It’s often tempting to think that good jazz-fusion completely died out in the late seventies. Certainly the heyday of cutting edge fusion or jazz-rock had passed by then, as commercial pressures and critical indifference compelled many a musician working in the field to turn toward increasingly tepid and commercial fare that would eventually come to be known as “smooth jazz,” or even worse, “new age jazz.”
Fortunately, not all was lost. There was good fusion in the eighties and nineties, one just had to dig a little deeper for it. One of the finest examples of successful fusion from this time period is Chad Wackerman’s debut album, Forty Reasons. Wackerman is probably best known for his work with Frank Zappa in the eighties, but he has also worked extensively with Allan Holdsworth as well as Steve Vai and Andy Summers. Forty Reasons is one of two excellent albums he released in the early nineties on the now defunct CMP label. This is probably the better of the two, however.
Forty Reasons is nothing if not diverse. Entirely instrumental, it veers back and forth from short, quirky, almost avant-garde experiments brimming with studio effects and frantic drum work to romantic ballads with memorable melodies to six- and seven-minute jazz-rock tours-de-force where everybody gets to solo.
Despite the diversity of musical styles presented, several things remain consistent throughout the CD. The first is a relatively prominent display of then contemporary technology. Everything sounds slick, polished even conspicuously digital at times, but in the best possible way for the time. The album is definitely of its time, but the synths and guitar effects have aged better than those found in a lot of music from this time period have. Don’t let the studio-applied sheen fool you, however. There is plenty of vigor underneath the glossy surface.
Something else that remains consistent is perhaps what is best about this album: Allan Holdsworth’s guitar playing. Holdsworth plays on every track, and he delivers some of the best performances of his illustrious career here. This CD is full of the same incredibly fluid, richly toned, tremolo sleight-of-hand soloing that has made Holdsworth a name that stirs awe in the hearts of those who know his work. The two-and-a-half-minute rollercoaster ride of a solo on the opening track, “Holiday Insane,” is worth the price of the CD alone! None of the pitfalls that riddle many of Holdsworth’s own releases are to be found here. Wackerman’s compositions are generally more interesting than Holdsworth’s, and perhaps best of all, there is none of the dreaded Synthaxe to be heard anywhere on this album.
Of course, this is Wackerman’s album, and he allows himself plenty of room to strut his stuff as well. Wackerman is a somewhat busy drummer, but his playing is very unique, and his playing is quite tasteful here. Thankfully he eschews the seemingly obligatory extended solo one might expect to hear on a drummer’s solo album. His playing clearly comes from a jazz direction, albeit a distinctly modern and inclusive one. He’s capable of swinging, but he’s not insistent on it. Small fills and rolls across the toms abound, but predictability does not.
Jim Cox plays keyboards, organ and piano, and Holdsworth crony Jimmy Johnson plays bass guitar. Neither has any trouble keeping up with Wackerman and Holdsworth, and both manage to lay down some great solos of their own.
If jazz-fusion albums had ‘hits’ “Holiday Insane,” “Forty Reasons,” “Quiet Life,” and “Tell Me” would be all be top-ten candidates with their combinations of memorable melodies and chops displays. These are wisely interspersed relatively evenly among the more abstract pieces like “Fearless” and “House on Fire,” which pose more of a challenge to the listener. Due to this variety of accessible and more challenging material, Forty Reasons is probably too complex and varied to hold most people’s attention all the way through on the very first listen. If given a chance though, it is likely to grow on anyone with a taste for this kind of music. It is recommended to anyone who likes the idea of challenging jazz-fusion with a more modern twist, and it is nothing less than essential to fans of Wackerman and Holdsworth.