Alex Henderson
Music Reviewer
Genres: Alternative Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Jazz, Metal, Punk, Latin, R&B, Hip-Hop, Reggae, Blues, World Music

Alex Henderson is a veteran journalist/music critic whose work has appeared in Billboard, Spin, The L.A. Weekly, Creem, HITS, Jazziz, JazzTimes, CD Review, Skin Two, Black Radio Exclusive, Thrash Metal and a long list of other well known publications. Known for his eclectic tastes, Alex has contributed several thousand CD reviews to The All Music Guide online and series of reference books since 1996. Jello Biafra, Sonny Rollins, Megadeth, Ice Cube, Live, Chick Corea, Public Enemy, Marduk, Bobby Brown, Ra and Everlast are among the many well known artists Alex has interviewed during his long career.

25 Aug, 2014

Fusion is famous for its guitarists. After all, fusion is a mixture of jazz, rock and funk. And in fusion, guitar heroes like John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Larry Coryell, Scott Henderson, John Scofield and Mike Stern have enjoyed the type of respect that Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck have enjoyed in vocal-oriented rock. But fusion has a rich tradition of keyboardists as well. Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, George Duke and Herbie Hancock were among the many improvisers who started out playing straight-ahead hard bop or post-bop on the acoustic piano before making their way to electric keyboards and incorporating rock and funk elements. And it is that tradition of fusion keyboardists that inspires the Washington State-based keyboardist/composer Tim Gemmill on his album Road Songs.

Gemmill doesn't have a lot of assistance on this album. He wrote most of the material by himself, although he produced the album with his colleague Cozzetti. And Cozzetti co-wrote the Return to Forever-ish track "Red Valley" (which contains some wordless vocals that recall singer Gayle Moran's work with Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s). But it is Gemmill's personality that does the most to shape the album musically. And while Road Songs sounds more produced and more programmed than a lot of fusion recordings, Gemmill's appreciation of artists like Corea, Hancock, Duke and Zawinul comes through.

There is a Weather Report-ish mood on the funky "Proteus" and "Empire in Quest" as well as on "No Na Me," "Fugue" and "Pine Siskin." Weather Report, for the uninitiated, was a great fusion band that Zawinul co-founded with tenor/soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter in 1970. Zawinul and Shorter both started out in acoustic straight-ahead jazz: Zawinul was part of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's group in the 1960s, and Shorter kept busy in trumpeter Miles Davis' mid-1960s quartet as well as with the acoustic post-bop albums he recorded for Blue Records as a leader. But when Zawinul and Shorter co-founded Weather Report, they wanted to go in a more amplified direction. Weather Report favored a mixture of jazz, rock and funk, but they also incorporated a variety of world music. And on parts of Road Songs, one hears Gemmill incorporating world music in a way that recalls Zawinul and Shorter's collaborations. "Zigzag," for example, recalls the way Weather Report would sometimes incorporate African music: it reminds the listener of music from Mali, Ethiopia and the Sudan, but not at the expense of jazz, funk and rock appeal. "No Na Me" also has that type of African influence.

"Fugue," meanwhile, is a contemplative piece that hints at European church music. Between the African influence on "Zigzag" and "No Na Me" and the European influence on "Fugue" and a performance of J.S. Bach's "Invention No. 13 in A Minor," Road Songs draws inspiration from different parts of the world. And that may explain why it is called Road Songs: if someone hits the road, does a lot of international traveling and checks out the music scenes in different countries, he/she is likely to be exposed to a variety of musical styles.

"Invention No. 13 in A Minor" is the only song on this album that Gemmill didn't either write or co-write. He wrote "Drone," "Proteus," "Zigzag," "Blues for Ralph," "Pine Siskin," "Empire in Quest," "Fugue" and "No Na Me" but co-wrote "Red Valley" with Cozzetti.

"Blues for Ralph" is funky in a way that recalls the late George Duke's instrumental fusion output of the early to mid-1970s. Duke wore many different hats during his long career: he was an acoustic post-bop pianist, an electric fusion keyboardist, a funk/soul singer ("Reach for It" from 1977 was a funk classic and a big hit), and an R&B producer. Pigeonholing Duke was next to impossible, and on "Blues for Ralph," it isn't the vocal-oriented funk of "Reach For It" or "Dukey Stick" (a 1978 single) that Gemmill brings to mind, but rather, the fusion-oriented, instrumental Duke of 1972, 1973 and 1974. There are no vocals on "Blues for Ralph," and it is Gemmill's keyboards that make the tune funky.

Actually, there are very few vocals on Road Songs. And even when one does hear the occasional singing on this album, it is wordless scat singing. "Red Valley" and "Drone" are both examples of Gemmill incorporating wordless vocals, but the vast majority of the time, he keeps things instrumental.

Tim Gemmill
Road Songs
Artist: Tim Gemmill
Review by Alex Henderson
3 stars out of 5
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