Album Review: The Fusion Syndicate

Progressive rock musicians are — by their very nature and out of necessity – an ambitious, adventurous lot. So it’s not an insurmountable conceptual leap to get a bunch of them together to make a jazz fusion album. And that’s precisely the conceit upon which the self-titled album credited to The Fusion Syndicate is built. Drawing upon the instrumental expertise of members (past and present) of Porcupine Tree, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Dream Theater, Tool, Hawkwind, Soft Machine and many more, The Fusion Syndicate attempts to revive the ghost of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis.

Right down to the unsubtle Bitches Brew-esque cover painting, the album endeavors to take listeners back to that brief musical era when anything seemed possible; and in those days, one often got points for trying, even if/when the results were middling. You have to push the envelope to create something new, went the thinking; sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

On The Fusion Syndicate, that’s also true: it generally works, but some efforts within are more successful than others. And knowing who’s behind it, that makes sense: the entire project was put together by Billy Sherwood, perhaps most notable as one of near-countless Yes alumni members. From this listener’s veiwpoint, having absorbed a good bit of Sherwood’s musical output, he’s something of a mixed bag. Clearly he has a lot going for him: Chris Squire worked with him before, during and after his (Sherwood’s) Yes tenure, and the man’s Rolodex clearly has the private number of a staggering who’s who of prog. And these players take his calls: they seem willing, perhaps even eager to lend their considerable talents to his many projects. Those projects are a mixed lot, too: Songs of the Century is another current Sherwood project, a tribute to the music of Supertramp. Despite its A-list of players, it’s dreadfully uninspired, and its cover versions tend to drain the songs of whatever made them special to begin with.

Meanwhile, the music that Sherwood composes, is to these ears – while technically impressive – often short on hooks and memorable melodic lines. His Circa group (with YesAlan White) simply isn’t very memorable musically. It’s enjoyable while it spins, to be sure, but it fails somehow to leave a lasting impression. This is also true of much of the Yes music from Sherwood’s time with the band. So while he’s a stellar multi-instrumentalist, a good (not great) singer and an effective steward of interesting projects, he’s not a go-to guy when you need catchy song-driven music.

But we’re talking about fusion here, after all. Fusion is not the sort of music designed to goad the listener into tapping his or (less frequently) her foot, or humming along with the melodic line. Fusion is about atmosphere, feel, and chops. The musical pieces – beds, if you will – are often mere platforms for musicians to (as they say in the jazz idiom) blow.

Sherwood’s approach on The Fusion Syndicate seems to have been this: write some loose jazz structures with plenty of “air” in them, lay down some demos or basic tracks, and then ring up about thirty(!) of his friends and associates – mostly marquee names – and ask them to overdub their own jazzy parts atop the rhythm tracks. And it’s a solid approach. Across seven tracks (longish ones, as this is indeed fusion – every cut is seven minutes plus change), these players – guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboard players, horn guys, sax guys – strut their stuff. Unlike the approach used on older jazz (Dixieland, bop, etc.), fusion tracks aren’t arranged in the you-take-thirtysix-bars-then-I-will manner; everybody sort of goes at it all at once. The result can often be something of a mess, at least to the ears of more pop-oriented listeners.

Some of the cuts are heavily abstract, with little in the way of recognizable melody. Others are more conventional. What’s interesting is that the abstract cuts work better; the more grounded cuts lean disconcertingly in the direction of what we (in a less enlightened era, with more limited musical vocabulary upon which to draw) disdainfully called white-guy jazz. But at its best, The Fusion Syndicate echoes not only jazz artists, but some of the more boundary-blurring work from artists like Frank Zappa, Stomu Yamashta‘s Go project, and Wired-era Jeff Beck.

A full roster of the players – most of whom usually appear on but one track – would take too long, but here’s a few names: Rick Wakeman, Mel Collins, Gavin Harrison, Nik Turner, Chad Wackerman, Steve Hillage, Theo Travis, Randy Brecker, Steve Stevens. That’s not even a third of the list. Guys from rock, jazz, prog and across genres. You won’t come away from your hour with The Fusion Syndicate tapping your foot, but if you’re looking for something new that tries to follow in the grand, groundbreaking tradition of early-to-mid 70s jazz fusion, this album is well worth checking out.

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