July 15, 2010

Fusion Infusion

by Jim Newsom

The 1970s were known as the fusion era in jazz, a time when the generation of jazz musicians who were the same age as John Lennon and Paul McCartney put their improvising sensibilities and advanced harmonic concepts atop rock and funk rhythms to “fuse” different musical genres into an exciting new electric mix.

Jeff Lorber came from the next generation, born in the ‘50s, growing up on The Beatles and Motown but turned on as he entered adulthood by those new musical directions being charted by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Weather Report. Though younger than that pioneering group of fusioneers, he was an active participant in the movement, calling his band the Jeff Lorber Fusion, releasing his first record in 1977. He attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston but a move to Portland, Oregon, was his career turning point.

“Boston was a great place to go to music school,” he said in a recent telephone conversation from his California home, “but it was really hard to get gigs there. When I moved to Portland, I found a great club scene and a lot of great players. I actually started my band, not really with any intention of becoming a big star or making records or anything; it was because I was working with other guys—some pretty talented guys—but these band leaders just weren’t taking care of business. So, I decided I’d better start my own thing and take care of business ‘cause these guys sure aren’t! One thing led to another, and I was able to get into a little recording studio there that specialized mostly in country music, but it had a good sound.

“I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to have success at a young age. All that happened kinda spontaneously: I was able to get into a studio and I sent this little demo tape to a small label in New York; they liked it and put it out and it became kind of a hit.”

Lorber, who headlines the Norfolk Jazz Festival on Saturday night, July 24th at Town Point Park, has had quite a run since then. His music has been a staple of “smooth jazz” and “contemporary jazz” radio formats and he has a long list of production and session credits. He built his new Heads Up release, Now is the Time, on reworkings of some of his best known material, sprinkled with new surprises that include a funky take on Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveler.”

“I remember when that record came out,” he said. “It made such a huge impression on me. I was working in a record store and when that came into the store I put it on and played it over and over all day.

“Their music is difficult to play. It wasn’t just composition, it was production. I just loved the sound of those Weather Report albums.”

He co-produced Now is the Time with Yellowjackets bassman Jimmy Haslip and Blood, Sweat & Tears founder Bobby Colomby, and brought in an all star lineup including fellow Philadelphia area native Randy Brecker.

“The funny thing about working with Randy,” he said, “we actually grew up in the same little town and went to the same high school, though he was about four or five years older than me. After that, the Brecker Brothers had quite a long tenure at Arista Records, and I did also with the Jeff Lorber Fusion—my first six records were made for Arista.

“So whenever we get together, even though we didn’t know each other for our whole lives, it’s almost like we did. Basically from age zero to thirty, we had almost the same exact experiences—going through the Cheltenham school system and then going through the Arista record company system. We have so much to talk about when we get together.”

Long time listeners to Jeff Lorber’s trademark keyboard stylings may be surprised to learn of his earliest musical foray:

“I started my first group when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and I started out playing guitar because at that time I couldn’t afford an electric keyboard. A guitar and amp was a lot cheaper.

“I was lucky. When I was in tenth or eleventh grade, I met some kids who were into the blues—Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project—all that early ‘60s blues stuff. I still consider the blues to be a huge part of my music and I still love listening to some of the old records from that era.”

Now that he’s been around long enough to become an influence on younger musicians himself, I asked if he was surprised by his success.

“I’m just really grateful to still be in it and to still be enjoying it,” he said. “My secret is collaborating with other people. At some point I realized that I needed to expand my creative world to include other people. Every time I make a record, I use it as an opportunity to learn more myself, to be challenged by another talented musician who I respect and who I can learn from.”

Jeff Lorber Fusion
Norfolk Jazz Festival
Town Point Park
Saturday, July 24 – 9:30 pm
Festival tickets: $28.00 - $138.00
(757)441-2345; www.festevents.org

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.