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Published: 2005/09/08
by Pat Buzby

Imaginational Anthem: A Guitar Anthology, 1965-2005 – various artistsFusion For Miles: A Guitar Tribute – various artists

Near Mint 0531

Tone Center 40412

Listening to these two CDs side by side makes one realize that John Fahey and Miles Davis had a few things in common. Fahey’s school of guitarists blended folk, classical and jazz while Davis’s alumni dealt with combinations of funk, rock and jazz, but both of them created hybrid genres (in Miles’s case, people call it fusion; for better or worse, no one’s come up with a single-word term for Fahey’s style) which produced some music inoffensive enough to win Grammies and other stuff raw enough to empty a club. Imaginational Anthem reminds us how radical Fahey’s work could be; Fusion For Miles, unfortunately, mainly shows how the power of Miles’s electric vision has dissipated since 1975.

Back when I discovered Leo Kottke in my uncle’s record collection 20 years ago, I had no idea how worn out the whole solo guitarist/pianist thing would seem 1000 albums later. Imaginational Anthem, though, turns back the clock and makes the avant/folk solo guitar enterprise fresh again. A generous, well-paced collection, this CD juxtaposes buried resources (artists such as Suni McGrath, who released a few obscure LPs in the 70’s and has been hiding away in Indiana) with newcomers (including Kaki King, the surprising young, female addition to this middle-age men’s club), the lush (Bob Hadley) with the near-atonal (Bern Nix), the eerie (Harris Newman) with the warm (Glenn Jones). The highlight, Steve Mann’s “My Thoughts Began To Crystallize,” suggests Syd Barrett appearing on Prairie Home Companion.

Fahey’s entry, “O Holy Night” (from a little-known 90’s Christmas album), is restrained by his standards, but there’s little doubt that he would have been proud of this collection. Producer Josh Rosenthal’s enthusiasm for this music comes through.

Clearly Jeff Richman, the svengali of Fusion For Miles, loves Miles’s music just as much. However, while Imaginational’s package is suitably grand without trying to hide the music’s quirkiness, Fusion’s cover announces that the CD is “A Bitchin’ Brew.” This valley-girl pun on a classic album title fits the disc’s contents a bit too well; on this disc, pieces which once journeyed into the heart of darkness now come off as safe and relaxed.

The lack of adventure in this disc doesn’t stem from Richman’s arrangements. He adds odd meters and extra sections throughout; it takes chutzpah to essay a near-unrecognizable “So What,” and he finds a melancholy in “Eighty One” not present on the E.S.P. version. Compelling compositions are half the battle in fusion, but it seems that the genre also needs a bandleader with the mystique and intimidation skills of Miles (or such fellow travelers as Zappa, Zawinul/Shorter or Becker/Fagen) to keep from devolving into shallow showoff fare, and Richman doesn’t seem to have inspired his cohorts quite that much. Judging from the credits and the aural evidence, one possible reason is that most of these talented players may never have been in the studio on the same day.

It was a coup for Richman to get Dave Liebman, a saxophonist whose presence automatically kicks this music’s level of life and grit up a notch, on the disc. All 10 guitarists on this CD can flick their picks, too: as jamband guys go, Warren Haynes and Steve Kimock are as real as it gets, and it’s nice to hear from retiring masters Bill Connors and Pat Martino, although their introverted bebop doesn’t sit easily with the metal swagger around them. As well, Vinnie Colaiuta pulls out every drum fill in the book trying to spark the proceedings, but in the end this CD dissolves into a blur of runs and vamps with erudition but little power.

Imaginational Anthem is that rare thing, a disc assembled in a spirit of homage which can stand alongside its masters. As for Fusion For Miles, its target audience will get some capable guitar slinging, but they might want to question how necessary this disc is when there’s still so much information left to wring out of all those 68-75 Miles recordings.

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