IN THE early '70s, two outstanding guitarists -- John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell -- defined the parameters of fusion music that brought together the mind-sets of rock and jazz.
Both explored on East-West axis featuring a balanced blend of Indian rhythmic and melodic concepts with Western harmonies. This is most evident in their solo efforts, where they are best able to explore the introspective subtleties and meditative nuances of the acoustic guitar.
It's an art most fully explored by Coryell, with significant contributions coming from such artists as Ralph Towner, Bill Connors and Steve Khan. As three new guitar albums show, these artists often make use of the multi-tracking capabilities of the modern studio, but always bring the music back to a personal center.
Coryell was one of the first electric fusion guitarists, but his work over the past few years has emphasized his acoustic base. "Standing Ovation" (Arista Novus AN3024) is a bit of an in-joke, since he plays his trademark 6- and 12- string Ovations on this outing; but it's also Coryell's most cohesive album in a long time. For one thing, the frenetic pace that has sometimes overwhelmed his efforts in the past is under control. Coryell has more chops than a Bruce Lee festival. But this time, the lyric, romantic flow suggested throughout his career is polished to a particularly warm tone.
This is most evident on the trio of classical homages on the first side: "Excerpt from 'A Lark Descending' by Vaughn Williams," "Ravel" and "Wonderful Wolfgang." Coryell's translucent, pastoral intonation seems particularly suited to Ravel's impressionism, though the references never obscure the player's jazz consciousness. The textural fantasies here are reminiscent of Ralph Towner, yet Coryell shows his Texas roots with funky blues and boogie riffs on "Discotexas" and some witty rock-blues changes on "Park It Where You Want It."
There are still plenty of fiery, high-velocity runs and dazzling dynamics. With Coryell writing eight of the nine tunes, there are some awkward resolutions, as if he tried to pack too many ideas into too many short pieces. The guitarist's weakest effort is a pointless piano sortie that seems like filler.
The most vibrant creation is in the company of the superb Indian violinist L. Subramaniam, who also wrote the raga-based "Spiritual Dance." The two musicians engage in a wonderful call-and-response interplay of Eastern and Western idioms blurring into a cohesive empathy. In an album of intelligent overdubs, the intensely spiritual aura and honest communion of the tune stand out.
Steve Khan is a second-generation fusion (Becker Brothers) and his experience as a session guitarist is written all over "Evidence" (Arista Novus AN3023). The album is dense with overlays, but lacks any creative tension. Khan toured and recorded with Coryell a few years ago, and their work together showed him capable of softspun acoustic grace and challenging improvisations. But where Coryell has always taken chances, Khan seems more interested in discipline. Working on a set of well known jazz tune ("In a Silent Way," "Infant Eyes" and a whole side of Thelonius Monk creations), Khan is content to follow a theme-variation-theme pattern with the emphasis on multi-layered textures.
The result is a pulsating rhythmic sameness, more mood-making than improvisation; and while the tones are lush, and at times romantically adroit, the lingering impression is too clean. This is particularly true of the Monk medley, which feels like it's being read as it's being played. Khan is a marvelous technician, but he's missing the passion to create his own distinct voice.
John Scofield's "Bar Talk" (Arista Novus AN3022) shows a guitarist mired in the tradition of Jim Hall and Pat Martino, but with a different emotional outlook. Scofield is most effective as an accompanist (he's worked extensively with Gary Burton and bassist David Friesen). On his own, Schofield seems short of interesting ideas and his tone is muddy. His improvisations lead nowhere and Scofield just can't carry the weight of leadership. What's most interesting is the company he keeps: drummer Andy Nussbaum (who provides solid fills and is a superb rhythm machine) and bassist Steve Swallow.
Swallow is one of the unique voices on his instrument, which he sometimes turns into a synthesizer with long, sinuous runs. On "Home" (ECM 1-1160), he tackles the cryptic poetry of Robert Crealy and comes up . . . well, even. Aided by saxophonist David Leibman, pianist Steve Khun and vocalist Sheila Jordan, Swallow manages to make an interesting failure in an area where most of the failures have been dreadfully boring. Jazz seems more at home with his improvisatory characteristics of black poetry, but Swallow and Co. give a spirited effort.