Live at the Baked Potato!
Monday, October 08, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
There's real intelligence and substance here alongside the youthful brio. “Live at the Baked Potato!” again serves notice that McGregor is a real talent to watch.
“Live at the Baked Potato!”
(Amorphous Paraphernalia Records)
Isamu McGregor is a young pianist and composer who was born and raised in Los Angeles but is now based in New York City following his studies on the jazz course at New York University. Still only twenty three McGregor is a highly versatile musician who has worked across a variety of jazz genres with some of the biggest names on the New York jazz scene. Constantly busy he is a prolific sideman but also leads his own projects. In 2010 his acoustic piano trio Origin Blue, featuring bassist Evan Crane and drummer Jeff Hatcher, released the highly promising “May I Say You Something?”, a recording that is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
McGregor continues to divide his time between the East and West Coasts and his latest recording represents something of a return to roots. One of McGregor’s primary musical influences was a live recording made at the famous Los Angeles jazz club The Baked Potato by keyboard player Greg Mathieson in 2000. As McGregor describes it this album featuring ex Miles Davis guitarist Michael Landau, bassist Abraham Laboriel and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta was “crazy and loud, rhythmic and obscenely groovy! It was this record in particular that piqued my interest in the inherent possibilities of jazz music”.
Twelve years on McGregor is inordinately proud to have made his own “Live at the Baked Potato”, an unashamedly fusion record featuring McGregor on electric piano and synthesiser (he’s credited with “keys”) alongside guitarist Deen Anbar, Evan Marien on electric bass and Gene Coye at the drums. However despite the retro trappings the fearlessness and youthful brio of the quartet’s playing ensures that this is a record very much for now, it crackles with an energy and intelligence that is unmistakably contemporary.
McGregor’s ability to move convincingly between acoustic and electric keyboards ensures that he’s routinely compared to Chick Corea and such is his skill and technique (classically trained, jazz honed) that the analogy is not entirely fanciful. Marien’s fluency on the electric bass is clearly derived from listening to the great Jaco Pastorius, Anbar is a fiery and inventive guitarist with strong rock leanings and Coye a funky but flexible drummer.
The programme consists entirely of McGregor originals with the exception of “Grover” by Philadelphia Experiment, the funk super-group consisting of keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Opener “Rainbows in Transit” sets the scene, building from MacGregor’s gentle solo keyboard opening through gently accumulating layers of funkiness to culminate Anbar’s stratospheric, heavily treated solo. The guitarist utilises his array of effects articulately throughout and combines brilliantly with McGregor’s varied keyboard sounds.
“A Simple Science” plays with stuttering funk rhythms with the four instrumentalists meshing tightly together. McGregor’s keyboard work is consistently inventive and bassist Marien is prominent throughout with Anbar breaking ranks towards the close.
A sci fi theme seems to run through many of the album titles, a homage perhaps to Corea’s 1973 album “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy”, the first electric Return To Forever record with Bill Connors still in the guitar chair. Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore spoke of that album’s “graceful arching lines” and “fiery cross-fire” going on to describe the album as “a last bold lunge before fusion got funked”. That record’s virtues can be applied to McGregor and his colleagues too. The lengthy “When The Lights Fell from The Sky” incorporates ethereal space shimmers, power house funk and dazzling instrumental work from McGregor and drummer Coye in an eleven minute tour de force of shifting dynamics.
The quartet stretch out for fourteen minutes on the down home funk groove of Philadelphia Experiment’s “Grover”, again moving up and down the gears. It’s not all hammer and tongs, McGregor and his colleagues exhibit an admirable maturity in the way they build and release tension. This item allows McGregor, Anbar and Marien the chance to demonstrate their soloing abilities with Marien’s eloquently liquid but irresistibly funky bass feature a particular highlight.
“Theme Music for a Super Slow-Motion Fight Scene” finds McGregor soloing feverishly on electric piano above a percolating bass groove before handing over to the fiery Anbar who again heads for the stratosphere. Coye’s energetic drumming is excellent throughout and he tops the piece off with a dynamic drum feature.
“You and Your Milky Ways” starts out sounding like early Weather Report with gently trilling synths and Rhodes with Coye and Marien providing a subtle funk undertow. The second half of the piece is more insistent with jagged interlocking chords and rhythms leading to eventual release and a further Coye drum feature.
“Urban Dragon Slayers” is unadulterated fusion with a profound rock influence. It’s a tour de force for Anbar who really rocks out, riffing and soloing with gleeful aplomb. Muscular bass, underpinning keyboards and busily powerful drums complete the picture. Retro?, excessive?, well maybe, but don’t forget that these young guys are experiencing the heady thrills of this kind of music for the first time around. The LA audience loved it.
Finally we have “Big Sky” which I imagine was played as an encore. It emerges almost subliminally, as if from deep space. Marien is the first soloist, fluid and eloquent on fretless electric bass above the guitar and keyboard shimmers and Coye’s gently bustling drums. McGregor’s synth solo is a reminder of just how good this much maligned instrument can sound in the right context and played by the right pair of hands.
This style of fusion isn’t a type of music I listen to very often these days but I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this album. McGregor’s writing is consistently imaginative and engaging, applying contemporary knowledge to what are essentially 70’s stylings ensures that the music doesn’t fall into the old traps of flash, bombast and excess. Yes, McGregor and his colleagues relish demonstrating their chops but it’s not technique for technique’s sake, there’s real intelligence and substance here alongside the youthful brio. “Live at the Baked Potato!” again serves notice that McGregor is a real talent to watch.
This email received from Tony Holmes, 16/03/2013.
I’m a regular reader of your jazz CD reviews, as we seem to have fairly similar tastes.
Having said that, I don’t buy much music these days, but I recently bought Isamu McGregor’s “Live at the Baked Potato” on the strength of your review. I haven’t seen it reviewed in The Guardian / Independent etc., so I guess it’s a fairly obscure CD, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in years.
So thanks for making me aware of it, and keep up the good work !
All the best,
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.