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GHS (Gambale - Hamm - Smith) 3: Liner Notes

First, a frank admission right up front in the interest of full disclosure: Iím a fusion junkie. Have been since I first saw Return To Forever in concert in 1974. Nearly 30 years later I still love the sound of throbbing basslines and double bass drums, impossible unison lines and sextuplets, rapid-fire tom tom fills and nasty, distortion-laced guitar playing way too many notes. All those early Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra records still sound good to me. Not just good...AWESOME! RTFís "Where Have I Known You Before," Billy Cobham's "Spectrum," "Introducing Larry Coryell & The Eleventh House," Jean-Luc Ponty's "Enigmatic Ocean," Al Di Meola's "Land of the Midnight Sun," íStanley Clarke's "Journey To Love," Lenny White's "Venusian Summer," Bruford's "Feels Good To Me," Brand X's "Unorthodox Behaviour" ...YEAH! Bring on the wretched excess!

Those were all players-albums intended to blow listeners away with the sheer intensity and virtuosity of the performances. There was a sense of pushing the envelope instrumentally, playing at the peak of oneís ability and then reaching down for that magical something extra to take it over the top, and I dug it. Still do. Which is why this third recording by Frank Gambale, Stu Hamm and Steve Smith is currently killing me. Cast in that early Ď70s players tradition, it holds nothing back and makes no apologies for its extreme notey-ness. This is not crossover music, this is going-for-the-jugular music. And I like it.

In Gambale, a former member of Chick Coreaís Elektric Band and current member of Steve Smithís Vital Information, you have one of the most incredible guitar technicians on the planet today. Frankís sweep picking facility is by now legendary stuff among guitar aficionados and he unleashes it with jaw-dropping abandon on the opening track "All in Your Head" as a kind of in-your-face manifesto that sets the tone for this burning project. Hamm, longtime sideman to guitar hero Joe Satriani, is possibly one of the few electric bass guitarists who could cut the blazing unison lines thrown at him on Gambaleís demanding compositions "Confuse-A-Blues" and "The Challenger."

Gambale had high praise for Hamm. "I like Stuís bass playing a lot. Even though heís mostly considered a rock bass player heís had some schooling (Berklee College of Music). So heís not just an ear or feel player. Even though he doesnít play this kind of music very often, he really rose to the occasion. Heís a very musical bass player. He doesnít just play the root, he subtly outlines the chords as he plays so he makes my job easier. Thatís something that a lot of bassists donít understand."

Smith, a former member of Jean-Luc Ponty's mid-'70s powerhouse group (the one featuring the twin guitar attack of Daryl Stuermer and Alan Holdsworth) as well as a longtime member of rock supergroup Journey, holds his own alongside Frank and Stu in this fusiony fray, blending power and precision in his uniquely melodic approach to the kit. Says ringleader Smith, "Thereís a great chemistry that happens with this trio, especially in the jamming aspect. Itís so easy and natural. Rhythmically itís comfortable and thereís a lot of interesting interplay that goes on."

Smith and Hamm originally hooked up in the late Ď80s on a session for Shrapnel Records by young guitar hotshot Richie Kotzen (who was all of 17 years old at the time). Some years later the two found themselves playing together again as the rhythm tandem for an all-star jam at Guitar Player magazineís 25th anniversary party. Gambale was one of many guitar slingers who took the stage that evening and Smith presided over the introductions between Frank and Stu. The three established a quick chemistry in the studio on their first Tone Center outing together, 1999ís jam-oriented "Show Me What You Can Do." For their follow-up, 2000ís "The Light Beyond," the trio placed more emphasis on compositions than all-out jamming. This third outing features their most ambitious writing yet, along with all the sparks and pyrotechnics weíve come to expect from these three formidable players.

Interestingly, the sequence of tunes here is in the actual order that they were recorded over two weeks time. The aforementioned opener is a quintessential high energy jazz-rock burner powered by Smithís muscular, crisp backbeats and nimble fills and anchored by Hammís mighty groove. Gambaleís acrobatic solo here is simply not to be believed... yet another landmark in an auspicious career littered with way too many notes.

Hammís "The Great Roberto," a heavy duty ode to Robert Fripp, evokes memories of King Crimson's "Red" or "Discipline" with Hamm carrying the melody upfront before rumbling on the low end underneath. In an appropriate nod to Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, Smith eschews the cymbals in favor of tom toms while Gambale unleashes another mind-boggling display of sweepage that will leave fretboard fanatics falling to the ground with their teeth chattering.

"Confuse-A-Blues" is Gambaleís slyly deceptive take on the age-old I-IV-V chord progression. The rhythm actually shifts gears from four in the I chord to seven in the IV chord to five in the V chord. Hence the title. Gambale plays steel string acoustic guitar here with the same fire and fervor that he exhibits on electric. Hamm adds a spectacular bass solo before doubling up with Frank for some dizzying unison lines. And Smith offers a particularly melodic solo on the kit before the three engage in some heated exchanges in classic '70s fusion fashion. Itís a nearly 10-minute tour-de-force that stands out on an album chock full of daring, exhilarating moments.

"Saving Grace" is Gambale's lyrical ballad, performed on acoustic guitar once again, that gradually builds to flamenco flavored bravura with Frank leading the way. "Culture Clash" is Smith's drum showcase in which he plays Indian rhythms on the kit and then doubles them (via overdubbing) on djembe drum. As he explains, "That's a composed solo piece I developed that incorporated some rhythms that Sandip Burman taught me. He is a tabla player from Calcutta, India whom I toured with last summer. The piece is based on Indian rhythms and concepts that Iíve been investigating. They have a lot of strict rules that they follow in Indian music, very similar to a lot of jazz. But there's also room for embellishment and improvisation within those rhythms. I'm playing rhythmic phrases using the Indian technique of expansion and reduction, where you can shift the rhythms around as long as it all works out mathematically."

"Geo 100," co-written by Hamm and Gambale, carries more of the signatures of classic Ď70s go-for-it fusion. Set to a rapid rock pulse, it is brimming with more difficult unison lines and outrageous shredding by Gambale. Hamm is also featured prominently on the piccolo bass here, laying nimble melody lines on top of Frankís grinding distorto guitar work. Smith adds his own bit of virtuosity to the proceedings with another remarkable drum solo. "For this piece I had the groove set but I wanted Frankís harmonic take on it," explains Hamm. "I showed him what I was doing and he came up with something brilliant. So itís my groove with his harmonic thing."

The somber "November" is Hamm's virtuosic bass showcase in which he overdubs a lyrical melody line on top of chordal bass. "That was a piece I had written in November when I was feeling rather melancholy," he offers. "I originally brought it in to do as a piece for the whole band but we never got around to it. So I did it myself and it works well as a solo bass piece. Itís something nice to give everyoneís ear a rest. Thereís a lot of notes flying by on this one, but thatís how (Tone Center head Mike) Varney likes 'em."

The astounding closer, Gambale's "The Challenger," is an intervallic obstacle course that Smith calls "the hardest piece that Iíve ever played." Originally composed as an acoustic guitar piece for the solo portion of his duet concerts with Italian classical guitarist Maurizio Colinna, the aptly-named piece is laced with incredibly challenging unison lines that culminate in a dramatic flurry. Itís the final exclamation point on an all-around astounding display of chops wedded to thoughtful compositions.

Adds Gambale, "You can only hope that the more you do it the better you get at it. That first album we did was the first trio recording I had every done. Trio for guitar can be extremely challenging but this third album felt easier in some ways. I have a lot more confidence now."

While Smith clearly holds the reigns on Vital Information, the GHS power trio is more of a cooperative affair with each artist having equal input in the overall scheme of things. "Vital is definitely Steveís thing," says Gambale. "The trio is different. Weíre all contributing equally. So I bring in something thatís in a fusion vein because my roots are in fusion. I like to play hard and I like to burn. Playing fast is sort of a drug to some listeners. They get addicted to it."

And Frank is only too happy to oblige them (and me) with another fix.

"We try to keep raising the bar every time we do these trio recordings," adds Hamm. "It's always challenging from a compositional standpoint but we also do them so quickly that they retain a spontaneous feel. We learn the songs and then we gotta make it sound like weíve been playing them out on the road for a couple of months. I think part of what makes these records work is the fact that what youíre hearing is basically the first time weíre really getting through the pieces and playing the shit out of them. So you get this could-fall-apart-at-any-moment kind of energy at these sessions. And I think fans respond to that."

I know I do.

-- Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Guitar World magazines. He is also the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books) and "Swing It! An Annotated History of Jive" (Billboard Books).



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