Saturday, August 22, 2015

Alex Skolnick - 2004 "Transformation"

Alex Skolnick made his name as a six-string guitar slinger in the Bay Area thrash legends Testament. Apparently fed up with metal, he quit the band, went to music school, and hooked up with a couple of jazzers (Nathan Peck on double bass and Matt Zebroski on drums), with the idea of doing exploratory fusion-jazz, using the heavy metal songbook for standards (and inspiration) and not the "regular" (or, it could be argued, "over-covered") classic jazz songbook. This, their second album, features radically reworked versions of Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, and Ronnie James Dio, evenly balanced with some original compositions. And while this album is very well played, with excellent performances from all involved (especially Zebroski's work on "IMV/The Trooper" and Skolnick's guitar on "Money"), the album as a whole comes off much like works by the Bad Plus, that is, a well-executed gimmick. That may turn some listeners off, but how many dyed-in-the-wool metal fans are going to tolerate even one minute of what Spinal Tap termed a "jazz odyssey"? And how many dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans are going to seek out the original version of Priest's "Electric Eye" to do a comparison with the version here? Probably not too many. If you're somehow either one of these two extremes, this album will probably work for you, both in the background and on the headphones.

Call me a jazz bigot. When I received Transformation by Alex Skolnick, apparently the ex-guitarist for thrash metal-heads Testament, my first thought was, "Great, another rocker trying to be a jazzer." Things didn't get better when I saw that Skolnick was interpreting material by Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Scorpions, Iron Maiden and—yes—Ronnie James Dio. Sure, plenty of serious jazz artists have approached contemporary singer/songwriters in recent years—Brad Mehldau, Charlie Hunter, even Herbie Hancock. But metal bands? I mean, really.
Well, imagine my surprise to discover Skolnick a fine jazz guitarist, completely capable of getting to the core of songs by a group of artists more associated with classic rock, and transforming them into almost unrecognizable new tunes. Unlike the Bad Plus, who are nothing less than shtick—a group whose supposed reinvention of songs by Nirvana and Black Sabbath do little to honour the originals, and even less to make them interesting and refreshing new mediums for improvisation—Skolnick and his trio of bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski breathe new life into these tunes, transforming (there goes that word again) them into something fresh, while at the same time being reverential to their sources. Judas Priest could never have conceived "Electric Eye" as a lithe 7/4 romp, nor Scorpions their "Blackout" as a swinging jazz waltz, but there you go.
That Skolnick comes to jazz from rock as opposed to the other way around means that while he has a firm grasp on harmony and is capable of navigating odd meters and shifts in feel, there is a certain energy and, in particular, attitude that is missing from your typical fusion player. That's not to say guitarists like Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale lack attitude; it's just that there's something different about the way that Skolnick digs into a solo, even when it's on an abstract ballad like "Fear of Flying." And Skolnick does this, for the most part, with a clean and warm tone that is only affected with a touch of delay, completely eschewing the typical overdriven fusion tone with the exception of a brief spot on the title track and his surprisingly swinging version of Deep Purple's "Highway Star."
If Skolnick has any precedent in jazz, it would have to be Larry Coryell, who has blended a true rock and roll attitude with a far broader reach over the course of his career, demonstrated to great effect at this summer's Ottawa International Jazz Festival . Like Coryell, Skolnick demonstrates that translating the energy of rock to a jazz context can be a more subtle thing, showing that you can imbue more traditional trappings of swing, modal playing and richer harmony with an edge that doesn't spoil their essential purity. Transformation is a surprising record that succeeds on many levels and proves that it is indeed possible to shift gears mid-career and sound like you've been doing it all your life.

 Track listing:
  1. "Transformation" – 5:53
  2. "Electric Eye" – 5:20 (Judas Priest cover)
  3. "Fear Of Flying" – 5:10
  4. "Money" – 5:13 (Pink Floyd cover)
  5. "Both Feet In" – 5:28
  6. "Scorch" (Featuring Charlie Hunter on 8-string guitar)[1] – 7:17
  7. "Blackout" – 5:03 (Scorpions cover)
    • Originally released on the Blackout album.
  8. "IMV/The Trooper" – 5:18 (The Trooper is an Iron Maiden cover)
    • "The Trooper" was originally released on the Piece of Mind album.
  9. "No Fly Zone" – 4:27
  10. "Don't Talk To Strangers" – 6:00 (Dio cover)
  11. "Highway Star" – 6:30 (Deep Purple cover)


Alex Skolnick (vocals, guitar)
Nathan Peck (vocals, acoustic bass, double bass)
Matt Zebroski (vocals, drums, percussion)
Dave Eggar (cello). 

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