.” When I listen to the Lifetime albums (particularly Emergency), I can hear the time they were recorded in as well as the music:  fewer tracks, more open space, more primitive. Spectrum Road makes the most out of the digital recording technology made available by 2012. Comparing the guitar rigs of McLaughlin and Reid is also a case of night and day. I’ll just say this: thanks to modern technology, Spectrum Road has a much cleaner, clearer sound overall.

One other elephant in the room must be addressed: Tony Williams was one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz. He was a true innovator both on the drum kit and in the creation of fusion. But the man, God rest his soul, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I love the music, but the vocals can be a distraction. With Spectrum Road, Bruce and Blackman-Santana handle the vocal duties. And while neither of them give opera singers anything to worry about, they are an improvement. That being said,The Tony Williams Lifetime is a must for any fusion fan. Just brace yourself.

What follows is 25 minutes of power from Spectrum Road. Don’t let the opening ballad fool you.  Things get very, very heavy as things go on. Even if the recording itself leaves just a bit to be desired. Call it The Great Era Equalizer, where sound comparisons with the original band are concerned.

I hoped there would be a second album from this spectacular group. I asked Vernon Reid about it when I interviewed him for my book. I remember seeing Vernon’s eyes light up at the possibility. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Jack Bruce passed away in October of 2014, a month or so after I posed the question. We will have to make due with the debut album. Nevertheless, Spectrum Road has left one helluva legacy in its wake.

I’ve been exploring a few of the fusion acts on Bandcamp. Most are very young and still trying to find their way. I hope they take the time to study The Tony Williams Lifetime and Spectrum Road. The inspiration should be boundless.

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