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Eclectic Earwig Reviews'

Strange Fires Within the Maelstrom

~ John W. Patterson

This artcle first featured in:
John Collinge's Progression Magazine
Buy Issue 33, Fall/Winter, 1999/2000 to own your own hard-copy of this story.
Reprinted online with the kind permission of Progression Editor, John Collinge

Ozone Quartet, circa early 1999

Is there anything really decent, progressive rock or fusion-wise, that comes out of North Carolina, USA? Well, we do have wonderful, old-time, mountain music and those forever popular, shag-worthy, harmony-laced beach ditties. Plenty of southern-fried rock and alternative bands come and go. Some new North Carolina artists will surely make their splash in the mainstream charts. But which prog band will break through genre-biased barriers and survive? Could it be a jazz fusion rock band, with the right stuff, called the Ozone Quartet? Perhaps.

    Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina are referred to collectively, as the Triangle or the Research Triangle Park, (RTP). Their geographic orientation encompasses a big money, research and development, and higher educational mecca. Connect the dots on a map and you'll see the skewed triangle. A dense clustering of highly cerebral folk live, work, and play in its environs. It makes for a slightly more receptive populace to such heady genres as jazz rock fusion and progressive rock.

In the late '70s and early '80s Raleigh was home to an incredibly skilled, dual guitared, jazz rock fusion group called 3PM. They folded. 3PM bassist, Jerry Peek, went on to join the Steve Morse Band. Brian Preston, of current-day Smokin' Granny, was in a little-known, RTP, mid-'80s, prog rock band called Freehand. They folded. And then there was another NC jazz fusion band called Mind Over Matter. They mutated. Thus was born Cloud Nine -- an early incarnation of what later became the Ozone Quartet. They survived the usually deadly bandmate fluctuation rifts and have now released their second CD, Nocturne.

    This too rapidly growing area of North Carolina has given the music world such diversity as the swinging Squirrel Nut Zippers and metal-laden Corrosion of Conformity. I recall personally bouncing COC's founding drummer, Reed Mullin, and his early '80s skinhead, punk rock, cohorts out of an entertainment joint when Mullin proceeded to head-butt a video game monitor. Man, times do change. Even bizarro-rocker Rob Zombie of White Zombie fame had a female bassist that hailed from Raleigh. Ex-Volaré guitarist and drummer live around here too and gig as Matter Eater. Talent is definitely in ample supply. So will Cloud Nine of olde, now the Ozone Quartet, eventually make it to prog rock and jazz fusion's inner circle -- being yet another fine band from Raleigh, North Carolina? They have been banging away steadily at the great door of opportunity for more than seven years. Now that is true dedication.

Ozone Quartet is Hollis Brown on electric violin, Francis Dyer on drums, Wayne Leechford on the Chapman Stick, and Kenny Thompson on guitars. Brown has been playing violin since age 11 with a brief hiatus during her college years*. She cites David Cross of King Crimson and Eddie Jobson, (Curved Air, Roxy Music, U.K.), as major influences on her playing. Dyer recounted to me that, (in his own polyrhythmic mind), he has always been a drummer -- since Day One. He believes he went "pro" in the 4th grade. Dyer lists Bruford, King Crimson, Zappa, Vinnie Colaiuta, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire in his "wake-up call" roster. Multi-instrumentalist Leechford has been tapping Chapman Stick for over 6 years. He has dabbled deep in guitar, bass, and even performed on saxophone at the White House in 1995 for the President and company. Leechford quickly alluded to John Coltrane's Giant Steps when asked what artist got his "lights turned on". Thompson, who replaced "G-Man" aka Graham Fry, after Ozone Quartet released Fresh Blood, has been playing guitar for 17 years. At age 15 he began his professional guitar playing, performing essentially everywhere, he stated. When asked who expanded his musical awareness most memorably, Thompson simply answered, "McCoy Tyner". I must say that Thompson wins the "most humble" award of any guitarist I have ever met even though he has a huge amount of skill.

    After shelling out several hundred dollars to trademark research the legality of calling themselves Cloud Nine they found a prior legal owner and another not-so-legal use of that moniker already. They had been existing happily as Cloud Nine from 1992 to 1997, an album was in the works, and they were now in desperate need of a name change. Closest thing to Cloud Nine, atmospherically speaking, turned out to be the Ozone Quartet. Being something of a research scientist myself I thought ozone was three oxygens bound together. So that should denote a trio. But we have the paradoxically odd "ozone four" label. I cease this line of reasoning. Go figure.

Wayne Leechford on Stick, circa early 1999
Some convoluted history first . . . Dyer and Leechford came from a extended jamming, jazz fusion band Mind Over Matter. I actually heard North Carolina State University's not-so-ready-for-the-air, radio staion, WKNC, playing Mind Over Matter one night and never heard anything about them again. Alas, I was busy then though, with many things other than reviewing bands. They did have an interestingly complex weave of sound. "G-Man", Graham Fry came from Confessor, (speed metal), and Brown from blackgirls, (an all femme trio), with three releases to their credit. In fact, all of Ozone Quartet are veteran musicians with many touring miles and recording hours behind them.

Cloud Nine was born in the summer of 1992. Earlier on, Leechford suggested Brown consider jamming with him and the then current Mind Over Matter drummer, Steve Smith. Dyer replaced Smith as Mind Over Matter's drummer later. "G-man" Fry also began jamming with Leechford, Brown, and Smith. Oddly enough, Dyer then also went on to again replace Smith in the proto-Cloud Nine days. Tough luck there for Smith. Ouch. So we then had Cloud Nine as Leechford, Brown, Fry, and Dyer. Got it? Don't rest yet, this musical chairs gig keeps going.

    It seems Graham Fry was also playing guitar with a heavy-handed, mean-mouthed, Southern rock band, called Leadfoot. Things were looking more lucrative with a promising recording contract in Leadfoot so Fry left Ozone Quartet after gigging with them for years. Awkwardly so, a mystery axeman appeared on the Ozone Quartet 1997 debut release, Fresh Blood, as "G-Man". Fry feared blowing an exclusive recording contract with Leadfoot by being clearly named in another band's release. "Doh! Oops, I told you." All that legalistic worry is now water under the bridge as Leadfoot is no longer under contract with that un-named, "get yer hopes up then do nothing for the artist" label.

A certain guitarist, namely Kenny Thompson, used to jam out with Fran Dyer -- so when Fry flew, Thompson stepped in. Thompson informed me that many of the early Ozone Quartet gigs had him nervously flying by the seat of his pants, with tons of "oh man whatta I play here" improv "winging it" and little familiar structures for him to grab onto. He further commented to me once at a live gig and also again at a practice session, I sat in on, that he really desires pursuing a more worked-out, planned flow, perhaps with more unison lines in the songs. Thompson handles both improv and tightly structured playing equally well. Thompson's precision axework is featured on Nocturne.To my ears, Thompson's guitar work has a wider range of fusion sensitivity and technique than ex-Ozoner Fry. Thompson still can crunch heavy but he steps far beyond Fry's speed metal-heavied background.

    So what makes Ozone Quartet's sound so unique? For one thing, their performances of songs are never the same. Song structures are made to be flexible. No song is 100% pre-composed. Consider their songs as informal or semi-dressed. With a foundational wardrobe choice they may choose to wear a belt or next time a hat. You never know just what will happen from gig to gig. Leechford and Dyer usually work up a basic song skeleton with muscle and thunderous heartbeat. Brown and Thompson work out their parts later -- violins for fleshing out the little beastie and guitars to attract the lightning. "It's alive! It's alive!"

Ozone Quartet doth jam!!, circa early 1999
Tapes are made of practices and excerpta that has promise gets worked up further. Ozone Quartet songs are not predominately written by one person but are like the essential parts of an assembly line created engine or vehicle. All parts work together equally, not one being more important than the other. It just so happens however, that your Ozone Quartet Hummer car may have six wheels one day and then feature hoverjets instead the next day. Nevertheless, they still call it a Hummer. They get you where you want to go -- only a bit differently than you are expecting. It works for me. I like surprises in my fusion.

    Creative aspect is a continuous stream in each performance, practice, or recording of a song. That portion which is "written" or planned is the individual artist's decision to keep or re-use again later, specifically for a piece. Improv happens naturally between each band member. Recognizable melodies, unison lines, movements, and transitions are committed to memory. I consider these as an Ozone Quartet occultic language, the unspoken lyrics of each song. Brown and Thompson, violin and guitar, interact in their unique voicings, phrasings, echoing, and redefining afresh the moment. What they offer in feeling, color, or shade is spontaneous -- each time an Ozone Quartet song is "sung". It is a magic unfolding, re-creating itself from second to second.

Leechford and Dyer's hyperkinetic heartbeat or lumbering behemoth crunches provide a relentless storm of syncopated winds and a free-flowing flood of percussive bass textures. It is obvious, sitting in on an Ozone Quartet practice session, that they love this stuff they are creating. They breathe their music. It is a soul-fired entity they birth. I witnessed the clear fact that even unison lines Thompson and Brown play, are born right on the spot -- having their genesis and maturation in a first-run through a new piece. Dyer's drumming sense and precise execution is an exciting thing to witness up close, let alone hear it. The last time I remember seeing such a monster drumming display was watching Billy Cobham way back in the Mahavishnu Orchestra era. Dyer is a natural. The man is beyond good! I can see and hear Thompson's years of professional playing have engendered him with versatility in his stylings. He gets exactly what sound he needs out of his axe and pulls it off comfortably and clean. He has an obviously deep connection to the jazz rock fusion foundation. Leechford can deftly lay down one mean, funkified, "slappa-you-upsidah-haid" groove on his Stick or mellow out to slow-death, quicksand mode.

    I hope Ozone Quartet holds fast to such upbeat grooves and more unison line runs on Nocturne, as I heard on "Mutoid Man" in practice, and during other fast and furious sizzlers they have debuted live. If they do this assertively in-studio, then certain nagging complaints about their Fresh Blood release as being too slow and meandering should diminish. I know the high energy and precise delivery is there. I have seen it happen, been immersed in it, not even six feet away as dark fires lit the swirling maelstrom in their basement practice space.This group can literally explode like the pyrotechnic fusion of The Mahavishnu Orchestra or King Crimson. Speed riffing and bowing akin to The Dregs is easily attained by Ozone Quartet -- but a question remains. Will the energy and powerful delivery of their live playing translate clearly enough into new songs on their latest recording, Nocturne?

Kenny Thompson does bluesy-fusion rock, circa early 1999
Ozone Quartet holds an obvious unity of mind in the lively crosstalk they share on stage. No one takes the forefront musically. There is no domination here. Granted, there is the extended soloing and layering of sultry mood by Brown, the stage center position she commands, and her near-mesmerizing body language while "getting into" the song's thrusts and swoons. But it is immaterial when you close your eyes and really listen closely. All is one. Somehow though, I fear, the special chemistry of live playing may be squelched in the confines of the recording studio. I hope their 1999 release Nocturne fairly represents just how truly amazing the Ozone Quartet can perform their ominously dark and soulfired fusion. Watching them on stage is where one truly experiences Ozone Quartet's ultimate charm and relaxed power. Did I forget to mention that these are all a really nice bunch of people too? Well, they really are and they aren't out to prove anything or show-off. They simply love what they do and do it well.

    I end with a self-quoted excerpt from an old review of Ozone Quartet's Fresh Blood release.

    " . . . musical meandering through bizarre realms, fog shrouded moors, and moonlit shrines of ancient Babylon. It is a sorcery of sound, each artist playing off the other as if many arms of one unseen being.
    People like references to get a feel for things so here are some comparisons:
    Mahavishnu Orchestra, (Between Nothingness and Eternity) early Dixie Dregs, Curved Air, (Air Conditioning), Darryl Dobson, (The Mind Electric), early Jean-Luc Ponty, Steve Kindler, (on Visions of the Emerald Beyond), Mark Wood, (Voodoo Violince), Boud Deun, (Fiction and Several Days), and of course King Crimson."

So there you have it. It's about time you check the Ozone Quartet out and see what they are all about -- not to mention, support the future success of another fine band from North Carolina.

    "I'm not sure of what I'm looking for except that it'll be something that hasn't been played before. I don't know what it is. I know I'll have that feeling when I get it." ~ John Coltrane

*-Hollis Brown informed me by phone that she actually kept on fiddlin' right on through her college years. ================================================================


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