Thursday, January 6, 2011

Steady Hands: Robby Krieger's Singularity

Released last year and nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album, Robby Krieger’s Singularity is an fascinating mix of rock instrumentals that show a real feel for jazz rhythm. The album features Krieger on different guitars tapping into flamenco, classical and electric instruments and featuring some very interesting alumni who once played with Frank Zappa. Namely bassist Arthur Barrow, keyboardist Tommy Mars, horn players Walt Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Sal Marquez, and percussionist Vinnie Colaiuta. I was immediately struck by the line-up on paper and thrilled to hear the ensemble on record. While the album features some bombastic titles such as, “Russian Caravan,” “Event Horizon” and “Solar Wind,” the sound is anything but overbearing. Krieger and company perform without pretense and in a highly structured way. Consequently, Krieger’s participation as leader is folded into the music rather than being the front & center man with his back-up band.

Considering the evolution of the rock instrumental, Robby Krieger isn’t the first name that comes to mind when considering its history. The Ventures, Dick Dale, the Shadows and Jeff Beck have all made a contribution, in some cases forgettable, to the art of the instrumental. By the late-60s, when Jimi Hendrix turned the music world on its ears with his dazzling display of sound, rock instrumentals began to break new ground. Jeff Beck led the field through most of the early Seventies with such classics as Rough and Ready, Blow by Blow and Wired. Phil Manzanera formed a mostly instrumental group called 801 as a side project to his work in Roxy Music. Robert Fripp, who formed King Crimson in the late sixties, developed what he called, “Frippertronics,” using tape loops and digital technology to build colliding rhythms and sounds all from the same instrument. Fripp released several instrumental records of this nature, which he called "soundscapes," during the 1980s and 1990s. Frank Zappa had already made the deepest impact with his startlingly variety of instrumentals back on Hot Rats in 1969.
Robby Krieger
Robby Krieger could have stopped playing after the breakup of The Doors in 1974 and simply enjoyed the fruits of one of the most successful bands in rock & roll. Instead he kept playing guitar and quietly going about his craft. This new album of music celebrates his love of the instrument without bragging about it. Like Frank Zappa, the man can play and play well against a large band so that the musical interplay takes precedence over technique, or what I like to call razzle-dazzle. “Russian Caravan” features sparkling solos from Krieger, Tommy Mars (organ) and Larry Klimas (flute). The horns are nicely arranged yet the drums sound remarkably thin to me with no bottom end supporting the band. (In fact the recording of drums on this record is poor.) "Russian Caravan" was written shortly after the death of Miles Davis in 1991. While I don't hear a lot of Miles in the piece, I do respect Krieger for attempting a composition with him in mind. It does remind me though of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations on one level, but the Spanish tinged "Event Horizon" is much closer to that Evans/Davis sound.

Miles Davis
"Southern Cross" features Krieger on slide guitar; an instrument that caught the ear of Jim Morrison when he was forming The Doors. Krieger's tone is pretty sharp on this pleasant track that shows a lot of control. Just when you think he's going to slip into a cliché, Krieger corrects himself and floats the instrument into the rhythm section in an exacting way. My favourite track however is "Coffin Dodger," a wacky up-tempo number with a blues inspired pulse going for it. The band is having great fun on this tune. "Solar Wind," in spite of its title, is the most jazz-like track on the album. Its funky beat kicks in boldly while Krieger does his best impression of Wes Montgomery before he launches into a tasteful solo that's a rhythmic delight. This is the best song on the album.

Saturday marks the 65th birthday of Robby Krieger who wrote some of the Doors' best songs such as "Roadhouse Blues" and the unforgettable, "Light My Fire." While those songs defined the band and supplanted its charismatic front man, Krieger always played tastefully and with steady hands. Likewise on Singularity. I wouldn't reach for this album on a regular basis, but I do know that when I do I'll be rewarded with musical ideas that are at once fresh and exciting to the ears.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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