John Medeski, left, Cindy Blackman Santana, Vernon Reid and Jack Bruce… (Jimmy Katz, Jimmy Katz )
In an age when Miles Davis still roams the upper half of the jazz charts on iTunes, news of a new band paying tribute to a now-deceased master may not be that surprising. But when Spectrum Road takes the stage to explore the music of Tony Williams' Lifetime while headlining Day 2 of this weekend's Playboy Jazz Festival, listeners would be wise to expect a bit more than the standard repertoire of familiar tunes, familiarly played.
"It's hard core," warns Cindy Blackman Santana, a drummer who is stepping into sizable shoes with Spectrum Road. The all-star quartet is dedicated to revisiting Williams' Lifetime, which forged the sound of fusion in the early 1970s. "It's not going to appeal to everyone," she adds.
"You have to be ready to do some sweating when you're going to play that music. You can't be ready to play 'Tea for Two' and then play Tony's music — that doesn't work," she says.
That the music of Tony Williams' Lifetime comes with a warning label befits a band that debuted with a double-album called "Emergency!" (exclamation mark theirs). Released in 1969, the record marked a departure for the drummer, who in addition to rambunctiously holding down the shape-shifting rhythms of Davis' "Second Great Quintet" also spent the '60s establishing the avant-garde sound of post-bop in landmark recordings such as Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" and Andrew Hill's "Point of Departure," in addition to his impressive 1964 debut as a bandleader, "Life Time."
With a band that included a previously unknown U.K. guitarist John McLaughlin (who later blazed along a similar trail with Davis' band after Williams' introduction, as well as his own Mahavishnu Orchestra) and underrated organist Larry Young, "Emergency!" ripped through jazz, psychedelic rock and funk with fiery, focused abandon. Though the record was received with some confusion by jazz audiences in its day, it's become something of a masterwork for those seeking music without borders.
"I think Wallace [Roney] introduced me to 'Emergency!'" says Santana, referring to her time studying at the Berklee College of Music. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness.' That record sort of blew my mind."
Shortly after leaving an influential power trio of his own in Cream, bassist Jack Bruce joined Williams' Lifetime on the group's second album "Turn It Over" in 1971. The resulting friendship continued up to Williams' death in 1997, and it was during conversations with flame-throwing guitarist Vernon Reid (from Living Colour) in Bruce's Cuicoland Express project 10 years ago that the two began talking discussing a tribute to Williams.
"The thing about him was that he was a true revolutionary," says Bruce, speaking by phone from his home in Scotland. "He just turned everything on its head. And the really interesting thing about him [is], although he was in the tradition of jazz drumming, he had no real reverence for it. But he respected it obviously."
The idea eventually became a band, with former Lenny Kravitz drummer Blackman Santana joining organist John Medeski from Medeski Martin and Wood to round out a quartet that would become Spectrum Road. As early as the first rehearsals, the group quickly discovered how strongly they connected.
"It's kind of like conversations between the four members of the band," says Bruce. "In a way it's almost like conversations I was having with Tony that we didn't have a chance to finish. So we can carry them on, and now somewhere he's able to have a laugh about it."
What began as a brief tour of Japan in 2008 expanded to more dates in the United States and a recently released album (composed of eight covers and two originals) and a cross-country tour, which stops at several festivals and theaters, including the jam-friendly crowds of Bonnaroo in Tennessee last week. If there was any question of whether fusion music from some 40 years past could hold up on a bill that also included Radiohead, Skrillex and Phish, Bruce didn't see it.
"When we play one of [Williams'] tunes it doesn't sound like something from a bygone age, it's not like playing Mozart or something," Bruce says. "I would figure they would like it because it's not that different from Radiohead or something. Sometimes when I hear Radiohead, one of my favorite bands and not a new band by any means, they sometimes remind me of the '70s fusion bands."
"As long as it's great music, they're going to love it," says Blackman Santana. "But [at festivals] you don't have to fit into a box or a mold, you can come and be an individual. And that's what I love about jazz, because it's very individual, it's very creative."
When asked about whether it seemed there were still the same barriers between genres as there were during Tony Williams' heyday with Lifetime, Bruce acknowledges there was something special about the time period that invited experimentation. "I think in a way the '60s were still happening, although it was the '70s, and there was still quite a lot of idealism — maybe misplaced, but it was there nevertheless. And I think a lot of that has disappeared.
"I think there is a yearning for that kind of thing to come back. I don't think everybody's completely bought into the cultural revolution. I think there's a few people who still like to think for themselves — I hope so!"
The Playboy Jazz Festival
Where: The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
When: Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.