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The Stranger's Hand: Liner Notes

The Stranger's Hand (Tone Center 4005) is a remarkable confluence of the musical energies embodied in the talents of four musicians, who came together for nine days in the fog-shrouded hills near San Francisco with a common goal of making music.

This one-time meeting of kindred musical spirits -- drummer Steve Smith, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist/harmonica wonder Howard Levy -- is an explosion of kinetic forces barely contained in the microgrooves of this CD.

"We'd never met, or played together, before this recording date," explains Steve. The idea behind the recording session was -- like Steve's other Tone Center projects -- to create an album of music composed spontaneously in the studio, with no preconceptions or pre-arranged charts.

Each musician brings impeccable credentials to these sessions. At the forefront (or rather, behind the drum kit) is Steve's incredible drumming. One of the most respected trapsmen on the planet, Steve combines technical brilliance with a fluid, adaptable style and a sensitivity for the musicians with whom he keeps company. Over the years, he's leant his indelible style to a diverse group of internationally-hailed artists: Jean-Luc Ponty, Ahmad Jamal, Steps Ahead, prog-rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose, and, of course, rock supergroup Journey, with whom he toured and recorded for eight years. Steve also founded the jazz-fusion ensemble Vital Information in 1983, which remains one of the leading fusion groups performing today.

In his late teens, Jerry became one of the first musicians to go "electric" on violin as part of The Flock. In the 1970s, Jerry teamed up with John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham, and Rick Laird to form the now-legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. Since the dissolution of the group, Jerry has been a member of the Grammy award-winning band, Shadowfax, and is currently a member of the Grammy-nominated instrumental rock band, the Dixie Dregs. His unmistakable composing and playing style can also be heard on numerous recordings, motion pictures, and commercials.

Oteil, an award-winning bassist, has logged eight years with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and recorded with the likes of Gregg Allman, Victor Wooten, and Trey Anastasio and Jon Fishman of Phish. In June, 1997, Oteil joined the Allman Brothers as a full-time member in this august Southern-rock group.

Last -- but hardly least -- Howard has appeared on more than a hundred albums, and has won both a Grammy and a Joseph Jefferson Award, the latter for "Best Original Music for a Play." Known in musical circles far and wide as a gifted multi-instrumentalist, he's been a pioneering member of banjoist Bela Fleck's genre-bending jazz group, The Flecktones, and has toured and recorded with artists as diverse as Kenny Loggins, Dolly Parton, Styx, Paquito D'Rivera, and John Prine, lending a dazzling, innovative, fully chromatic style to the standard 10-hole diatonic harmonica, essentially revolutionizing harmonica technique and taking the instrument into exciting new territory.

The energy each musician brought to these recording sessions - and what, together, they created in the span of a few days - is reflected across all 10 tracks of The Stranger's Hand.

Jerry's skittering, swing-with-an-edge violin kicks off "Brick Chicken," the first track on The Stranger's Hand, moving quickly into a rock-heavy groove reminiscent of his younger days with McLaughlin's seminal Mahavishnu Orchestra, which defined "fusion" more than a quarter-century ago. Jerry tears this one up; once he hits his solo, it's almost impossible to imagine these sounds coming from a violin, and not an electric guitar. And the propulsive groove is downright infectious.

"Sufferin' Catfish," the bluesy, gospel-tinged number-two track on the disc, was a previously unrecorded piece from Howard, who also contributed two more tunes to the sessions: the sizzling "Caliente," and the album's penultimate track, "Moonchild," written for his son. "Catfish" showcases Howard's keyboard playing (next to Jerry's slippery acoustic violin), which comes as a surprise to fans long familiar with his harp work for Fleck and Canadian chanteuse Holly Cole.

"Howard never really gets featured as a pianist on other recordings," notes Steve. "For these tunes, we wanted a more organic sound than synthesizers, so we used piano and the classic Fender Rhodes," which Howard takes to the wall on "Caliente."

"Glimmer of Hope" has its roots in Jerry's days with McLaughlin's Mahavishnu unit. Its 11/8 timekeeping and eloquent phrasing are a clarion call to higher aspirations, steadily ascending throughout the scorching, incendiary solo midway through the track.

The drummer gets some on "Four Four and More," built around a series of implied metric modulations: imposing different meters over a 4/4 time signature, speeding up or slowing down the tempo and playing with -- and within -- the subdivisions of the beat. There's a strong influence of Indian drumming alongside more familiar polyrhythmic jazz techniques reminiscent of drum masters Elvin Jones and the late Tony Williams. "Four Four and More" takes it even further out.

"Pinkey's Revenge" takes its cue from the funk rhythms of "Four Four and More," and becomes a drum-and-bass showcase with Oteil and Steve exchanging ideas based loosely on the latter tune, and Oteil laying down some serious vocalizing atop his bass solo. The laid-back, 3/4 beat that underscores "Elvin" (Steve's tribute to the legendary drummer of John Coltrane's seminal quartet of the 1960s) and the rapid-fire pace of "Going Up!" both emerged from spontaneous jams between Steve and Howard during the recording sessions. "Elvin" was later filled out with noteworthy contributions from Jerry and Oteil.

Closing the disc is the impressionistic title tune, which begins with Steve's tribal drumming and Howard's masterful pennywhistle, which yield to Jerry's hypnotic, mesmerizing violin. Soon enough, though, that gentle bowing yields to some of the most electrifying sound ever to emerge from four strings, underscored by Oteil's fat bass lines, Howard's freight-train harp, and Steve's richly-textured, complex drumwork.

 -- Liner notes by Wayne Saroyan

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