Zig Zag Power Trio – Woodstock Sessions Volume 9

Zig Zag Power Trio
Title: Woodstock Sessions Volume 9

Artist: Zig Zag Power Trio (Vernon Reid, Will Calhoun, Melvin Gibbs)

Label: Woodstock Sessions

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Digital

Release date: March 16, 2018


Zig Zag Power Trio’s Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is a difficult album to classify stylistically. It is also rather startling if the personnel are merely taken at face value. Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun from Living Colour join bassist Melvin Gibbs, who might be most frequently associated with the Rollins Band. Thus, a listener who is only casually familiar with these musicians might expect the trio to be a hard rock band, if not a metal band. Granted, there is evidence of these stylistic expressions, and there are power trio rock influences from artists such as Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio also possess more eclectic influences. This is a jazz fusion record as much as it is anything else, a fact that is not surprising given that Gibbs and Reid played together in free-jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society decades ago.

There will be guitarists who discover this recording due to Reid’s presence, and they will hear references to many of his influences—Jimi Hendrix; Bill Frisell, who collaborated with Reid on Smash & Scatteration in 1984; and David Torn, just to name a few. More than on any other recording, Reid’s ability to draw from a palette of influence consisting of hints of many players is supremely evident. Frankly, there are stellar individual performances by all three band members, but much of the virtuosity on this album lies in how the members interact with one another. Interaction is, of course, one of the attractive qualities in listening to any group of excellent musicians, but this recording serves as an impeccable example of interplay.

The cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “I Love Ya Baby” is the sole straight-ahead rock song on the album, and it is reminiscent of blues-rock jams à la Johnny Winter or Jimi Hendrix. However, Zig Zag Power Trio definitely puts their own stamp on the genre. “Professor Bebey,” which was previously released by Reid on his 2006 recording, Other True Self, is a departure from every other tune on the album with its African highlife feel. These two tracks are two of the most fun songs on the album. The remainder of the tunes are largely avant-garde in nature, so these two tracks are also the most accessible. However, this should not be interpreted as a negative review of the rest of the recording.

The cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is amazing. Not only is it a testament to the haunting quality of the original, but Reid and company put on a clinic in how to communicate musically with other band members. At times, Calhoun’s drumming is reminiscent of legend Billy Cobham, and Melvin Gibbs manages to tear the bass apart subtly, if not sneakily. “Lonely Woman” is an almost nine-and-a-half minute masterclass for any musician, and something new will be heard with each listen. ZZPT’s interpretation of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Eastern Voices Western Dreams” is another standout. The ambience is simply beautiful, and Reid and Gibbs play extremely well together—evidence of the fact that they were both playing this tune in Jackson’s band circa 1980. “Woodstock” and “David Bowie” are also songs of interest due to the atmospheric textures produced by heavily processed guitar sounds.

Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 is full of abundant surprises, with each of the members turning in career performances throughout. Combined with excellent musicianship, the sheer number of stylistic influences offers a little something for everyone. Having said that, fans of music that lies somewhere between progressive rock and jazz fusion (e.g. David Torn or Robert Fripp) will be very pleased. Considering the presence of tunes by Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, it is also fair to say that fans of avant-garde jazz in general should consider giving this group a thorough listen. So far, the Zig Zag Power Trio and their debut album are flying under the radar, but that should soon change. Let’s hope there’s another project in the works.

Reviewed by Joel Roberts



Making Love to the Dark Ages

Title: Making Love to the Dark Ages

Artist: Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber

Label: Livewired Music

Release Date: March 2009

Making Love to the Dark Ages is a unique cornucopia of music.  Bandleader Greg Tate has taken elements from the entire history of black music and fused them together in interesting ways.  The album is such a complete work  of art that a track by track dissection would do it an injustice.  A complete rundown would also be like giving away the ending to noteworthy book.  However, a topical description could allow one to understand what the albums aim is.

There are more timbral nuances heard in this album than in any ten you could pull from nearly any shelf in a record shop, and an excellent combination of sonic possibilities that range from electronically enhanced violins to gutteral vocals.  Saxophone sounds range from Charlie Parker quotes to Coletrane modality, to the free shrieking and blues balling of Ornette Coleman.  The versatility of the saxophonist is truly amazing because while reminding the listener of all these milestones of the past he always has his own voice and melds the three styles masterfully.  The other instrument that has standout quality is the guitar.  Vernon Reid (perhaps best known as the guitarist for Living Colour) is a presence to be acknowledged.  His guitar playing is soulful but not cliche.  The tone he gets evokes the “ghosts of slavery ships” while his deft agility on the instrument places him a cut above many other players.  (If only he got the recognition he deserves!)

Loops are an important part of this album and they serve a true purpose.  With the majority of the works being improvised, these stagnant loops provide a great contrast and cast a wonderful backdrop for the sinewy lines played by the lead instruments.  There are unique juxtapositions of such things as 1920s salon piano with laptop beeping, swampy grooves with soprano vocalise, and overdriven violins against static ambience.  Following is a sample track, “Chains and Water”:

The elements of delta blues are found from the start.  The riff like droning of the guitar against the repetitive vocal line that starts the album are reminiscent of work songs.  Jazz influences are pervasive in the drums, bass and saxophone.  The use of upright bass adds to the depth of sonic qualities and the historical impact.  One can trace the music from jazz to (that horrible word) fusion.  But this is fusion of the highest class.  It could even simply be called black rock.  Hip hop is present in the use of modern technology.  There are over 150 years of influence found in this CD and they are all  incredibly distinct without sounding like a messy hodgepodge of poorly developed ideas.  Tate clearly had a vision for this project.

The length of the tracks may be a deterrent to some buyers but that is truly a shame.  In an age of singles and reverting back to the radio edit formula, Making Love to the Dark Ages is a gem.  The pieces here truly breathe and expand in an organic way and though some are fifteen minutes in length, they tell such a story that one doesn’t notice.  The album is a strong composition as a whole and the length of it’s pieces or their individual shortcomings shouldn’t be a reason for judgement. In fact, the album is meant to be listened to as one work.  Even with the inclusion of a Ron Carter/Miles Davis piece (“Eighty-One”), the common thread running through the recording is very strong.    Anyone that likes concept albums, strong over-arching ideas, or the black aesthetic in general would appreciate the diversified focus found in this album.  Anyone with respect for jazz would definitely enjoy the improvisational aspects found in Making Love to the Dark Ages.  However, it may be too deep or long for some to give it the thorough listening that it deserves.

Posted by Ben Rice

Editor’s note:  Greg Tate, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, will be one of the featured speakers at the forthcoming conference Reclaiming the Right to Rock: Black Experiences in Rock Music.”