Guilty pleasures – we all have them (ok, mine are 70s Glam Rock and New Idea). To many ‘serious’ Jazz musicians, that much-derided mongrel, Jazz Fusion (Jazz-Rock Fusion, Jazz-Funk Fusion, Fusion), is one such guilty pleasure, lurking in the aesthetic wardrobe, way up the back.

Seen through the clearer lens of time – unencumbered by the era’s afros, flares and white guys wearing dashikis – 1970s Jazz Fusion can (almost) be forgiven for spawning its idiot bastard, Smooth Jazz. Groups like Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (and, later, Elektric Band) – and of course, the electric bands of the genre’s sire, Miles Davis – had some serious jazz mojo going on: brilliant creative arrangements, in-the-pocket ensemble playing and stunning solos. Many jazz fans, used to the timbres of piano, horn and jazz kit were perhaps turned off by the wah-wah’s, clavinets and swooping synths; but there is much of lasting value in this music.

Sean Wayland, in the liner notes to his staggering two volume, 27-track Jazz Fusion-inspired new release, Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, offers the droll caveat “Some of this music is corny fusion music”. But he obviously loves this synthesizer stuff and doesn’t care who knows it.

From electro-popping whimsy such as ‘Rotovibe’ – a collage of scratch-mixed ideas – to the entirely acoustic pieces such as ‘Special When Lit’ – a beautifully measured sound-river featuring his current band of Matt Penman on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums – Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, has a over-arching cohesion that belies the fact this music was recorded over a 5-year period, from 2007 to 2012.

That cohesion is tested by Wayland’s strangely cool take – powered by his Nord Modular and astonishing drummer Mark Guiliana – on John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and at the other end of the spectrum, the truly spiritual ‘Devotional’ – a duet with the always-transporting singer Kristen Berardi. But it all hangs together just fine; hardly a surprise as all this dazzling music springs from the mind of one of Australia’s most gifted jazz composers.

Speaking of hearing fusion guitarist Alan Holdsworth’s Flat Tyre, Wayland says, “The sounds of the synths really captured me. That’s when I realised it was possible to do something very interesting and original with synthesizers.”

And like Chick Corea, like Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, he has transcended the inherent hollowness of timbre and often stilted expressiveness of these keyboards. Whether it be Nord, Oberheim or Yamaha synths and sequencers – check out ‘Neu Neu’ – grooving Hammond B3 or slinky Rhodes (‘I Still Got It’), Wayland’s solos never lack the same rich expressiveness he has always coaxed from the teeth of a Steinway.

His players on Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2 are worth the price of admission. As well as current bandmates such as Penman and Rueckert, Wayland features Oz mates such as drummer Andrew Gander and guitarist James Muller – Muller as ever making the ears prick up with his deft balance of stratospheric chops and earthy blues (his neo-Sco jazz lines on ‘Boxing Day’ make some beautiful arcs and curves).

Heavy friends such as NYC guitarist Wayne Krantz and drummer Keith Carlock add some Mahavishnu-metal to the deceptively-named ‘Marshmallows’ – the heaviest tune here.

But the brightest shining star here is Mark Guiliana. Wayland says of the rapidly rising young drummer, “I think Mark has revolutionised improvised drumming. It’s a real step forward in the language and concepts. He sounds like what has been in my head for years and previously only my computer drum programming could realise…”

To let the music speak what words can’t, have a listen to Wayland and Guiliana on the last track, the 11-minute ‘I’ll Face Ya’. Pianist and drummer play (in the true sense, the child-like sense) over a synth ostinato that drops in and out. Over the length of the piece, as well as some genius playing, there are quotes (Monk’s ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’), terse silences, even snatches of good-natured talk between the two, picked up on the drum mic.

But the musical conversation is the thing – this is jazz in its heart, transcending its machinery as all great jazz has transcended its machinery, from Armstrong onwards, the slave to the machine becoming its master.

For more information visit: www.seanwayland.com

Published October 2102 on jazz-planet.com

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