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Steve Smith, Dave Liebman, Aydin Esen and Anthony Jackson, "Flashpoint": Liner Notes

"Flashpoint" featuring Steve Smith, Dave Liebman, Aydin Esen and Anthony Jackson

Steve Smith -
drums, ghatam and udu
Dave Liebman -
soprano and tenor saxophones, bamboo Indian flute
Aydin Esen - keyboards
Anthony Jackson
- contrabass guitar

Recorded May 9-15 at Red Rock Recording
Pocono, PA

This all-star project brings together four potent and highly respected players whose paths have crossed before in various configurations over the years. As a unit, they authoritatively straddle the worlds of freewheeling jazz improvisation and kinetic, rock-fueled intensity on Flashpoint, which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies for its full-out fuzoid tendencies. Bristling with the kind of heightened energy, formidable chops and intelligence that recalls classic fusion bands of the Ď70s, Flashpoint is a savvy blending of acoustic and electric instruments into a provocative and hard-hitting hybrid.

While drummer Steve Smith has frequently found himself in such high-octane settings before as the leader of Vital Information and through several slamming side projects heís done for Tone Center, Flashpoint is a definite departure for respected jazz veteran Dave Liebman. A one-time sideman to Elvin Jones (1971-1973) and Miles Davis (1973-1974), Liebman has led his own groups for the past 30 years and is also currently a member of the acclaimed Saxophone Summit (with Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano). While his overall discography numbers into the 200-plus range, only a handful of recordings have captured the saxophonist operating on this level of electrified intensity. As Smith says, "This recording presents Lieb in a different light. Itís current, itís vibrant and I think it may surprise some people who have never heard him play in this electric high-energy setting before."

Rounding out the lineup are renowned session bassist Anthony Jackson, whose credits number well over 400 and include recordings with Chick Corea, Michel Petrucciani, Steve Khan, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and The OíJays (thatís his flanged bassline on their million-selling single "For The Love Of Money") and the brilliant Turkish keyboardist Aydin Esen, who along with Liebman is one of the principal composers for Flashpoint. Says Liebman, who engages in more animated dialogue here on Esen, "Aydinís got such a command of synthesizers and heís a great jazz player too. Heís equally adept at the electric thing or going in a more straight ahead acoustic direction. Heís a special dude." Adds Smith, "Aydin is a very original and harmonically sophisticated player, and he has a very unique way of playing synth and piano simultaneously. He rarely overdubs, so when you hear a synth solo, heís also comping in real time on the piano, and vice versa."

While these four musicians had never previously played together as a unit prior to this recording, there have been some circuitous connections among them over time. Both Liebman and Jackson appeared on Esenís auspicious 1992 debut on Columbia Records, Anadolu. Jackson and Smith toured Turkey in Aydin Esenís trio in 1996 and subsequently played together on Buddyís Buddies, a Buddy Rich tribute recording which Smith had produced for Tone Center in 1999.

Liebman explains that the idea for Flashpoint actually came from hearing Esenís 1999 recording Timescape, which featured Smith on drums and his Vital Information bandmate Baron Browne on bass. "I really loved that recording and thought, 'This is exactly what Iíd like to do at some point," says the Brooklyn-born saxophonist-composer-bandleader and educator. "I mentioned this to Steve and he hooked up the recording with Tone Center."

They come out of the gate charging hard on the albumís kinetic opener, Liebmanís "Flashpoint," setting a visceral tone for the entire album. Liebman wails with abandon on soprano sax over Smithís slamming backbeats and Jacksonís bubbling low-end groove as Esen alternately comps jagged chords on piano while layering on soaring synth lines over the top. On Liebmanís "Like John" (his answer to Coltraneís "Like Sonny"), he switches to tenor sax and blows bold, robust lines over the majestic theme, which Dave wrote on Traneís birthday (September 23) in 1996.

Esenís evocative "Particles" is a cleansing breath featuring some soothing soprano sax work from Liebman and gentle piano by Aydin. Jacksonís fat-toned, contrapuntal basslines flow against the shifting current on Esenís dynamic "Speak Without Words." Aydinís piano and synth work and Liebmanís tenor sax playing here are again both outstanding. And Smith gets off a flurry of activity on the kit near the end of this powerhouse piece that should please his legions of drum fans. "Gentle Warrior" is Liebmanís touching tribute to fellow saxophonist, Brooklynite and Miles Davis alum Bob Berg, who died in a fatal car accident near his Long Island home on December 5, 2002. Liebmanís soprano sax dances and soars on this melancholy ode to his late friend and colleague. Shifting gears, Esenís "Fabric of Reality" puts the group squarely back in fusion juggernaut mode. With its chops-busting head full of darting unison lines between synth and soprano sax over jagged rhythms, this powerhouse number harkens back to Weather Reportís classic one-two punch of Zawinul-Shorter.

"Yildiz" (Turkish for "star") is a Middle Eastern flavored piece composed by pianist and frequent Liebman collaborator Phil Markowitz. Opening with Smith on Indian ghatam (clay pot) and Liebman on Indian wooden flute, and underscored by Smithís supple brushwork and Esenís mysterioso comping on Fender Rhodes, the piece builds to a dynamic crescendo with Liebmanís tenor sax wailing over the top and Smith traversing the kit with powerful aplomb.

"Maid in the Mist" is an atmospheric piece that was triggered by one of Liebmanís childhood memories. "When I was a kid my family went on a trip to Niagra Falls and we went under the falls in a boat which was called Maid in the Mist. I always remembered how impressive that was and actually wrote this tune about it 30 years ago, but Iíve never played it before."

"Khanda West" is a dramatic drum monologue that showcases Smithís melodic approach to the kit along with his recent passion for South Indian Carnatic music. "Khanda is a Carnatic term for playing in groups of five," he explains. "And West is a reference to the fact that Iím a Westerner playing on a drum set."

Esenís closer "Edge of Tomorrow" is another fusion romp fueled by Smithís intensely driving rhythmic pulse that features some blazing tenor work by Liebman. Esen adds some fire of his own on Fender Rhodes and synthesizer while Jackson offers a virtuosic turn on electric bass. This blockbuster piece also features a daring middle section that results in some conversational playing by all the principals. As Smith says, "Once we play the head itís a 'Letís see what happens and see where it goes' kind of approach. We wanted to be able to open up, listen, communicate and do what four musicians like ourselves do best, which is improvise."

Smith, Liebman, Esen and Jackson plan to take this music on the road keeping the moment from Flashpoint going. This could prove to be one of the more dynamic bands on the current fusion scene.

-- Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski, who writes for Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines, came of age during fusionís golden era (1967-1977).

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