Does the world need another Tony Williams tribute disc -- particularly in light of past efforts by the one-off super band Trio Beyond and by one of Spectrum Road's own members, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana? Well, Spectrum Road is not a Tony Williams tribute disc… it's a Tony Williams Lifetime tribute disc. BIG distinction! You see, Miles Davis may have invented fusion, but Lifetime strapped it onto a Saturn 5 rocket and launched that fucker into orbit.
In that same spirit, Spectrum Road -- aka Blackman Santana, bassist Jack Bruce, guitarist Vernon Reid, and keyboardist John Medeski -- does not stand on ceremony; it simply knocks you to the ground with the first six chords of "Vuelta Abajo" and keeps on kicking. Reid is already thirty seconds over Vernonland halfway through the opening melody, and he shreds it like it's going out of style. Medeski's middle-section meditation sends us sailing into psychedelia while Reid, Bruce and Blackman Santana repeatedly fire off another six-note figure, offering stark counterpoint even as it beats us even more senseless. The titanic closing sends a clear message: "Hey, we can do this all night! And you know what? That's exactly what we're GONNA do!"
It's no surprise Blackman Santana takes to this material like a shark takes to rare sirloin. Aside from her own 2010 effort Another Lifetime, she was a major component of the "Bitches Brew Revisited" Band that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the fire-breathing T-Rex Williams helped build. Blackman Santana is a towering monster on "Allah Be Praised," and the muscle she brings to Spectrum Road's take on "Vashkar" puts the version on Another Lifetime squarely in its place -- that of a pale imitation. Part of that process has to do with Reid's relentless quest to dice & slice the listener's brain without anesthesia. After the tape-loop-heavy idiocy of Masque, it's so righteous to hear Reid turn it up to 11 and just GO! He can keep it "light," as he did on the opening of Jan Hammer's "Coming Back Home" but he's firmly back in Shred-o-Matic Mode before the piece is halfway done.
Medeski may not have the history with this music Bruce (who played in a later incarnation of Lifetime) and Blackman Santana has, but he sure has the affinity. Like his sometime-playmate John Scofield, Medeski can play any style and make it sound like he's been doing it forever. His mammoth keyboards on the closer "Wild Life" nails the piece to the wall, and his explorations on "Allah" makes Trio Beyond's take seem even more throwaway than it was. Bruce's voice may lack the searing quality it brought to Cream classics like "White Room" and "Sunshine of Your Love," but he's still got that that mind-blowing bass was always more jazz than rock. Besides, it doesn't take Pavarotti to sing the simple lyrics to Williams' space-love rock ballad "There Comes a Time," and Bruce's reedy vocals work quite well on the rising "One Word" and the Scottish highland song "An t-Eilean Muileach" -- one of two non-Lifetime pieces on Spectrum Road.
That's the really exciting thing about Spectrum Road: That this group would show Lifetime's music the veneration it deserves was a given before they played the first note. But "An t-Eilean" and the instrumental cruiser "Blues for Tillmon" hints at this group taking this sound beyond the tribute realm, respectful of the past but headed for the future. Like Tony Williams himself, that concept is seriously special, and I fervently hope it comes to pass.