Some three decades after breaking funky R&B-jazz ground as leader of the pioneering Jeff Lorber Fusion, the Philly-born and bred composer, producer and keyboard legend still believes in the element of surprise. Riffing quite literally on the title of his 2005 Grammy-nominated recording Flipside, Lorber stretches beyond his comfort zone on He Had a Hat, a distinctively eclectic “player’s session” with a batch of contemporary jazz’s most exciting artists. The disc marks his first recording under Narada Jazz’s new affiliation with the Blue Note label.
Long considered one of modern music’s most adventurous players and performers, Lorber goes full throttle on He Had a Hat, taking a freewheeling, stylistically varied approach as whimsical as the collection’s title (a punchline from a beloved old Borscht Belt joke). Over the course of thirteen tracks, the keyboardist pays homage to a wide range of his favorite influences, tapping into everything from gospel and brass-driven old school jazz-fusion to smoky and sultry Miles Davis-flavored moods, hard driving bebop, swinging jazz and, of course, his more familiar funk-jazz vibe.
Lorber’s guest list rolls like a euphoric, multi-genre jazz encyclopedia: Randy Brecker, Chris Botti, Brian Bromberg, Tom Scott, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Bob Sheppard, Hubert Laws, Alex Al, Paul Jackson, Jr., Paul Brown, Russell Malone, Abe Laboriel, Jr., Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta. Colomby, former drummer and a founding member of jazz-rock legends Blood, Sweat & Tears, also recruited that band’s esteemed horn section for five of the recording’s tracks.
“I’m making a quantum shift on He Had a Hat because I felt it was time to shake things up a bit,” says Lorber. “I’ve been making funky jazz for some time now, and some of my early Jeff Lorber Fusion projects pointed the way to what became the smooth jazz radio format. It was time for me to expand on that. The timing is perfect because I get the sense that a lot of people are looking for something unique and different out there. What I’ve done previously is more about songwriting and creating a style, but the music here is about just playing, having incredible fun and ensemble energy with some of my all-time favorite musicians. Even if I didn’t have an overriding specific concept going in, I knew I wanted to be free from the usual expectations. Two of my biggest influences have always been Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans, and with this record I think we were able to approach the kind of progressive jazz they are famous for.”
As high-charting, pop/jazz-oriented releases like West Side Stories (1994), State of Grace (1996) and Midnight (1998) were establishing him as one of the genre’s top artists, Lorber also became an in-demand producer; every smooth jazz artist looking for a hit melody and groove, from Michael Franks to Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Rick Braun, tapped his behind- the-board talents. But on his later projects, Lorber sought fresh inspiration himself by collaborating with other producers. His first three Narada Jazz projects, including Kickin’ It (2001) and Philly Style (2003), featured Lorber creating fresh tracks with fellow first-call producer Steven Dubin.
Lorber worked with Colomby for the first time on When I Fall in Love, the orchestral project that transformed trumpeter Chris Botti into an international superstar; Colomby was the album’s producer, while Lorber helped arrange the radio single, “No Ordinary Love.” Once he knew he wanted to take the 180-degree turn, Lorber felt that Colomby would be the perfect choice to helm He Had a Hat.
“On my own records, I always want to bring in new producers who can stimulate me and help me focus stylistically,” he says. “I’ve known Bobby for a long time and was always a huge fan of Blood, Sweat and Tears as well as his production on Jaco Pastorius’ classic self-titled debut. He did incredible things with Chris, so he’s not only a legend but also very relevant to where jazz is today. The interesting thing about working with Bobby is that while he’s a drummer, he’s more into harmony than rhythm. The one element that holds everything together here is the fact that every song has cool chord progressions. My usual approach was to start with funky jams, but Bobby was more into ‘forget the groove, let’s focus on harmonic movement.’ It’s also noteworthy that while he doesn’t appear on the final recording as a drummer, he did all the drumming on the demos that we presented to all the participating musicians, so Abe, Vinnie and Dave got the right rhythmic direction from him that way.”
True to the expansive artistic spirit of the collection, Lorber cites a unique variety of inspirations - some expected, others surprising - behind many of the tracks. The elegant and soaring, orchestra-enhanced “Anthem for A New America” was a response to our country’s shifting political winds. The moody, coolly swinging “All Most Blues” is not merely a tip of the cap to Miles Davis, but achieves a specific goal instigated by Colomby to create the vibe of Sketches of Spain (the trumpeter’s seminal 1960 recording) with a rich eight-piece horn ensemble arranged by Tom Scott.
Two electrically charged, rhythmically intense tracks, “BC Bop” and “Hudson,” find Lorber boldly exploring his straight ahead roots (the first was inspired by the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”) and then, just as he does on the closing track “Burn Brightly,” letting fans of his smooth, funky fusion style know that he’s still in the groove game. “Surreptitious,” featuring Randy Brecker’s percussive trumpet easing over rising horns, a quick synth melody and a bubbly quick bass and drum groove, draws on the Hancock cool school, while the cleverly titled, dancing piano and horns-driven “Eye Tunes” gives Lorber an opportunity to feature Hubert Laws’ lush, melodic flute over clustery chord inversions. The ambient, haunting “Requiem for Gandalf” is Lorber’s tribute to his feline companion of 20 years, while the most unique musical fusion is the classical triad/superfunky bass fusion piece “Super Fusion Unit,” named after the billing Japanese promoters gave Lorber, Bromberg, Weckl and Rick Braun when they performed in Japan in September, 2006.
Since the late ‘80s, Jeff Lorber has found himself filling a unique dual role. Having played a significant role in developing the late ‘70s, early ‘80s R&B-jazz hybrid sound that later evolved into today’s smooth jazz, the keyboardist is a true elder statesman of the genre and mentor to many of this generation’s top artists. Philly-raised and Berklee- educated, Lorber fondly refers to the wealth of music he created on his six popular Arista albums from 1979-1985 (which led to his first Grammy nomination for Best R&B instrumental for “Pacific Coast Highway” in 1985) as “second generation fusion.” In 2000, Arista Records released The Definitive Collection, which gathered the best material from these recordings. After the heyday of Jeff Lorber Fusion - a band which featured a then little-known sax player named Kenny G (whose first album Lorber produced) - the keyboardist produced R&B artists like Karyn White (including her Top Ten hit “Facts of Love”) and entered his remixing phase. In November, 2004, Lorber had kidney transplant surgery (his wife Mink was a perfect match) and he is currently a spokesman for the PKD Foundation.
Jeff also does a three-hour radio show called “Lorber’s Place” Sunday nights on Sirius’ Satellite Radio’s Jazz Cafe Channel. “That show gives me a great opportunity to play almost anything, from jam bands like Medeski, Martin and Wood to old Miles and funky fusion and jazz from Europe,” he says. “That’s the kind of wide-reaching idea I wanted to bring to He Had a Hat, which I can honestly say I really never get tired of listening to. Often when I finish a project, I just move on and don’t want to hear it anymore, but these songs were so challenging that I wanted to sit down and practice them.”
Lorber’s most recent album, Galaxy (2011), spotlights eleven originals - all instrumentals that cover the scope of electrified jazz. The disc opens with “Live Wire.” “At over seven minutes long, it’s a real powerful, up-tempo song,” says Lorber. “It’s fun to play and hopefully just as fun to listen to. Yellowjackets’ bassist Jimmy Haslip joins him in this 21st century version of the Jeff Lorber Fusion along with saxophonist Eric Marienthal, trumpeter Randy Brecker, percussionist Lenny Castro, guitarists Paul Jackson Jr. and Larry Koonse, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl. Haslip also co-produced the album and co-wrote five tunes with Lorber.” “Live Wire,” like most of Galaxy, is a showcase for the work of renowned drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. “We had three days with Vinnie to cut basic tracks,” Lorber says. “Basically, he’s the best drummer on the planet, so once he lays down his drum parts - which are like the foundation - you’re ready to go. His work really inspired the rest of us.”
That inspiration also lives on “Big Brother,” a tune that recaptures the essence of contemporary jazz, while the soulful and funky “Montserrat” works a groove loosely based on the Police’s 1980 hit “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around.” While Colaiuta handles most of the drumming on Galaxy, Lorber recruited Dave Weckl to perform on the title track. “Weckl has been on my last three records,” Lorber says. “And I love the way he plays.” Lorber’s look back at jazz fusion is also a look at the present, and to the future, including vibrant reinterpretations of “City,” from the Jeff Lorber Fusion’s 1980 LP on Arista, Wizard Island (which introduced a young saxophonist named Kenny Gorelick, better known as Kenny G), and “The Underground” featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker, from Lorber’s 1993 album on Verve Forecast, Worth Waiting For. The fresh sounds on Galaxy expand the possibilities of where technology is taking music - the old becoming new, the modern becoming post modern. “It’s a step up from the last album,” Lorber says. “It’s more energetic, harder hitting and even more cohesive. This record really takes fusion to another level.”