JUSTICE COW, Underglam (2021). As a band, Bent Knee has proven time and time again just how remarkably talented they are as they push avant-pop toward the stratosphere and beyond. What more people need to know is just how talented the band members are as individuals, when it is possible to hear not only what each member brings to the Bent Knee table, but what they leave off that table to save for personal exploration. Bassist/vocalist Jessica Kion drives that point home with staggering proficiency via her band, Justice Cow, and their latest effort, Underglam. Layered with lush vocals and melodies, driving beats and rhythms subtle and overt, and just enough experimentalism to keep things slightly off-balance, Kion and company have produced a modern-day Kate Bush-like masterpiece that sounds every bit as earnest and sincere as anything she might have taken to Bent Knee. This is Kion stretching out, discovering what else is out there musically, and then making the absolute most of it. This is easily one of the better records of 2021.
JOHN MCLAUGHLN, Liberation Time (Abstract Logix, 2021). The “inner mounting flame” continues to burn brightly inside guitar/fusion legend John McLaughlin. His high-energy, high-wire fretboard acrobatics continue to dazzle even in his 80th year on the planet. Liberation Time, an album recorded with the help of the likes of Gary Husband (drums and piano), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Etienne MBappe (bass), and Julian Siegel, and Roger Rossignol (piano) drives the point home nicely, informing us that McLaughlin still has a lot to say. While his technique and speed are on full display, this is not a case of McLaughlin playing fast simply for the sake of doing so. These tunes are highly lyrical with melodies that blend beautifully with the provided grooves. And while he may be a fusion legend, McLaughlin also reminds us that he’s more than capable of firing off some remarkable straight-ahead jazz, as he does with Siegel’s help on “Right Here, Right Now, Right On.” There’s plenty left in McLaughlin’s musical tank. This is a great way to join him for the journey ahead.
PERCY JONES, ALEX SKOLNICK, KENNY GROHOWSKI, TIM MOTZER, PAKT (MoonJune Records, 2021). Put four legendary powerhouse musicians in a room together and interesting things are bound to happen. Bassist Percy Jones (Brand X), guitarists Alex Skolnick (Testament), and Tim Motzer (Bandit65, Orion Tango), and drummer Kenny Grohowski (Brand X, John Zorn) entered that musical room together, and walked out with a fascinating bit of extended improvisations. The music lilts and darts, rarely giving the listener the opportunity to become musically complacent. Some jams are longer than others, but all offer up a visceral challenge that will keep listeners amused for a long time to come. While it would be equally interesting to hear what these four players could do with a set of pre-composed pieces, it is also quite interesting to hear these players in a new context, where musical magic is captured in the moment and caution is thrown to the wind.
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