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Tackling the serious jam

By Jonas Hellborg, Shawn Lane and Jeff Sipe

Bardo Music: 2002

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Live Encounter
Live Encounter
By The Trey Gunn Band

First World Records: 2001

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These reviews first appeared in the June 24, 2002 edition of the American Reporter.

While the "classic rock" stations continue to re-play the same songs from Hendrix and the Grateful Dead over and over, they're missing out on some of the best jam rock ever recorded. Jonas Hellborg and his semi-regular triomates Shawn Lane and Jeff Sipe continually produce some of the most interesting improvisational music on the scene. Even when Jerry Garcia was still alive, the Dead couldn't hold a candle to the Hellborg/Lane/Sipe conglomeration.

And their latest outing, "Personae," may be their best yet.

Of course, it helps that all three are simply monsters on their respective instruments. Lane started his professional life as guitarist for Black Oak Arkansas at 14, and is today one of the most interesting guitarists in rock or jazz. Sipe – who sometimes adopts the stage name of Apt. Q-258 (take that, artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) – plays as much drums as anyone this side of the late Cozy Powell. No one in rock can even touch him, and even the top jazz skinmen (and women) will break a sweat trying to keep up.

And Hellborg – well, Hellborg could hold his own against the late Jaco Pastorious on bass, or the still-living Jamaaladeen Tacuma. He plays electric bass like it were a throaty violin or flute – beautiful, floating solos that belie the lower register of the instrument, that break out of the rhythmic ghetto generally assigned it.

But what makes this trio so wonderfully inspirational is the way they play together. While each is royalty – if not deity – on their individual axe, together they are even better. Ensemble improvisation is both rare and difficult; for these three, it's as organic as breathing. The only groups that ever approached what these three do in the rock-jazz fusion arena were early Weather Report, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu groups, and Robin Trower's classic lineup of the mid-'70s.

You never know who is going to start the melodic theme on any song; it could be Lane, picking and strumming out a loosely structured thought; or Hellborg might lay it out a bit more forcefully. The only thing for certain is that neither will ever try to flesh it out alone – this is true ensemble playing, and each of them is keenly attuned to what the other is doing, building on it, extending it, taking it someplace new before handing it back.

Sipe/Q-258 takes few solos, but is like the roux in any good New Orleans dish – there isn't a morsel that doesn't have his signature on it. His ever-so-slightly relaxed beat is what gives the trio its signature characterization of, well, relaxed elasticity. No matter how intense a passage – and they knew how to hold a musical climax as well as anyone – there is still a feeling of being utterly in control, that there remains a still-higher plateau waiting for their next performance.

The new release finds the trio in front of a live audience in Germany – a crowd that knows the band, and so doesn't get all worked up over every single sterling passage or solo. No, this audience knows what the band is capable of and holds out for the best, saving its applause for the times when the band finally pushes themselves to the highest levels of musical interplay.

     ~ ~ ~

You don't get invited to join King Crimson unless you're good. Very good.

And considering that King Crimson has been anchored by the twin guitars of founder Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew since the band's third incarnation in the late '70s, you don't get asked to play third guitar (and bass) unless you're simply outstanding.

Still, when you're the bassist/third guitarist behind Fripp and Belew, you don't get a chance to show off much of your melodic talents within the confines of Crimson.

So when Trey Gunn records with his own band, there is undoubtedly a bit of pent-up artistry ready to explode. Which it does, again, all over his latest release, "Live Encounter."

Gunn's solo work isn't so different from what King Crimson (or the Hellborg/Lane/Sipe trio) puts out: instrumental improvisation with lots of long, extrapolative passages that stretch both innate virtuosity and one's ability to compose on the fly.

The band isn't actually so different from King Crimson in composition, either: Gunn is joined on guitar by Joe Mendelson and Ton Geballe, while Bob Muller plays drums. Setting them apart is the fact that Muller also plays tabla, which adds a new texture to the music.

And whereas King Crimson has been defined by the Fripp-Belew axis for almost a quarter-century now, The Trey Gunn Band is – despite its name – more of a true ensemble, with Gunn joyfully sharing the lead spotlight with Mendelson and Geballe. This quasi-democracy results in a complete lack of predictability, with any one of the three liable to step forward and steer an improvisation off in a wildly divergent direction.

Which means that the Trey Gunn Band is lousy background listening – try reading or futzing around the house with this on, and within a few minutes you'll be hitting your CD player's back button to hear something that just reached out from the "background" and grabbed your ear.