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Published: 2011/03/08
by Tom Volk

Luca Benedetti's Thermionics
Ta Da…

Trying to stand above the fray in the world of instrumental jamband artists must be a daunting task. It’s a phenomenally talented crowd stuffed into a really small house. For every Medeski, Martin, and Wood or Steve Kimock, there are 20 bands that never make it beyond an opening slot on a Tuesday night at the Knitting Factory, and those are the talented ones. Indeed Luca Benedetti’s new project, Thermionics, features two refugees from two uber talented bands, Benedetti from ulu and keyboardist Erik Deutsch from Fat Mama, which never really progressed in a manner commensurate to their collective talents.

I get the sense though that the former ulu guitarist’s new collective has the chance, the potential, to be one of those artists that stands above the fray. His new release, entitled Ta Da…, reminds me a lot of the annual conversation I have with my father when our beloved New York Giants have a good record at the end of September. At some point during the conversation, we will always temper our early season enthusiasm, having become accustomed to the downward spirals that tend to haunt the Giants come December. We say the same exact thing to each other every year, even repeating it a couple of times for emphasis, “they have a chance to be good, a chance, that’s it.” Ta Da… is just that, an album that hints at the potential of the project rather than being a fully realized effort.

The football analogy is apt in another sense too because listening to it is kind of like watching a football game where the crowd doesn’t show up. “Hoop and Pole,” the album’s sixth and most impressive track encapsulates this perfectly. Leading off with a booming, circular riff that cycles through the first three minutes of the track, it lands in what will obviously be the “big improvisation” section of the tune once it is unleashed live. The ensuing solo is impressive enough, Benedetti’s tone occupies the sweet spot between warm jazz and distorted space, but your mind still drifts towards the live possibilities. What’s a 60 yard touchdown pass without 80,000 people to see it?

There are enough of these moments on the album to get you jazzed about the possibilities of this collective touring and jelling, adding some fireworks to the colorful palette that the better tracks establish. “Fat and Fiesty” is full of whimsical riffs and driving keyboard work from the excellent Deutsch. “Big Jim” is about as close as you can get to a hoe down in the context of the downtown New York music scene. The title track accomplishes the rare feat of making a tune propelled by a guitar with a late 80’s fender tone sound like something other than “Wonderful Tonight” or background music for soft porn. The only other track I can think of that transcends the otherwise insipid tone is Zappa’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” not bad company. The languid closer, “Land Of Free Dumb,” is endlessly playable, full of subtle bass fills from Jeff Hanley and tastefully spaced out riffing from Benedetti and Deutsch.

In the end Ta Da… is hopefully just a snapshot of things to come and maybe, just maybe, some iteration of this quartet will have a chance to let these tunes out into the fresh air of the live setting so that they may flourish.

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