It may not be as important a question as it was since the demise of Phish, but what exactly is the main precursor of the jam bands? I'll vote for Miles Davis and that roiling, brash magic carpet he spun out for us by the light-year between 1969 (IN A SILENT WAY) and 1975 (AGHARTA). Of course, he was still wearing a suit and playing "Stella by Starlight" while the Grateful Dead cranked out the "Viola Lee Blues," Jimi Hendrix disappeared into Electric Lady Studios to reappear with "1983 - A Merman I Should Turn To Be," and Cream throttled Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" for 20 minutes at a clip. But what Miles learned from that lot before he took the leap during FILLES DE KILIMANJARO was to trust the flexible web of understanding between musicians more than the notes on staff paper. Some times he and band mates fell flat on their butts ("Willie Nelson") with this highly volatile method; other times said mindset elicited molten golden groove lava of a sort unknowable beforehand ("Calypso Frelimo," "Zimbabwe"), if not since.
Cut to now and Canadian drum wizard Romberg's third CD with his Random Access crew, and the question is, what have the current jammers learned from Miles and like ancestors? Well, Phish started writing actual songs on their FARMHOUSE release in 2000, quite good ones at that; Romberg and company don't do much with structure per se, but they do have a respect for our compressed attention spans. The longest improv here is a hair over 10 minutes ("The Two Elvins": a cheery little slice of whatsit it is) and few intervals show here in which somebody runs low on ideation or ability to arrange on the fly. Because that's what this CD is: very 'in' and very texture-oriented. Nuance is important. On "The Plastics" violinist Hugh Marsh grinds his bow to imitate that Fender Rhodes fuzz envelope us oldsters love so dearly from the late 1960s. Trumpeter Kevin Turcotte enters a Miles-like space early on here, searching for the chord that's not lost, but only because nobody's found it yet to lose. Heavy on the nostalgia there. But what's refreshing is the plucked violin fitting nicely into the lattice of handheld percussives as if the violin was a perc instrument all along and nobody's figured that out until now. Weird, but it works. And Romberg can play; like Al Foster his cymbals get their props, but somehow there's also a crisp sense of inventive elastics too. Note "Big Rotten," wherein for all anybody can tell bassist Rich Brown is stuck with the root functions all by his lonesome. Romberg's off-time snare rolls, clock tock-tick, tuned wineglasses hanging off the side of his kit on a rack where the roto-toms would have been in another time, all make the fusion gink in me just dizzy for more of the same. If you, like me, feel Miles' last good record was 1982's STAR PEOPLE, you too will thrill at the liberties Romberg and company take with the loose-limbed blues "Not a Spec of Cereal": it could have been the lost middle 2:28 of the title track. Beautiful. Romberg says in the liner how no sheet music was used in the making of this CD: I don't know, textures this detailed and affecting don't make their appearance unbidden, do they? Apparently so. Marsh's violin again amazes in the sliding, dipping Allan Holdsworth-like modulations of tonal center sustain in the CD's best track, "Serenity Now" (which is what Jerry Stiller yelled while beating up Jason Alexander in SEINFELD, yes?). Again, the control of the ensemble groupmind is formidable. I have no doubt these mixes were carefully sculpted by producer Charlie Gray; but it's the end product that matters, and Random Access serves up some tasty gumboes, in many flavors and in bite-size pieces too. Another fave: the dancing, Mahavishnu-afterburn guitar dabbles, courtesy of the redoubtable Geoff Young, in the highly rhythmic "Easy Forward." Reminiscent of live Jaco-era Weather Report on a hot night. Kudos also should go to the actual Fender Rhodes players Adrean Farrugia and Greg De Denus on alternating tracks, other bassist Kieran Overs, other guitarist (on the lovely "Serenity") Levon Ichkanian, and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson. Long may they noodle. And thanks much to the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Council on the Arts for providing the electricity, so that Romberg and company could grace us with some of their own.
by Kenneth Egbert