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Group 87 - Group 87 CD (album) cover

GROUP 87

Group 87

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.30 | 9 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars Group 87 were a super group of sorts back in the early eighties, with trumpeter/ keyboardist Mark Isham counting studio work with Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, and Boz Skaggs to his credit; bassist Patrick O’Hearn having been a member of Frank Zappa’s band in the seventies; and guitarist Peter Maunu having worked with Jean-Luc Ponty and Billy Cobham, in addition to being a founding member of the L.A. Express. All of them were up-and-coming musicians in the southern California area, and all would go on to successful careers as studio musicians, composers, and producers. Drummer Terry Bozzio was on his way out of Zappa’s band and in the process of forming the pop sensation Missing Persons with his wife and O’Hearn, so he declined an invitation to join the band but appeared as a guest musician on their debut.

This is an entirely instrumental album, consisting solely of drums, trumpet, bass, and guitar, with the remainder of sounds coming out of a variety of keyboards and synthesizers operated by Isham. This is a sound that is undeniably eighties, but is also rather difficult to classify. While one might be tempted to lump then with more traditional jazz/fusion bands, there is nothing improvisational about this music. Every note seems carefully orchestrated and executed with precision. Each arrangement starts around a central basic rhythm, and then constructs a series of progressions that often seem to have little to do with that rhythm, usually with a combination of percussion and synthesized keyboards. The whole thing works deliciously well.

“Future of the City” starts with a cold and glistening electric piano that is joined by a quiet, jazzy trumpet before blossoming into a rich blend of guitar, drums and cymbals. The whole thing sounds like a Joe Jackson (ala ‘Night and Day’) piano-bar tune with a little cool Al DiMeolo thrown in for effect, while Maunu’s guitar work is just pure fusion. Midway through the tempo shifts with a warm synthesized passage with Isham’s trumpet rising above in an almost celestial fashion. A great opening to an unusual album.

The basic rhythm of “Magnificent Clockworks” reminds me a lot of Jeff Beck’s version of “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat” with its purposeful and driving beat that is at the same time smooth and soothing. Guest drummer Terry Bozzio is spectacular, particularly as he works above the rim with some great percussion. Maunu’s guitar work is funky but very measured and Isham lays some melodic and spacey keyboards on the whole thing to give it a bit of a fast-paced ballroom feel. If you’ve ever heard Georgio Morodor’s work on the ‘Electric Dreams’ soundtrack, you’ll have an idea of the tenor of this track.

The group slows down considerably for “Frontiers: 1856”, a lazy keyboard-driven piece with some very lush bass and acoustic guitar passages that just seem to float around the room on a good stereo. The acoustic qualities of this track are just superb. My only complaint about this particular recording is that it is entirely too brief. This could have easily been developed with some nuances of time and movement built into the arrangement to even greater effect.

Maunu gets a bit funky with his electric guitar on “Sublime Feline”, with Isham seeming to work at keeping up with Bozzio’s aggressive tempo. Isham also weaves some really unusual trumpet work in, very dissonant tones that blend very well with keyboards. Behind all of this is a persistent bell-like synthesizer rhythm that gives this a futuristic feel, or as close to one that a twenty-seven year old recording can muster. The disassociated ending is very unique, and much more interesting than the fadeout ending used on most of the tracks.

The back side of the vinyl album opens with “The Bedouin”, a pulsating, snared beat from Bozzio along with a stark piano score that sounds very much like the album’s opening track. This almost sounds as if the band took the opening number and just slowed it down a bit, but the slightly syncopated beat dresses it up with a completely new sound. Other than the drums, this is an almost completely synthesized composition, and would not have been out-of-place on one of the later Alan Parsons Project albums.

“While the City Sleeps” is also heavy on early techno sounds, but like “Frontiers” the tempo is slow and smooth. Isham’s trumpet here is as close to pure jazz as he gets anywhere on the album, but once again the whole thing seems to be more like a sampler, and should have been developed quite a bit more.

“Moving Sidewalks” is centered around a choppy electric piano riff and string-driven synthesizer, along with more of the interwoven and understated trumpet work that almost sounds synthetic itself (heck, maybe it is). Useless trivia – Moving Sidewalks was the name of ZZ Top Billy Gibbon’s first band. Has nothing to do with this song, but thought I’d bring it up.

“Hall of Glass” sounds like something that Luc-Ponty might have done, quietly executed with careful attention paid to each note, but no particular theme to drive it and so left to the interpretation of the listener. While the album as a whole is quite strong, this one borders ever so slightly on filler.

The album closes on “One Night Away From Day”, dominated almost completely by Maunu’s soaring guitar passages and Bozzio’s avant drum work. This is another track that could easily pass for something from Jeff Beck around the same timeframe, and works very well to cap off the album.

Like I said before, this is a rather unusual album that is difficult to classify. While on first listen it seems a bit light and fluffy, repeated playing reveals the high level of precision and virtuoso playing of each musician. The band suffered from poor management as well as a major slump in the record industry in the early eighties, so there was little promotion of the album, and the members moved on to other ventures. They would reform for another album a few years later, but it lacked the fresh feel and quiet energy of this debut. This is a great recording for those who enjoy skillful musicianship and tight fusion with an early techno feel to it. A worthwhile investment if you can find it. Four stars.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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