Follow the Spectrum Road
(Photos by Odawni Palmer)
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: if you care at all about Rock and Roll that’s older than a year and don’t make it to Jazz Alley to see and hear Jack Bruce this week, we can’t be friends. Seriously, go. How many chances do you get to be in the presence of a living, breathing rock legend of that caliber, much less in a room as relatively small and intimate as Jazz Alley? So do we understand each other? Good.
If he is (somehow) not enough of a motivation on his own, Bruce is in town as part of Spectrum Road, a tribute to the late great drummer Tony William‘s lightyears-ahead-of-any-time jazz rock band Lifetime. Along with Bruce on bass and vocals, Spectrum Road consists of Vernon Reid (Living Colour) on guitar, John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood) on keys and Cindy Blackman-Santana (Lenny Kravitz) on drums.
Far from the fussier and more heavily mannered jazz fusion bands that were its contemporaries, Lifetime brought the rock and the funk in a way that took decades to be truly appreciated much less equaled. The tribute is the brainchild of Bruce, who played with Lifetime, and Reid, whose playing has always belonged more in the jazz/rock family tree along with stalwarts like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey, even when crunching out rock riffs with Living Colour. The band played Jazz Alley last year, and has returned to Seattle this week to support the release of their new self-titled debut album, out on Palmetto Records.
The band opened the set with their version of Williams’ “Wildlife,” which provided plenty of showcase room for Reid and Medeski, before moving on to “There Comes a Time” with vocals by Bruce, which culminated in a ferocious drum solo from Blackman-Santana. The set moved through many of the best pieces from Lifetime’s catalog, with the band effortlessly shifting from heavy rock (“Vuelta Abajo”) to whimsical blues shuffle to space rock that would make The Mars Volta deeply envious.
While each individual player provided plenty of stratospheric individual moments, Spectrum Road’s group cohesion and beyond-telepathic interplay elevated the performance far above noodley fusion or jam band slog. In place of the typical, epic 10-minute solos, both Reid and Medeski opted for shorter (but still blazing) statements, moving back to ensemble interaction more often than might be expected of a jazz-rock “supergroup.” Bruce laid down thundering bass lines, providing plenty of bottom end, but also moving to the upper register of his fretless electric to converse with the other players. His singular voice, still stunning if not quite as strong (he apparently had a recent throat infection), was featured on a number of songs, including a beautiful version of “One Word” that closed the set.
Even with a front line of that magnitude and muscle, the real star of the show (both this time around and when the band was here last year) was Cindy Blackman-Santana. Her dynamic playing held the whole thing together and propelled it forward constantly and relentlessly. On song after song, just when it seemed as if the energy couldn’t get any higher or the groove any heavier, Blackman-Santana would push it to that next level.
Taking what could be an unenviable task–filling the drum chair in a Tony Williams tribute–and making it her own, Blackman-Santana doesn’t so much channel Williams as she distills his musical legacy to its various essences and expresses it her own original voice (literally at times, providing vocals on some songs). Whether pounding out the heaviest rock grooves or elevating space jams with propulsive beats, Blackman-Santana consistently and effortlessly stole the show from her bandmates, but always in service to the music and not at its expense.
All in all, the band sounded both tighter and more relaxed on this outing than their show here last year. Hopefully, they will continue to work together, as the world needs more of Williams music, especially performed by musicians of this caliber, who have such an obvious love for the material. Spectrum Road is at Jazz Alley through tonight. Go get your face melted.