Michael Gregory Jackson Comes Full Circle with “Spirit Signal Strata”

10/24/2017 09:37 am ET

One of the most influential guitarist to emerge during New York’s loft jazz scene of the 70s has returned to his pursuit of things fully outside with his newest release, “Spirit Signal Strata.”

For those not in the know, Jackson may have enjoyed one of the most diverse careers of any guitarist of the past 40 years. He’s crafted an extensive, genre-skipping discography and cliché-free musical architecture, ones that has profoundly influenced and been name-checked by a legion of progressive guitar stars like Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Vernon Reid and Marc Ribot.

Jackson was barely out of his teens when he made a big splash in New York, as the lieutenant in the critically-acclaimed Oliver Lake Quartet, then with a succession of edge-pushing solo albums beginning with “Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square” and “Karmonic Suite”, produced by the late pianist Paul Bley. As his solo career evolved, his more soulful and traditionally melodic gifts, and beautiful vocals of the Smokey Robinson/Stevie Wonder school, were gradually added to the mix, flavoring albums like the brilliant “Heart and Center” and “Gifts” both productions by Jackson in 1979 for Arista Novus Records.

By the 80s, the avant garde seemed to recede somewhat, as Jackson was firmly in the commercial mode – as an artist, producer and session man on more pop-centric productions. Although Michael continued his deep association and performances with Wadada Leo Smith, the late violinist Leroy Jenkins and saxophonist/composer Oliver Lake.

In 1983 he recorded “Situation X”, the synth and hook heavy pop album produced by Nile Rodgers, Steve Winwood was also a guest on this session for Island Records. Michael’s song “No Ordinary Romance” from this album was also recorded by the celebrated late great singer Al Jarreau (also produced by Rodgers) in 1986.

Through the 90s and 00s, Jackson quit the big city and pop music rat race for homes in rural New England.

These calmer environs decidedly influenced his sounds and production on stripped down almost alt. folk/jazz releases like “Way We Used to Do” and “Red.” Here, the accent was on elegant multi-tracked largely acoustic guitars, inventively spacious chords and melodies and his soaring vocals and stacked harmonies.

But the past decade has seen Jackson steadily moving back to his original pursuit: no-limits instrumental guitaring. A reunion with Oliver Lake at New York’s Vision Fest, touring, producing and recording two records, "Spiritual Dimensions" (2009) and “Heart’s Reflections” (2011) with acclaimed trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and a duo of releases cut during his travels and teaching in Copenhagen – “Liberty” with the Art Ensemble Syd and “After Before” with his Denmark based Clarity Quartet – have set the stage for his latest.

With “Spirit Signal Strata,” Jackson has created a superb addition to the lexicon of great jazz guitar trio discs. With the powerful and always inventive drumming of Kenwood Dennard (Brand X, Miles Davis, John Scofield) and Keith Witty (Amel Larrieux, Somi, David S. Ware) on bass, Jackson plies an experimental road, but one always tethered to his strong sense of melody and thematic development. Sometimes it swings and sometimes it burrows down into the deepest blues, but it’s always smart, passionate guitaring that never feels overly academic.

The eight-track, 56-minutes offering kicks off with “After Before (for K),” where Jackson’s velvet smooth tone and country blues twang ride over a gospel groove, a little like Frisell a couple of espressos over his usual limit.

“SK” is another slow groove, a fractal blues, all sneak slurs and slips, with a whole tone turnaround that ups the suspense. It’s as if B.B. King had been slipped some Owsley at the Fillmore West, then spent a month drinking up harmolodic theory at Ornette Coleman’s Caravan of Dreams.

On “Mediation in E,” Jackson and crew showcase a sunrise tune, a pastoral opening theme that provides plenty of space for Witty’s bowed bass to shine and Jackson to solo over a bright major drone, and dip into slurs that impart an almost Eastern flavor.

With “Cortex Vortex (for Muhal Richard Abrams)” Jackson and company challenge the listener once again. A composition in three parts, at first floaty, deep space excursion, Jackson’s midi guitar has a flute-y/cello tone, contrasting the bowed bass and gong and cymbal work . The piece then runs through many moods and dramas accented by Jackson’s slurs across arpeggios and volume pedal squeals and Witty’s manipulated bass, which bring to mind early Weather Report era Miroslav Vitous. It’s nothing short of true, spontaneous, collective improvisational greatness.

Jackson gives props to the free jazz pioneer on “JcakJcak (for Ornette Coleman), a remake of a tune debuted on “After Before,” one of his recent Denmark recordings. A melodic chordal theme with a knotty, stop-time head leads the way into some frenzied soloing in a razor sharp tone, over a swinging beat from Dennard, culminating in another flashy solo over a fat back funk.

The disc has other superb standouts to let your imagination get lost in, from the funky “Spin” to the remake of the mysterious “Clarity 4” from his 1976 solo debut, “Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square”, perhaps the most ever-changing and exploratory track on the disc, then we go straight up into to the contrapuntal and brassy “Spin”, culminating the disc with the swinging strut of “Souvenirs”.

In June 2017, The Washington Post made waves when it published a much-read feature called "Why My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Slow, Secret Death of the Six-String Electric.” If the guitar industry, and the music in general, are suffering perhaps it’s because true visionaries and explorers like Michael Gregory Jackson are not enjoying the spotlight they so richly deserve.

If more people checked into his world, this superb new disc and the many others before, they might still see there’s so much more that can be done with our old friend, the electric guitar. If you just have the skill, passion and balls to pursue the unknown like Michael Gregory Jackson.

For more info including sounds from this and other albums, visit http://www.michaelgregoryjackson.com

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