Smith/Goodman/Levy/Burbridge: The Stranger's Hand
A common shortcoming of today’s chops-oriented fusion is its tendency to playfully mimic every musical style under the sun without ever articulating a coherent, genuine style of its own. Such is the case with this fusion supergroup, of which drummer Steve Smith of Vital Information and Steps Ahead is the leader. He’s joined by violinist Jerry Goodman of early Mahavishnu Orchestra fame, keyboard/harmonica monster Howard Levy of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, and bassist Oteil Burbridge of Aquarium Rescue Unit and the reconstituted Allman Brothers Band.
We’re dealing with fusion of the virtuosic variety, so the fact that the playing is flawless is unsurprising and somehow beside the point. Burbridge’s bass solos do the most for me, but that’s largely because I grow tired of the sound of heavily electrified violin and harmonica. Funk predominates on "Brick Chicken," "Pinky’s Revenge," and the metrically dizzying "Four Four and More." Levy’s "Moonchild" is one of the more satisfying tracks, with acoustic piano backing a nicely crafted violin melody. Best by far is "Caliente," a samba in 7/8 featuring Levy on the refreshingly low-tech Fender Rhodes.
Beyond that, The Stranger’s Hand is a bore. "Going Up!" is a forgettable foray into straight-ahead swing. Goodman’s "Glimmer of Hope" so closely resembles early Mahavishnu that it practically constitutes a copyright violation. "Elvin" is a predictable tribute to you-know-who, complete with Jones’s trademark slow-boiling 3/4 groove. The title track begins promisingly with interesting sounds from Levy’s pennywhistle and ocarina, but it quickly deteriorates into trite fusion maneuvers. And "Sufferin’ Catfish," a cajun shuffle with moments of jazz waltz thrown in for no apparent reason, is the clearest example of the aimless stylistic patchwork to which I alluded above.