Back in the early 1970s, in the heady heyday of Miles Davis' electric bands, the brash idea took hold that rock and jazz could join forces as equal partners -- could mate and create. It seemed that a new musical alchemy was imminent, perhaps even inevitable.
Turn the clock ahead 40 years, and give a listen to "Space Dust," the new CD by local trio Red Planet. It offers ample proof that jazz-rock wasn't a mirage or a dead end. When played at an exalted level by musicians who've kept the faith, it's as timeless and worthy as trad jazz or swing, bebop or the avant-garde -- just more electric, and louder.
Back from his second near-death experience, guitarist Dean Magraw really lets his freak flag fly on "Space Dust." Ever the genre chameleon, Magraw has made a lot of lovely and discreet folk and world-music discs in the past. "Space Dust" is something completely different. It's his long-awaited guitar hero calling card. He comes out roaring right from the opening notes of John Coltrane's "Africa," and his playing is white hot throughout. Even the trio's quiet numbers have a palpable intensity to them. "We are inspired by the spiritual searchings of John Coltrane," Magraw states. No wonder.
Magraw has the perfect co-conspirators in bassist Chris Bates and drummer Jay Epstein, jazz all-pros with rock pasts. They know their Coltrane and Parker, as well as their Hendrix and Led Zep. Red Planet is very much a cooperative trio. Bassist Bates contributes two of his strongest original tunes to "Space Dust" -- "What My Thought Is" and the lovely vignette "Rarefaction." And while Magraw gets top billing, the CD is just as much Epstein's showcase. His mastery of the cymbals is in full flower -- he gets more tone color from his mounted metal than any drummer in town.
"Jay invented Red Planet," Magraw said. "He had the idea for the lineup, recruited Chris Bates, and kept the fire burning. Jay's been great at making our original stuff work, adding just the right touches. And he's been very involved in the cover-tune picking, as well."
It was Epstein's idea to record Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," for one. "I always gravitate to less well-known Hendrix tunes," Magraw said. "I had to be dragged into playing that song. But he was right -- it's a beautiful thing. Jay also brought us 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight,' a real surprise. His arrangement makes it work, where we merely suggest the song early on, improvise and hint, and save stating the melody until the very end."
This weekend's release party for "Space Dust" has been an incredibly long time coming. Most of the album was recorded in 2008. One track was taped live at the Artists' Quarter in 2007. So it's fitting that the band returns to the AQ to finally celebrate.