Thursday, August 14, 2003
As part of the famous triumvirate of Yardbirds guitar players, Jeff Beck may have been the most lethal, but has also been the most short-changed. Unable to sustain long solos (like Clapton) or fashion the unstoppable blues riff (like Page), he's the personification of cultdom, a sound effect machine that dazzles in short bursts and one that is capable of hiding his weaknesses carefully. As flashy as the guitar hero is, he's cursed with a not so nimble picking hand which makes his phrasing all shriek and slide and as such, not as impressive as the guys that followed him, the Van Halen's and Vai's.
He's also been more or less vocal(ist) free since 1973, so his music rises and falls on thematics, atmospherics and motifs. Jeff is techno/trip-hop/jungle beats, over which the maestro explodes in his customarily small doses. And, land o' Goshen, it is his best since 1975's Blow By Blow, not so much because of the recognizable melodies, but because it works as a rhythm record. The beats are computerized chop-ups of course, but the elderly axe-man slinks around them and inserts his dots and dashes with care and abandon-for old Beck fans, the effect is like his punch-ins on "Going Down" or "Ain't Superstitious", only this time it's a machine he's competing with, hence, even more assaultive.
Pseudo Arabisms, kinda blues, a few chanted vocal choruses and femme inserts, this is a cut and paste job that juxtaposes the ancient with the modern about as well as can be imagined. Beck is also scoring a musical these days, based on the life of Evel Knievel (I kid you not) so he may pull off the impossible--to do his best work as sixty approaches and passes.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
In the setting of the equally sprawling and ambitious 3 CD set Little Worlds, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have finally figured out how to "make" music. Rather than accepting their freak show lineup of banjo, electronic drum set, bass, and horns and falling into their typical Pat Metheny overplaying territory, they instead focus on imbuing their compositions with emotional depth.
"Longitude" sounds reminiscent of passages from Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" esotericism, and the twenty guest artists on "New Math" aren't a burden like earlier albums, where a plethora of layers presented nothing more than traffic jam congestion. Instead they sound like a post-modern orchestra, slightly obtuse but flaccidly acceptable. The Nickel Creek led "Gravity Wheel" epitomizes this new domain for the Flecktones, an ineffable point of spaciousness and melodic sophistication.
More importantly, improvisation on each track of this release discloses the band being willing to wait, take a lengthy peregrination, and to emphatically listen to each other. Solos move in slowly and subtly, with a silent sibilant beginning before ending in a smashing fortissimo. Jeff Coffin doesn't merely squawk his horn or play two horns simultaneously for mere applause. Bass lines by Victor Wooten follow a more tactful, subtle approach rather than his usual thumping lunacy. Even Futureman's electronic drum kit attacks sound under control, as he supports with his percussion rather than solos.
And over the course of 140 minutes of music, the album's myriad guests, such as saxophonist Branford Marsalis never expunge these compositional successes. Instead, through their own tasteful knowledge, they enhance these ideas. It took more than ten years, but Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have finally grown into their respective talents, rather than pawning off a gauche Jane Fonda workout for the ears.