Trio Beyond, consisting of Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings, and John Scofield, is, in concept at least, a tribute to drummer Tony Williams’ group Lifetime, one of the earliest rock/jazz hybrids that pointed the way forward for many musicians in the early 1970s. Lifetime featured Williams, organist Larry Young, and guitarist John McLaughlin (later reformed editions featured Allan Holdsworth in the guitar seat), and combined the freewheeling improvisation of jazz with the grinding muscle of the rock power trio.
Though the original group created a stir with its first recordings, Emergency! and Turn It Over, it was short-lived, in part because of poor management and record sales. The derailing and general dismissal of fusion by most musicians and writers in the 1980s and 90s kept the group on the backburner of jazz history. However, with a reassessment of some key fusion musicians and bands, interest in Lifetime has again come around.
DeJohnette, a drummer who was around when Williams was in his heyday, is a natural to fill Williams’ drum seat, and it seems possible that there are few other drummers who could do so. Larry Goldings fills Larry Young’s organ chair, and while he is a bit less abstract an organist than Williams, he is capable of investigating the harmonic outer reaches of these tunes. Scofield has distinguished himself as a great guitarist with clear McLaughlin influences. But Scofield is able to do it all—jazz, swing, blues, rock-influenced guitar jamming, as well as more outside playing., making him a great addition to Trio Beyond.
Saudades, recorded live in London in 2004, shows that the group is much more than a Lifetime cover band. The spirit of both Williams and the original Lifetime band dictates that the group moves beyond mere imitation, and they do this admirably. There are hard-hitting versions of some key Williams and/or Lifetime tunes, to be sure: “Pee Wee,” “Emergency,” Coltrane’s “Big Nick,” and McLaughlin’s “Spectrum” bristle with muscular energy and power, but Trio Beyond also digs into the music Williams and his cohorts created and were inspired by both before and after Lifetime. But there is more here—the opening version of Joe Henderson’s “If” swings manically, thanks in large part to DeJohnette’s never-flagging energy. Goldings’ original composition “As One” gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his Larry Young influences, and also allows the band to show a dramatic range of emotion that is more delicate than the more jam-oriented tracks, yet every bit as powerful.
The song melds into a 45-second snippet of Larry Young’s “Allah Be Praised” groove. That leads to the ten-plus minute original title track, credited to all three musicians. “Saudades” and “Love In Blues,” a jam from the second CD of this set, both sound like spontaneous improvisations based on a loose framework. During both of these numbers, the band really lives up to the spirit of both Lifetime and Williams, performing very much like a seasoned, road-tested band rather than some supergroup studio project.
Two other surprises, both very pleasant, on CD two, are “Seven Steps to Heaven,” a Miles Davis track that became a staple for his live band around the time that Williams happened onto the scene. The group soft sells the melodic statement here, making the song at once familiar and a little bit new, even for seasoned jazz listeners. Then there is a lengthy version of the Jule Styne classic “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” another song long associated with Miles, on which the group displays a great depth of emotional reserve that can only be summoned by musicians who have mastered their craft and played for a long time.
In short, Saudades is a really great album of solid music created by three of today’s best jazz artists in tribute to music created by some heavy hitters from the past who deserve their due. The quality of musicianship, the excellent choice of material, and the performance itself (always more important than what the project looks like on paper) are all top notch, and those with open ears and an expansive spirit will be carried away by the sounds Trio Beyond creates to a freewheeling, truly wonderful musical universe.