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CD Review: Frank Russell - Influences: A Tribute to Bass Guitar in Jazz

Frank Russell – Lead, Fretless & 5-String Bass Guitars; Vocals – 5, 7, 9, 13

Dee Alexander – Vocals – 5, 6, 7

Wallace Roney – Trumpet – 1, 3, 6

Robert Irving III – Keys – 1, 6

Vijay Tellis-Nayak – Keys – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13

Greg Spero – Keys – 3, 8, 11, 12, 13

Henry Johnson – Guitar – 1, 3, 6

Marco Villarreal – Guitar – 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Khari Parker – Drums – 2, 3, 8, 9, 12

Makaya McCraven – Drums – 1, 6, 11, 13

Charles Heath – Drums – 4, 5, 7, 10

Tony Carpenter – Percussion

Tim McNamara – Tenor Saxophone / Flute / Alto Flute / Bass Clarinet

John McClellan – Flugelhorn - 5

To figure out the motivation behind veteran electric bassist Frank Russell’s new album, Influences, all you have to do is play the final, title cut, where Russell recites a list of his, well, influences that include the cream of the 70’s-80’s fusion players: “Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, [his friend] Daryl Jones, Paul Jackson, Stanley Banks.” Just a few bars into “Decoy,” I am transported back into the golden era of fusion bass, when Pastorius, Clarke, and Alphonso Johnson led the way toward players like Jackson, Miller, and (personal fave) Gerald Veasley. Everything is in place: the sharp, insistent, muscular, voluble, scatting Russell bass chatter; the shimmering synth comping from Miles-vet Robert Irving III; the clarion clarity and insistent, Miles-like presence of (who else?) Wallace Roney; the tapping and dramatic fills from Makaya McCraven. Irving’s exquisite acoustic piano and Henry Johnson’s lightly-picked but loquacious guitar runs help recreate what many of us liked about that 70’s period, when two worlds, electric and acoustic, fused. Russell’s new album shamelessly celebrates this time, providing richly textured performances and production that remind us how much jazz benefited from that period.

As witnessed by the celebrated jazz fusion program at Columbia College, and testified by young musicians turned on by Robert Glasper and Christian Scott’s Stretch Music, fusion-ist sounds are making a comeback. People like Frank Russell help by reminding these newbies where Glasper’s ideas, at least, were germinated. Influences covers the gamut from classic Fusion to more enlightened Smooth Jazz. Russell’s impeccable chops and production savvy make this album less a tribute and more a celebration. Each piece has nuances that tie the performances to the sophisticated studio works that dominated the original era. The guitar plays a huge part of the comeback. Besides the assortment of Russell’s double-tracked Lakland basses on many tunes, the voluble contribution of Marco Villarreal dominates a significant portion and Chicago’s Johnson adds tasty notes during three songs. Almost as a nod to that “other” guitar, Villarreal gets to show off on his composition “Perpetual.” Memories of fusion guitar heroes come to play here, as Russell takes a relative back seat to the arpeggios.

Besides “Decoy,” the title cut provides goose bumps of memory for fusion lovers. Essentially a jam, Russell lays down a funky beat while tap dancing over it, pushed by frenetic synth work from keyboardists Greg Spero and co-producer Vijay Tellis-Nayak, with energetic support from McCraven. After a Russell solo and additions from Spero, Villarreal enters the fray with expressions that reflect the angularity of Dean Parks and Scott Henderson.

The special guests--Irving III, Roney, and the Windy City’s Dee Alexander--make their marks in significant ways. Irving III brings the gravitas of his Miles connection to two songs, while Roney’s presence helps, in a sense, to make sure the album “represents” that genesis of fusion. The inclusion of Marcus Miller’s “Tutu” pretty much mandated a role for Roney, who ghosts Miles in the way we’ve come to expect over the years. And Alexander’s additional wordless/scatting vocal here signifies her as a true treasure. She also joins Russell as part of a synth choir in “Rosalind’s Dream” and serves as the vocalist on the short, calypso-infused “Ladysmith Song of Joy,” which also features spirited percussion from Charles Heath and Tony Carpenter. While one hears his influence on much of what Russell plays, Pastorius is officially paid a tribute on Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life.” The difference between the original and this new rendition is in the addition of saxophonist Tim McNamara as the lead, rather than Villarreal, who is called to accompany McNamara and add texture. Spero provides orchestrated layers and a fine solo.

Throughout, Russell waxes eloquently in whatever language is employed. Check out his exquisite expression in Spero’s composition “Hills,” that support-cast presence in “Perpetual,” and the understated, rock solid underpinning behind McNamara and Tellis-Nayak on Jose Feliciano’s “Affirmation,” which should be touted on any smart Smooth Jazz station. The same could be said about “Quiet Afternoon,” a relatively placid piece featuring McClellan on flute, embellished by Khari Parker’s intricate but slightly restless drumming.

Besides “Decoy,” “Tutu,” and “Influences,” this reviewer was drawn to the dynamic playing on “Hills,” where Villarreal shines as an avatar of late 80’s fusion guitar and McCraven mirrors Dennis Chambers as a drummer you can’t ignore. Repeated listening to Influences reveals the depth and experience of its performers, a nod to the production expertise of Russell and Tellis-Nayak. Unless one is averse to the world of fusion or to the quality of its representatives, Influences will be a gift that keeps on giving to the tasteful jazz fan and an incentive to young jazz fans to check out those influences for themselves.

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