Alex SKOLNICK Trio – Transformation 2004

Alex SKOLNICK Trio –  Transformation 2004


Call me a jazz bigot. When I received Transformation by Alex Skolnick, apparently the ex-guitarist for thrash metal-heads Testament, my first thought was, “Great, another rocker trying to be a jazzer.” Things didn’t get better when I saw that Skolnick was interpreting material by Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Scorpions, Iron Maiden and—yes—Ronnie James Dio. Sure, plenty of serious jazz artists have approached contemporary singer/songwriters in recent years—Brad Mehldau, Charlie Hunter, even Herbie Hancock. But metal bands? I mean, really.
Well, imagine my surprise to discover Skolnick a fine jazz guitarist, completely capable of getting to the core of songs by a group of artists more associated with classic rock, and transforming them into almost unrecognizable new tunes. Unlike the Bad Plus, who are nothing less than shtick—a group whose supposed reinvention of songs by Nirvana and Black Sabbath do little to honour the originals, and even less to make them interesting and refreshing new mediums for improvisation—Skolnick and his trio of bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski breathe new life into these tunes, transforming (there goes that word again) them into something fresh, while at the same time being reverential to their sources. Judas Priest could never have conceived “Electric Eye” as a lithe 7/4 romp, nor Scorpions their “Blackout” as a swinging jazz waltz, but there you go.

That Skolnick comes to jazz from rock as opposed to the other way around means that while he has a firm grasp on harmony and is capable of navigating odd meters and shifts in feel, there is a certain energy and, in particular, attitude that is missing from your typical fusion player. That’s not to say guitarists like Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale lack attitude; it’s just that there’s something different about the way that Skolnick digs into a solo, even when it’s on an abstract ballad like “Fear of Flying.” And Skolnick does this, for the most part, with a clean and warm tone that is only affected with a touch of delay, completely eschewing the typical overdriven fusion tone with the exception of a brief spot on the title track and his surprisingly swinging version of Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.”

If Skolnick has any precedent in jazz, it would have to be Larry Coryell, who has blended a true rock and roll attitude with a far broader reach over the course of his career, demonstrated to great effect at this summer’s Ottawa International Jazz Festival . Like Coryell, Skolnick demonstrates that translating the energy of rock to a jazz context can be a more subtle thing, showing that you can imbue more traditional trappings of swing, modal playing and richer harmony with an edge that doesn’t spoil their essential purity. Transformation is a surprising record that succeeds on many levels and proves that it is indeed possible to shift gears mid-career and sound like you’ve been doing it all your life.
By John Kelman.
Alex Skolnick, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and at age sixteen, became lead guitarist for the metal band Testament, whom he was with for seven years and five albums, touring the world with acts such as Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and others. During that time, an exposure to Miles Davis’ music inspired him to learn jazz. After leaving Testament in 1992, Alex went on to earn a BfA from New York’s New School University where he studied with jazz legends such as Cecil McBee, Hal Galper and Richie Beirach. It was here where he met fellow student and future trio drummer Matt Zebroski. Between trio activity, Alex is a featured member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and recently recorded for their upcoming release on Lava/Atlantic Records. Earlier this year, Lamb Of God contacted Alex to say that they were longtime fans and invited him to play on their debut album for Epic Records. Composer Frank Wildhorn recently placed Alex with a 30 piece orchestra for Jeckyll ! & Hyde: The Concert, the new production of his hit Broadway show. Alex also plays with folk legend Debbie Friedman, Paris based pop/world music superstar Ishtar: The Voice Of Alabina (where he plays Spanish guitar), numerous New York based improvisational artists and when not on tour, is on staff at American Institute Of Guitar in New York City.

Straight ahead jazz mixed with heavy metal? Welcome to the world of the Alex Skolnick trio. When they first began in 2000, the idea was admittedly a bit far out: an improvisational trio doing creative arrangements of tunes by groups such as Black Sabbath. Even more unusual was the fact that this combo was led by a former speed metal guitar hero who had traded his electric guitar for a hollowbody archtop (known as a ‘jazz box’), moved to New York and studied with legendary musicians through the jazz department of New School University, where he earned his BFA. It was here where Alex hooked up with two fiery young prodigies in their early 20’s on upright bass and drums; the three began practicing composition assignments and jazz standards. Frustrated with the limitations of the jazz repertoire, Alex stumbled upon this concept one night by hearing an arrangement of a Scorpions song in a dream. Arrangements of songs by Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, the Who and others followed; the group quickly developed a following in such New York City venues as Wetlands and the Knitting Factory.
The new trio album, “Transformation” (Magnatude), represents a turning point for the band. Original compositions fill just over half the album along with new arrangements of tunes by Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and more. There is some new sonic territory in the covers; from the fiery Middle Eastern section in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” to the Latin acoustic flavor of Dio’s ‘Don’t Talk To Strangers.’ Similarly, the originals cover a wide range of styles: from Alex’s ethereal ballad ‘Fear Of Flying,’ to the surf/blues of ‘Both Feet In’ (penned by drummer Matt Zebroski) and Alex’s creative composition and title track, ‘Transformation,’ which combines a driving rock beat with jazz harmony, a rock guitar solo section and a haunting, catchy melody sung by all three members. This melody is enhanced by the cello of special guest Dave Eggar (who has recently played with such jazz greats as Michael Brecker and Dianne Reeves). Another special guest, Grammy nominee Charlie Hunter, comes aboard on his 8-string guitar/bass hybrid for Alex’s funk/jazz composition, Scorch.
Alex Skolnick– Guitars, Vocals
Nathan Peck- Bass, Vocals
Matt Zebroski– Drums, Percussion, Vocals
Special guests:
Charlie Hunter– 8 String Guitar on “Scorch”
Dave Eggar– Cello on “Transformation”
01. Transformation 5:54
02. Electric Eye 5:20
03. Fear of Flying 5:11
04. Money 5:14
05. Both Feet In 5:30
06. Scorch 7:14
07. Blackout 5:05
08. IMV – The Trooper 5:19
09. No Fly Zone 4:29
10. Don’t Talk to Strangers 5:58
11. Highway Star 6:30

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