New York guitarist Greg Skaff has an impressive jazz pedigree. A native of Wichita, Kansas, he came to town in the ‘80s and shortly thereafter hooked up with tenor sax great Stanley “Don’t Mess With Mr. T” Turrentine, a gig which lasted five years. There followed playing situations with the likes of Freddie Hubbard and David “Fathead” Newman and a lengthy tenure with saxophonist-composer-bandleader Bobby Watson that involved several tours and a few recordings. More recently Skaff has played in the Ron Carter big band.
It’s probably safe to say that none of them would appreciate this rock-tinged project, with the exception of Bobby Watson, who had Skaff playing distortion guitar lines on his 1995 album Urban Renewal. The others might cringe when Skaff unleashes his potent chops on grunge-laden tunes like “Mother Root,” “Talisman” and “Somewhere in the Middle East ” with a tone that could only be described as “hellacious” in straight ahead circles. “I wanted to do a record that wasn’t straight ahead swing and wasn’t just blowing tunes,” he explains. “And I wanted to represent some different sides of my playing that haven’t been documented before.”
But Skaff is being very honest on Soulmation, his fourth recording for Zoho, following on the heels of 2012’s organ trio outing 116th & Park. The gloriously subversive sound of distorted guitar is as much a part of his DNA, having grown up with rock guitar gods like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, as is the sound of Wes Montgomery’s octaves, George Benson’s linear burn, Grant Green’s righteous grooves and Pat Martino’s laser-sharp facility. Skaff channels them all, in some capacity, on this ambitiously eclectic project that has his splitting time between two trios one with organist Pat Bianchi (back from 116th & Park) and drummer Charley Drayton (Divinyls, Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos), the other with electric bassist Fima Ephron (a charter member of Lost Tribe) and drummer Jonathan Barber (a member of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s current acoustic quintet). Together they traverse moods and grooves in Skaff’s most exhilarating and revealing album to date.
“You can probably hear the influences,” says the formidable yet unassuming six-stringer about the 12 potent tracks from Soulmation. “I mean, I definitely loved Jeff Beck, particularly the stuff he did with the Yardbirds. Of the British guys, he was always my favorite. But then later on when I got a copy of George Benson’s It’s Uptown, that blew my mind too! And I still listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. That stuff is just amazing. John McLaughlin invented his own style. Nobody plays like that”
On the super funky opener, the slow grooving organ trio number Conjure, Skaff and crew conjure up the spirit of New Orleans funkateers The Meters, though Skaff opens up on his solo in a way that is more Grant Green than Leo Nocentelli. The earthy soul-jazz boogaloo Genmaicha, named for the Japanese roasted brown rice tea, is deeply grounded by Drayton’s syncopated groove while Bianchi and Skaff stretch freely on their respective solos. The title track Soulmation is a bit of jangly funk in E, done in the earthy spirit of The Temptations’ “Shaky Ground” (a tune covered by everyone from Etta James to Aerosmith to Delbert McClinton and Phoebe Snow). Then its distortion pedal stomping time on “Mother Root,” a powerhouse rock-tinged number recalling Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” or “Freedom.”
Shifting gears, Skaff affects a chamber jazz aesthetic on Jan Hammer’s Smoke in the Sun, a jazz waltz that has Barber swinging loosely but interactively on the kit. Says the guitarist, “Jonathan grew up playing in the church and he’s pretty well grounded in jazz, since he went to Jackie McLean’s Hartt School in Hartford. I heard him one night at Dizzy’s and I liked his energy, so I went up to him after the gig and I asked him, ‘Do you play rock?’ And he hardly hesitated and said, ‘Yeah!’ as if to say, ‘Why wouldn’t I? I play everything.’”
Bottom Feeder, a heavy duty rock-funk number recalling the crunch of Joe Walsh with James Gang, features a very Beck-ish (circa Blow By Blow) solo by the leader. And for a dramatic change of pace, Skaff, Ephron and Barber deliver Duke Ellington’s delicate Fleurette Africaine with a sense of elegance and mystery. “It’s just such a pretty tune. I always liked that version that he recorded with Mingus and Max on Money Jungle but there’s a solo version of just Duke playing it at the piano that I saw on You Tube, and I actually learned it from that. You can hear he just lays everything out. I wanted to play it as a guitar solo guitar piece on the record, so I was working it out that way. But then we would do it at gigs and I started liking it as a trio piece.”
Greg Skaff, December 2016. Photography: Melanie Futorian.
The unadulterated jazz number Porcupine Hat is swinging out of the gate, paced by Ephron’s insistent walking baselines and Barber’s surging pulse on the kit. Talisman is a ferocious organ trio number that recalls the raw fury of the original Tony Williams Lifetime with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. Staff’s distortion-soaked solo here is absolutely ripping. “I was trying to do something a little more rock than the other two cuts with organ,” he says.
Juke is a slow grooving chanka-chanka funk number recalling the earthy extrapolations of John Scofield with Medeski, Martin & Wood or his Up All Night band. Skaff’s take on Tony Newton’s Snake Oil, an anthemic fusion number on Tony Williams Lifetime’s 1975 album Believe It, has the guitarist bearing down on some fiery fusillades. “I loved that Lifetime group with Tony Newton and Alan Pasqua and I loved Holdsworth’s playing on that album. He did help turn guitar into something a little different with all the legato. I know Jim Hall was a legato player at times but Holdsworth totally rewrote the book on that.”
The collection closes on an exotic note with the 9/4 Somewhere in the Middle East with its allusions to Middle Eastern music in the evocative line and it’s sustain-distortion lines by Skaff in his turbulent solo. “I actually wrote that one on classical guitar because I had been studying classical for about seven years with Michael Lorimer,” says Skaff. “The basic riff is D harmonic minor over E.”
Skaff’s versatility and adventurous spirit comes across louder and clearer than ever before on this dynamic outing. Bill Milkowski
Recorded in 2016 at The Bunker Studio, Brooklyn by Nolan Thies; Avatar Studios, NYC by Anthony Ruotolo; and Factory Underground, Norwalk CT, by Kenny Cash.Mixed by Nolan Thies. Mastered by JJ McGeehan at Joan of Arc Park Studio. Photography by Melanie Futorian, Bernard Drayton, Sung Kim. Art Direction and Package Design by Jack Frisch. Produced by Greg Skaff. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.