Various Artists: A Guitar Supreme: Giant Steps in Fusion Guitar (2004)
Homage records can be tricky business. How to be reverent to the subject without being so imitative as to be completely superfluous? On that level, the sheer irreverence of A Guitar Supreme means that it doesn't have to worry about direct comparison to its source, the music of saxophone legend John Coltrane. But a proper tribute still has to capture the essence of what the artist is about and reinterpret it in its own way. Gary Husband's The Things I See: Interpretations of the Music of Allan Holdsworth demonstrates just how broad in scope Holdsworth's compositions are, how capable they are of being springboards for personal invention. But while A Guitar Supreme is a fine fusion record and bound to be snapped up by fans of the genre, it does little to honour the spirit of Coltrane.
Coltrane was all about liberation, musical and spiritual freedom. Guitarist Jeff Richman, who produced and arranged the twelve familiar Coltrane pieces for a veritable who's who of fusion guitar, including Eric Johnson, Steve Lukather, Greg Howe, Mike Stern, Frank Gambale, Robben Ford and Larry Coryell, has instead refashioned Coltrane's pieces into tightly arranged songs that are far too rooted in structure to truly capture what Coltrane was really all about.
It's not that the playing is bad; it isn't. Eric Johnson's take on "Resolution" is filled with invention and, while Greg Howe doesn't navigate the perennially-challenging changes of "Giant Steps" with the same kind of depth that other more clearly jazz-centric players have in the past, he still manages to make the piece compelling in a lightly funky kind of way.
And that may, in fact, be the real problem with the record. By taking "Lazy Bird" and turning it into a fusion samba, Richman saps the intent of the original, even while providing an engaging vehicle for a fine solo from Gambale. "Village Blues" gets a New Orleans second-line approach, a perfect setup for Ford, whose career has been defined by adding a richer harmonic depth to a more straightforward blues approach. But where is the looseness, the harmonic and rhythmic openness that so defined what Coltrane, and in particular his most well-known quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, was pursuing?
If one can forget that this is a tribute album to Coltrane, then it works just fine. As a stand-alone fusion effort, it is well-conceived and well-arranged, and the soloists are all highly talented exponents of the genre. The rhythm section, consisting of organist Larry Goldings, bassist Alphonso Johnson, and drummer Tommy Brechtlein, is completely on the money. But if measured against other recordings that have paid tribute to the spirit of Coltrane, most notably Kenny Garrett's outstanding Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane , A Guitar Supreme comes across as contrived, overly considered and, in the final analysis, more than a little trite.
Track Listing: Resolution; Afro Blue; Crescent; Giant Steps; My Favourite Things; Naima; My. Syms; Central Park West/Your Lady; Equinox; Village Blues; Lazy Bird; Satellite
Personnel: Eric Johnson (guitar on "Resolution"), Jeff Richman (guitar on "Afro Blue," "Central Park West/Your Lady"), Steve Lukather (guitar on "Crescent"), Greg Howe (guitar on "Giant Steps," "Mr. Syms"), Mike Stern (guitar on "My Favourite Things," "Equinox"), Frank Gambale (guitar on "Naima," "Lazy Bird"), Robben Ford (guitar on "Village Blues"), Larry Coryell (guitar on "Satellite"), Larry Goldings (organ), Alphonso Johnson (bass), Tom Brechtlein (drums)