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Gerald Gradwohl: ABQ
2003, Universal Music, Emarcy-9865567

Austrian jazz guitarist, Gerald Gradwohl, Shanghai-ed the Tribal Tech rhythm section, including Kirk Covington and Gary Willis, for his 2003 fusion release that takes aim to set the record straight once and for all time that he can sling fusion with the best of them. Completing the roster with saxophonist extraordinaire, Bob Berg, Gradwohl was leaving nothing to chance with his all-star line up. The teaming of world class musicians has produced a spectacular fusion effort that spans a wide range of coverage from improvisational fusion approached from a straight-laced jazz angle to rip-roaring, exploratory fusion to Tribal funk fusion to traditional jazz with a modern spin-off to fusion-seasoned slow, sax jazz. Gradwold and company cover a lot of diverse territory on this effort with each uniquely-flavored arrangement forging into different styles of the binding fusion venue.! The Tribal Tech element brings in some funked up motifs, rhythms, metres, and feel, while Berg's classy sax soloing stretches the stylistic boundaries towards soulful jazz, though Berg hits the funk groove right along with the tribal faction. Gradwohl's playing within these various fusion styles reveals the influence in his broad repertoire of many great jazz and fusion players such as Henderson, Stern, Corea, etc.

The ten track onslaught kicks off with "Pau Wau", a straight ahead fusion arrangement that gets the album cranked up into the funk gear with Gradwohl's grinding guitar riffs and Berg's contrapuntal funk lines. The quartet next tackles the jazz standard, "Giant Steps", with a distinctive rendition of this classic featuring the wholesome-toned chordal voicings of Gradwohl's guitar sounding out the main theme in a duet with Berg's ever-savvy saxophone. The two trade off leads on the track with some modern improvisational adjustments to the original, including one solo section that throws in a funk twist, that put the classic into a 21st century frame of reference. This refreshing interpretation of "Giant Steps" is one of the best I have heard because it brings the themes to life with the revitalized energy, feel, and project! ion that the quartet puts behind the effort while proving that the old standard still works well with some modernization. The aggressive funk track, "Albuquerque Road", follows with latitude given to Willis and Covington to indulge in some complex rhythms and metres that will stump the best time keepers. The CD takes a slight divertimento from the tight rhythms of the previous track into a less constricting, flowing feel on the next track, "Anthem". This arrangement is set to a loose progression with Gradwohl's sustained harmonies and themes layered with the keyboards and bass that are all independently working over Covington's percussionry. The looseness of the rhythm and chord sections provides a free format for Berg and Gradwohl to explore their intensive soloing ideas.

The fifth track, "News On The Net", induces the listener thinking that the boys from Tribal Tech are pulling a coup on the group with another conspicuously tribal-influence funk arrangement, though it seems Gradwohl is willing to concede into this direction. Then, it becomes clear on the ensuing track "AW3" that the tribal funk has become the modus operendi as Willis goes off into a tribal-induced interlude with his wah-wah like stretch tremolo effects on the bass while Gradwohl's guitar pays homage to the off-centered harmonization style of Henderson with his stretch tremolo effects. (Off-centered harmonization meaning that the harmonies do not resolve on pure chromatic tones but use partial tones between the natural chromatic tones derived from string stretching, tremolo, and glissando techniques.)

Bob Berg grabs the reigns and rescues the effort from the Tribal Tech coup d'etat with his sax soloing on "Hornsong" that is set to a metro funk jazz arrangement. Gradwohl steps up for some aggressive funk guitar lead work to trade off with Berg on this track. Having usurped the directional control, Berg kicks it down a couple of gears for his slow jazz number, "Princess". This composition features Berg's dreamy sax lines played over Gradwohl's clean-toned, echo resonant chord progressions. Gradwohl joins in once again with his catty soloing that tactfully integrates some distinctive staccato and pizzicato type effects into his leadwork that are aggressive yet subdued with refinement. "Groove Chicken" lives up to its name as the quartet strikes a deal of atonement for the directional challenges by aiming for their common middle grounds of funk jazz blues where they all hit their respective grooves. It is interesting to see the stylistic differences of the four blend together on this blues arrangement that gives an easy baseline for each of them to explore in different directions that weave together in a harmonious manner. The final track, and perhaps the best on the album, if not only for sentimental reasons regarding Bob Berg, is a towering jazz blues track that features Berg's intimate voicing of warm, resonant themes on sax while Gradwohl accompanies with his soulful melodies that are articulated with carefully crafted tremolo effects. The track comes to a false stop at one point where Gradwohl starts in again, elevating the emotional level with an inspiring solo that deploys well-felt staccato, muting, and string stretching effects that lead into a crescendo of sweeping arpeggios. Then, just when the listener thinks the arrangement has reached a cli! max, Berg's soulful solo takes over, taking the emotional experience to a new plane of transcendence with his slightly bittersweet, spirited themes that leave the listener with a feeling of a happy, childhood Christmas morning. The profoundness of Berg's sax work on this track is only truly appreciated with the knowledge that this would be his final collaboration with Gradwohl.

On the scale of into it, I give this album a two thumbs up and very into it. For those of you fusion fans that haven't heard Gradwohl yet, you should take a listen to this CD. With support from giants of the fusion movement like Willis and Covington on board for this effort, you can't ignore Gradwohl any longer! He may not be as wildly outlandish as Henderson (as he was on Rocket Science) because he tends to keep one foot firmly planted in the sensibilities of conventional jazz to give his music an earthly-grounded center. But, make no mistake about it, Gradwohl can jump into and out off the stylistic changes like a true chameleon. Gradwohl has ventured further into exploratory fusion on this effort than on any of his previous efforts. Having the support and backing of the Tribal Tech rhythm section has really made this venture for Gradwohl into tribal funk fusion a viable effort of world class caliber. (... if they really could be called "backing" because I don't think they are content to stay there and I doubt they see it that way, as themselves being "backing", as may in reality be the case because this effort is more like a well-balanced quartet with each member keeping their own...)

So, in summarizing Gradwohl's latest CD, ABQ is funk... ABQ is progressive... and ABQ is most definitely FUSION! ... and of a very tribal variety!!!

On a parting note, the author wishes to pay his respects to the great jazz sax legend, Bob Berg, who recently died in 2003 in an accident. Berg's untimely death will leave a void among the fusion ranks that will be sorely felt by the many fans that loved his playing, and the great musicians that he collaborated, including Gradwohl on a number of different of his efforts with Threeo. Berg's effort on this CD is testament to his monumental skills and artistic talents. It was a sad day that he died for all fans of music because a fountain of artistic talent was cut off prematurely and took from all of us the great music that lay ahead of Berg in his illustrious career that should have continued for decades to come.

Gerald Gradwohl   Guitars
Gary Willis   Bass
Kirk Covington   Drums
Bob Berg   Sax
1) Pau Wau
2) Giant Steps
3) Albuquerque Road
4) Anthem
5) News On The Net
6) AW3
7) Hornsong
8) Princess
9) Groove Chicken
10) Goodbye
~ Christopher Ruel ~ ~ ~ October 2003

Gerald Gradwohl on guitars

Gerald Gradwohl

Gerald Gradwohl is a serious, progressive jazz guitarist who spans a range of styles and influences within multiple jazzish genres from silky smooth jazz to rip-roaring fusion, always with intensive guitar work. One of the aspects of Gradwohl's musical style that really strikes me (in a good way) is that he has a lack of inhibition to indulge in the different styles and feels of jazz that appeal to him. He covers a wide scope of musical style and feeling from smooth, intricate, and sentimental to aggressive, driving, and high-energy. It is entertaining because you can get a wide range of musical diversity from just a single artist.

The authenticity that he has in his passion for the many shades of jazz that he embraces is apparent in his music and takes the form of a mind-stretching style of music that is highly entertaining and easily accessible. Gradwohl is one of the few players who can venture out into the vast complexities of progressive jazz while keeping a solid perspective on musicality and accessibility. You can listen to some of his chordal voicings and think to yourself that sounds really nice and digestible, but when you listen closer to the harmonization that he is exploring, you will also realize that there is a little more depth and complexity there than a cursory listening might impart. And, that is the real trick to good jazz!

Gradwohl's soloing can be deceptive, as well. Sometimes, his smooth fretwork masks some very nimble phrasings and complex harmonization that could easily be missed by a listener that was lulled into complacency by his finesse. Other times, Gradwohl comes straight ahead with gut-wrenching, aggressive playing whose attack won't miss its target, though the finesse is still there. But, Gerald's guitar work is not dominated by an aggressive attack, and is instead well-balanced with diverse dynamics that span a wide range. And, Gradwohl is smart to find first-rate accompaniment with the savvy sax work of such world class players as Bob Berg and Rick Moritza.

I hesitate to compare Gradwohl to the modern greats that are among his influences, such as Scott Henderson, Mike Stern, and Frank Gambale, and only because I wouldn't want to plant expectations in the minds of new listeners. But, once you have taken a listen, the influences are discernable, but there is so much more to it than that! You just have to check it out for yourself. Gradwohl has a compelling style that will make your thoughts fleet in many directions and set off internal debates in your mind. But, in the end, I think you will resolve it the same as I, and just smile and say "ya, he's alright!"

The Powergrade
Working Men
2001, G-TONE, G-TONE 0111

Some albums require more listening than others to gain a sense of where the musicians are coming from.  Working Men by Austrian fusion group, The Powergrade, is one of those albums.  Part of this need for longer absorption latency, I think is due to the lack of inhibition that European musicians have toward stylistic boundaries which allows them to encompass a sometimes unusual scope, such as is exhibited on Working Men.  This album covers a range of styles and influences, but could probably best be described as jazz fusion that has a tendency towards the more hard-edged end of the fusion spectrum, though it is tactfully balanced with more sublime, straight-ahead jazz.  The rhythms and backdrops are a mix of clean-toned, jazzish tonality progressions and hard-edged, grinding, aggressive riffing.  It makes for an interesting combination that does not allow the listener to get to complacent with one type of sound or feel.

The title “Working Men” gives a clue to the perspective this music comes from.  This album is a working man’s fusion that is aimed at a gut level response from the listener and does not get lost in the wilderness of abstract jazz.  (This reminds me of Dire Straights relative to rock, though this album is relative to fusion and bears no real resemblance in sound to Dire Straights.)  The tonality and composition offers some well-developed fusion-oid thinking, but does not lose site of listener accessibility (which suits me just fine!).  Interested fretmasters should take note that the playing on this album is solid, both in polish and proficiency, though I’m not sure if I’d compare the playing to the world class speed/shred-oriented fusion players.  The playing on this album is more oriented toward creating comprehensive music rather than guitar stunts (and I like this).  And, this is not to say that there is an absence of speedy playing altogether from this album, but rather speed is not the objective, but it is rather one tool in an array that is used with moderation rather than excess, striking an appealing balance in the overall scheme of the musical concept.  But do not despair, because there is definitely some ear-catching playing on this album.  There are also a number of accessible musical themes, melodies, harmonies, and riffs that are provided for the listeners’ auditory pleasure.

Working Men marks a shift towards a more aggressive, fusion type style than Gradwohl demonstrates on some of his earlier releases. But, don't take this to mean that the entire album is aggressive fusion, only that there is a shift in the center. Gradwohl demonstrates a raw energy in places that had been restrained for the most part on some of his earlier works with Threeo and Cats & Camels.

Well, overall, I would have to say that The Powergrade makes the grade.  The combination of purist jazz tones and progressions coupled with aggressive, hard-edged riffing that is highlighted by the talented lead guitar work and is packaged in a very accessible format that also offers depth in composition is enough to make it into my listening rotation.  It took a number of listenings for me to acclimate, and though there are a few tracks that I might skip over, I’d say that this is a pretty solid effort with a great variety of ideas that keeps it from getting redundant or stagnant.  There are definitely a number of tracks that hit the groove and I’m thinking that most fusion-heads will “Dig It”!  There is a gut level accessibility in this music that may make this album even further accessible into a mainstream listening audience.  I would think that this would be a great band to catch in the nightclub on a Friday night! (if you could be so lucky to catch a band this good in your local nightclub!)

1) Radio Days
2) Funk It
3) Oh Janet
4) Interlude
5) Razor’s Edge
6) The Cat Is Back
7) 42nd Street
8) The Sweeper
9) Savannah Breeze
10) Dig It
11) Do The Guitar Jungle
12) Notes Of Farewell
13) Gero’s Boogie
14) The Gambler
15) Fear
16) Home Groove

~ Christopher Ruel ~ ~ ~ Chris Ruel's Monthly Spotlight

Threeo: Threeo Live
1998, Pepperland, PEP-9808

Threeo Live marks a change in venue from the original Threeo self-titled release from electric (conventional) jazz towards a more aggressive brand of jazz, namely fusion.  The trio once again teams up with a riveting saxman (kinda like axeman!), this time Bob Berg doing the honors.  Threeo Live is a superb compilation of jazz artistry that will delight fusion fanatics of all creeds.  And, this album captures the raw energy of fusion the way it is best served up… live!

The opening track “Tekknotronic” features the fast-fingered soloing of Bob Berg who sets out to make an impression on the listener with his whailing sax extravaganza.  The Berg sax solo is hottly pursued by Gradwohl’s screaming electric guitar solo that has no shortage of style, speed, or imagination as demonstrated by the outside harmonization that Gradwohl deploys so tactfully (and liberally) in the fusion fashion that approximates Scott Henderson’s attack and high energy.  The wah-wah funk track, “Tribal Dance”, ensues and with a name like that you have to guess that it is going to resemble Tribal Tech… a good guess!  But despite the resemblance, this track is so striking and dynamic that I am not even going to try to describe it other than saying that Gradwohl is all over it!  Nowhere to hide from this onslaught of fusion frenzy!  And, Berg follows up Gradwohl’s solo this time with more sizzling sax soloing.  “Separate Ways” slows the pace before things get too out of control with another tasty Threeo ballade that features exquisite chord phrasings by Gradwohl that follow a deeply-moving progression that is embellished first by Berg with his heart-felt sax solo and is then by Gradwohl’s savory leadwork.  The grace, beauty, and accessibility of this complex composition are a towering monument to Gradwohl’s compositional skills.  Threeo takes a diversion into Eastern tonality with the following track, “Orient”.  The group truly captures the Eastern sound along with the Eastern musical, philosophical vision that drives it.  And, as a parting shot to the live audience, the band says “Take That” with the final track.  Just in case you missed the fireworks in the first two tracks, the band lets it all hang out over a groove-based jazz-blues progression that sets up for the coup de grace that features a rotation of instruments on the soloing that resembles an NBA all-star slam dunk festival.

Though the guitar and sax work are in the forefront most of the effort, I mean no slight to the rhythm section comprised of Wograndl and Filz in the above remarks by ommission of their credits due to overzealous appreciation of the guitar work (my personal pet peave), because, as usual, they are tight as a drum skin and set a solid frame that makes it all work.  This trio is superb, no matter what angle you look at it.

I can’t find enough good things to say about this album.  After one listening, it went straight into my disc changer displacing an ex-favorite in the rotation!  Gradwohl demonstrates an amazing perspective on jazz and fusion on this album.  It is a perspective that seems custom-made to order for my personal tastes!  Your fusion collection is incomplete without this album!!!  Need I say more?

1) Introduction
2) Tekknotronic
3) Tribal Dance
4) Separate Ways
5) Orient
6) Take That

~ Christopher Ruel ~ ~ ~ Chris Ruel's Monthly Spotlight

Threeo: Threeo
1993, Ixthuluh Records, IXCD-17

Gradwohl. Gradwohl.  Gradwohl.  Have you ever heard of him?  Why haven’t I ever heard of him before getting these CDs to review?  This guy has got so much depth in his jazz-centric, musical perspective that it is awe-inspiring.  And, if that weren’t enough, his versatility and flexibility is just as astounding.  Gradwohl slips in and out of different formats as easily and with seeming lack of effort as a chameleon moving from a shady tree into the sunlight changes his colors, this time the format being the classic three piece jazz trio with guitar, bass, and percussion.  The resulting jazz trio that goes by the name “Threeo” has created a timeless collection of deft jazz instrumentals. No, really, it IS timeless… I couldn’t find anywhere on the CD insert where it said when the album was released! ;~)  And, Gerald Gradwohl?  I would compare him to his counterpart across the ocean, Scott Henderson, though Gradwohl seems to have a stronger tendency towards traditional, conventional jazz and listener accessibility.  The similarities are striking, though.  (And, a visit to Gradwohl’s website will confirm that Henderson is his biggest influence, among other jazz / fusion giants such as Mike Stern, Chick Corea, and Frank Gambale.)

Besides the prodigal guitar work of Gerald Gradwohl, Threeo features the progressive bass work of Wolfgang Wograndl and the classy percussionry of Richard Filz.  Rick Margitea adds another dimension to the album’s sound as the special guest with his bag of tricks on the tenor saxophone.  This album has a sound and character that is more consistent with classic, traditional jazz than some of Gradwohl’s other fusion-oriented efforts that I have heard. (i.e. The Powergrade.)  And, though the album seems to be more of a straight-laced jazz variety with some insertional fusion, the harmonization and chord structuring is nonetheless eye-widening impressive and lacking in no way with Gradwohl’s characteristic exploratory vision that is balanced by his trademark paradoxical accessibility.  Gradwohl succeeds where many others have only tried with his vision of what he calls “electric jazz”.  This album is truly a savory delicacy for the jazz connoisseur.  Repeated exposure to Threeo has only served to prove that this album’s sophistication is of the type that grows more happily on the listener with each successive listening.  The tacticianry of the arrangements and selection of musical phrasings is dumbfounding.  The technicianry with which it is implemented is jaw-dropping.  Gradwohl’s repertoire of jazz vocabulary on this effort is stifeling.  And, the rhythm section comprised of Wograndl and Filz are right there with Gradwohl in flawless complimentary support, regardless of the time signature (which many are explored).

The album opens with “Rick’s Tricks”, a track that features Rick Margitea’s fancy sax work set to a Hendersonian chordal tapestry (backdrop) with an inclination towards abstraction that is articulated by the trio.  But, don’t be misled by this first track and don’t try to get a sense for the entire album from it, because though it is within the scope of coverage by the trio, the material that follows is diverse in nature and isn’t formed from any equation or mold.  “Oh, It’s Nice” follows in the jazz guitar trio extempore tradition with a sound similar to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.  The third track, “Wherever I Go” marks a turning point in the album towards accessibility with some beautiful melodies set to a slower arrangement that features classy, rich harmonization that achieves an tenuous balance between intricacy and soulful appeal.  And, the soloing on this track really hits the mark and makes the arrangement work.  “Deep Inside” is next with a slow, acoustic-based jazz ballade that leans toward the tender side of emotions.  This piece is pleasantly reminiscent to me of Metheny / Haden’s Beyond The Missouri Sky.  The cadence picks up once more with “Good Idea” that can be characterized as upbeat, quickly moving, fluid jazz with a definite mainstream appeal featuring the tacful sax soloing of Margitea once again, as well as an inspired bass solo by Wograndl. This track seems to me to become destined to become a classic (at least in my collection!).  Well, I’m not going to try to describe the rest to leave some sort of surprise for the new listener, but it is all just incredible!

Gradwohl has knocked yet another disc out of my changer to make it into my driving rotation with Threeo! This is a truly amazing album that all guitarists should check outrecommended!!!… especially so if you like Scott . I still can’t believe I’ve never heard of him before… Highly Henderson or Mike Stern.

1) Rick’s Tricks
2) Oh, It’s Nice
3) Wherever I Go
4) Deep Inside
5) Good Idea
6) In A Certain Mood
7) Southern Lights
8) Home Less
9) Danger
10) Small Blues

~ Christopher Ruel ~ ~ ~ Chris Ruel's Monthly Spotlight

Cats & Camels: Face To Face
1991, Bellaphon Intl, CDLR 45038

You will look at the group of young musicians on the back of this CD and will be totally misled by your cognitive deduction of what is contained on Face To Face by Cats & Camels. This is because for a group of obviously younger musicians, this group posesses a maturity, talent, and perspective on jazz and fusion that you would not expect from musicians that look as young as the ones on the CD cover. But this group of prodigal jazz players, led by the guitarist extraordinaire Gerald Gradwohl, has put together an amazing collection of jazz fusion tracks that demonstrate a stunning grasp on jazz spanning traditional, standards, swing, smooth, modern, and fusion.  This album definitely proves the age-old addage that you cannot tell a book by its cover, nor apparently can you tell an album by its cover.

What I find most astonishing about this album is that the group has an uncanny ability to explore outside harmonization, jazzish tonality, and jazzy phrasings while keeping the music highly accessible and digestible.  The group sets out to achieve world-class complexity in their jazz compositions while keeping a high-level perspective on the overall musical vision that is projected.  The group draws from an impressive array of influences, demonstrating their collective knowledge of the jazz greats whose styles they have brought under their umbrella of influence.  But, the fusion style that the group deploys their widely-scoped knowledge with, is a style that is all their own, and distinctively so.  The band does not abandon older, more classic jazz foundations or musical ideas, but integrates them into their style with a new angle, a young energy, and with other modern stylisms, using classic ideas in a new way that breathes new life into them by bringing them into a modern context.  This style hits the mark right on target for me and this is what I think good fusion is all about!

What I find as impressive as the range of influences and accessibility of this music, is the scope of feel and tone that the effort encompasses.  There are tracks that contain aggressive, fusion-ish feel, such as “This Or That”, “Asteroid”, and “Rubberman”, all of which are great tracks.  There are tracks that have a jazz groove feel, such as “One Day With…”.  There is the funk-jazz track, “Hip Hop For Michael”.  And, there are tracks that contain more traditional or smooth jazz feel and tone, such as “Leaving Home” and “So Wrong” (which is a masterful dreamy, slow jazz track that is highlighted by well-fealt sax work and an impressive grasp of musical psychology with the timing involved).  But, the one thing that all the tracks have in common is excellent soloing, savory tonality, and seemingly paradoxical accessibility. And, just one thing to keep in mind when listening to this album, is that unlike a lot of albums that put their best tracks in the first few slots, make sure you listen to this one all the way through before making any judgements.  I say this because I think the best tracks on this album may very well be the last three where the group lets it all hang out!  (And, for the guitar fanatics, I think the final two tracks “Asteroid” and “Rubberman” are going to be worth waiting for because of the meaty guitar work in these tracks, not to mention the tasty keyboards on “Rubberman”… and, I could swear that Tony MacAlpine has been influenced by these tracks on his first CAB album!)

Cat & Camels has everything I like to see in fusion… superb composition, great tonal exploration, odd time signatures, awesome instrumentation and playing, flawless production, and a fantastic musical vision.  About the only thing that is missing is an obligatory onslaught of speed to keep in the modern fusion tradition.  (And, I say this to give notice to those who may be looking for this!)  But not to worry, because this album has great playing with tactfully-deployed, seamlessly-woven speed and really doesn’t need to blatantly prove any point about technical proficiency for those who can’t see it without the fireworks!  And though the album has a hint of antics that you might expect from younger artists, don’t be misled because this album has a vision and grandeure that, like a conspicuously bright star in the summer night, marks the arrival of a new prodigy.  Cat & Camels has gone straight from obscurity to my permanent rotation.  I don’t know how it has escaped my clutches since it was released in 1991!

1) This Or That
2) Leaving Home
3) One Day With…
4) Parts
5) Hip Hop For Michael
6) So Wrong
7) Asteroid
8) Rubberman

~ Christopher Ruel ~ ~ ~ Chris Ruel's Monthly Spotlight




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