Four decades have passed since the golden era of fusion, when groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return To Forever ruled the musical landscape. Today only a select few are still waving the flag for fusion. Chick Corea, at age 75, continues to fire up his Elektric Band on occasion while John McLaughlin, who at age 74 has announced that he will retire from touring at the end of 2017, is still killing it with his 4th Dimension Band. Joe Zawinul is gone but the powerhouse Zawinul Legacy Band continues in his spirit of fusing world music, rock and jazz. There’s also Human Element, a co-op group featuring keyboardist and Zawinul disciple Scott Kinsey, electric bass marvel Matthew Garrison, drummer Gary Novak and percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan. And bass great Jimmy Haslip, formerly of Yellowjackets, is reuniting with guitar slinger Robben Ford for another upcoming Jing-Chi project and also appears on the new Jeff Lorber Fusion album, Prototype.
Add to that list the name of Michael Schmidt, or as he prefers to be called, MSM Schmidt. The Bremen-born keyboardist-composer has been consistently turning out high quality jazz-rock recordings over the past decade with a Who’s Who in American Fusion as his sidemen. Bassist Haslip, who produced or co-produced Schmidt’s previous two outings — 2015’s Utopia and 2012’s Evolution — is back on board for Life, a staggering collection of funk fusion with some of the biggest names in that genre today, including guitarists Mike Miller and Oz Noy, keyboardists Kinsey and Mitchel Forman, saxophonist Steve Tavaglione, violinist Charlie Bisharat and a phalanx of superb drummers in Dave Weckl, Gary Novak, Virgil Donati and acclaimed German drummer Jost Nickel.
“This is my fifth project working with Michael and my third production for him,” said Haslip. “Over that time, I have found a real connection with Michael, his intellect and his passionate expression. Life is a culmination of his voice as a composer and synthesist. Working with Michael as a producer is always a beautiful challenge and quite rewarding on several levels and this project was a joy to work on. My hopes are that he will reach a larger widespread audience with the release of this new recording.”
Says Schmidt of his working relationship with bassist-producer Haslip: “We met in person for the first time after a ‘Tribute to Tony Williams’ concert with Allan Holdsworth in Berlin and immediately liked each other. With each project his role as a producer and his influence on the music has grown. He knows my favorites and by now has a carte blanche to select and contact the musicians and organize the recording sessions.”
This potent project, Schmidt’s sixth overall, also marks the final recorded performances of the late guitar hero Allan Holdsworth, who lends his astonishing legato lines to two songs on Life, the aptly-titled “Trance” and the posthumously-titled “Vista,” the name of the California town where the guitar great resided until his passing on Easter Sunday at the age of 70. “It has always been one of my dreams to feature Allan on one of my songs,” said Schmidt. “Thanks to Jimmy's initiative, this dream became true. And it came as a surprise, too, because Jimmy only told me after Allan's recording session was finished.”
Added Haslip, who played alongside Holdsworth in the guitarist’s group for the last ten years of his life (appearing on 2010’s 2-CD set, Blues For Tony): “I spent a couple of days with Allan in late January 2017 and watched over some of the final process of him editing and playing, but basically his process was best accomplished with no one around. He was a perfectionist with his own very meticulous method of compiling his music and his solos. He preferred to be alone during those days of preparing, studying the harmony at hand and then building and constructing his soloing on the two tunes he played on. He was brilliant and like no other musician I've ever worked with. His playing will always be ahead of its time, even though he would never cop to that, being such a very humble person. I was extremely appreciative to him for agreeing to play on the music and I will always be in awe of working with him.”
Originally a self-taught drummer, Schmidt transitioned to keyboards during the ‘90s as he began developing a knack for composition. “Over the years I discovered that playing drums did not put me in the position to influence songs,” he explained. “Therefore I started to learn to play keyboards and various music software to compose my own music. Realizing that my drumming skills were too limited, I discovered that it was more satisfying to compose music. And with the help of my friend Helge Mruck, who showed me how to play keyboards and create songs on the computer, I began composing. As time passed, keyboards and software became more and more user friendly, which made composing easier for me. Not knowing how to read and write notes, I searched for sounds that are close to the natural instrument I had in mind, so that musicians who I wanted to play the music got an impression of my idea. However, I always needed the support of professionally educated musicians who were able to put my music into playable charts.”
The album kicks off with the kinetic groover “Trance,” underscored by Weckl’s authoritative backbeat and featuring some brisk soprano sax lines from Katisse Buckingham, a member of the Zawinul Legacy Band. Kinsey delivers an exhilarating synth solo on this aggressive number and Holdsworth contributes one of his patented mind-blowing legato solos to quickly elevate the proceedings.
Novak paces the melodic “Saudade City,” which features a soaring soprano sax solo from Andy Snitzer and an edgy fusion guitar solo from Mike Miller. “Vista,” dedicated to Allan Holdsworth, rides on Donati’s insistent groove. John Daversa delivers a haunting muted trumpet solo here while Holdsworth extended jaw-dropping solo is followed by a furious flurry on the kit by Donati.
The percolating, African flavored 6/8 jam on “Life” is fueled by Nickel’s muscular drumming and features a buoyant frontline of Tavaglione overdubbing flutes and soprano sax. Schmidt’s chorus of programmed handclaps and Sophia Wackerman’s wordless vocals add to the uplifting vibe of this highly-charged number. Haslip also turns in a resounding fretless bass solo here and is followed by potent solos from guitarist Miller and Tavaglione sailing over the top on soprano sax.
“Red & Gold” is an infectious world music flavored groove powered by Donati’s solid backbeat and the strong piano comping of Ruslan Sirota, a Ukranian pianist-composer who came to Schmidt’s attention as a member of the Stanley Clarke Group at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands. This ebullient number features a bracing violin solo from former Mahavishnu Orchestra member Jerry Goodman along with a heroic wah-wah soaked guitar solo from Oz Noy and a rousing piano solo from Sirota.
The driving “Exodus” is a large ensemble showcase featuring a stellar horn section comprised of saxophonists Bob Mintzer, Brandon Field and Snitzer alongside the Fowler Brothers (Walt on trumpet and Bruce on trombone, both formerly of the Frank Zappa band). Nickel anchors this swaggering bit little big band funk which features killer solos from guitarist Miller, tenor saxophonist Mintzer and soprano saxophonist Snitzer.
“Rush” is a slap bass feature for the incredible MonoNeon (aka Dwayne Thomas, jr.), a YouTube sensation and protege of Prince and Screaming Headless Torsos guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski. Weckl lays down the slamming groove while Sirota comps persuasively on the Rhodes before adding a nimble, Herbie Hancock influenced solo. Larry Koonse contributes a warm-toned flowing guitar solo and MonoNeon adds a fluid fretless bass solo on this invigorating number.
“Medusa” is a menacing bit of slow-grooving funk-fusion paced by the formidable tandem of Donati and Haslip and featuring a potent Rhodes solo from Kinsey. Oz adds a ripping distortion-laced guitar solo that is brimming with urgent speed-picking and audacious fretboard flights while Donati showcases a touch of metric modulation on his drum solo before erupting on the kit with abandon at the tag.
“RE-Start” is a buoyant bit of future funk fueled by the tight tandem of Novak and Haslip along with Schmidt’s kinetic synth sequences. Snitzer carries the melody on soprano sax while Noy showcase his heavy metal bebop chops on a fuzz-inflected guitar solo. Keyboardist Andy Milne also stretches out on a potent Rhodes solo here. The album closes with a short reprise of the title track, which reveals a significant world music influence.
“I would definitely describe my music as fusion,” says Schmidt. “My influences come from bands like Metro, The Yellowjackets, Weather Report and Steps Ahead and also from film scores from the eighties. I am a big fan of the French composer Michel Colombier, who lived in Los Angeles for many years and wrote scores for movies such as Purple Rain and The Golden Child, both synthesizer-heavy scores with drum programming.”
All those myriad influences come together in brilliant fashion on Life, another fully realized project from the pen of MSM. — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Down Beat and Germany’s Jazzthing magazine. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Backbeat Books)
1. Trance (feat. Dave Weckl, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Kinsey, Jimmy Haslip & Katisse Buckingham) 6:02
2. Saudade City (feat. Gary Novak, Andy Snitzer, Scott Kinsey, Mike Miller, Ruslan Sirota & Jimmy Haslip) 7:32
3. Vista (feat. Virgil Donati, Allan Holdsworth, John Daversa, Andy Milne & Jimmy Haslip) 8:20
4. Life (Long Version) [feat. Jost Nickel, Mike Miller, Steve Tavaglione, Jimmy Haslip & Sophia Wackermann] 8:11
5. Red and Gold (feat. Virgil Donati, Ruslan Sirota, Jerry Goodman, Oz Noy & Jimmy Haslip) 6:19
6. Exodus (feat. Jost Nickel, Mitch Forman, Mike Miller, Brandon Fields, Andy Snitzer, Bob Mintzer, Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Charlie Bisharat & Jimmy Haslip) 6:59
7. Rush (feat. Dave Weckl, MonoNeon, Ruslan Sirota, John Daversa & Larry Koonse) 7:19
8. Medusa (feat. Virgil Donati, Scott Kinsey, Oz Noy & Jimmy Haslip) 7:39
9. Re Start (feat. Gary Novak, Oz Noy, Andy Milne, Andy Snitzer & Jimmy Haslip) 6:45
10. Life (Short Version) [feat. Jost Nickel, Mike Miller, Steve Tavaglione, Sophia Wackerman & Jimmy Haslip] 5:29
Charlie Bisharat, Katisse Buckingham, John Daversa, Virgil Donati, Brandon Fields, Mitchel Forman, Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Jerry Goodman, Jimmy Haslip, Allan Holdsworth, Scott Kinsey, Larry Koonse, Mike Miller, Andy Milne, Bob Mintzer, MonoNeon, Jost Nickel, Gary Novak, Oz Noy, Michael Schmidt, Ruslan Sirota, Andy Snitzer, Steve Tavaglione, Sophia Wackerman, Dave Weckl