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CD Review: Spectrum Road (Palmetto Records)

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Spectrum Road

Just because Jack Bruce’s name is on the cover, don’t expect this new group to be the second coming of Cream. Although Bruce’s unmistakable bass is all over his new group’s debut CD—along with his distinctive voice on some tracks—this is not a throwback to his legendary power trio’s (with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) potent mix of blues, rock and pop. Rather, Spectrum Road is a four-piece band dedicated to celebrating the music of jazz-rock fusion pioneers The Tony Williams Lifetime. Some mighty players had played in the Lifetime band, including John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and Patrick O’Hearn—even Bruce himself, who worked with the band for one album in 1970. The centerpiece of the group was drummer Tony Williams, who died in 1997. In keeping with his band’s tradition of musical powerhouses, Bruce has assembled an all-star lineup to play this music: Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid; keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood; and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana, best known for her work with Lenny Kravitz (she’s also played with her famous guitarist husband Carlos Santana). Blackman shares vocals with Bruce, but much of this is instrumental, and it’s when the band really gets cooking, improvising on The Lifetime’s sturdy melodic constructs, that Spectrum Road shines brightest. With this caliber of players, how could it not? Reid is an amazingly dexterous and speedy guitarist (remember his solo on Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality”? Times that by 10.) Medeski provides sympathetic backing chords on organ and synthesizer, occasionally stepping out with inventive soloing of his own. Blackman-Santana shows off some very impressive jazz chops on this CD. And of course, Jack Bruce is the man, still, at age 68, cranking out superb bass lines and singing with all the strength and passion of his younger days. The material, culled from the Lifetime band’s catalog, can be difficult to take in at times, with strange chord progressions and rhythms that may not be easy on all ears. But Spectrum Road stands tall as a rewarding if challenging listen, one that grows through repeat plays as the virtuosity sinks in. Recorded naturally (it sounds like this was totally cut live in the studio), this is the sound of gifted players strutting their stuff on material that holds up. Let’s hope Spectrum Road is not just a one-shot, and that perhaps they choose to create their own original music together next time.

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