“The Rite of Strings”

Gai Saber, I.R.S.

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Each of these musicians is known as a fusion pioneer--Clarke and DiMeola for their stint with Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever, Ponty for his associations with Frank Zappa, George Duke and the Mahavishnu Orchestra--and each continues to be overwhelmingly popular for his electric work. But refreshingly, “The Rite of Strings” highlights the acoustic skills of these crossover stars in a program in which the fusion is one of egos, rather than styles.

“Rite” recalls DiMeola’s alliance with fellow guitarists John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia, both in tone and attitude. Clarke, Ponty and DiMeola meld their sounds seductively, and no single member stands out. Themes played in unison by the guitar and violin have an electric feel. Clarke’s bass pulses blood-like beneath DiMeola’s rhythmic accompaniment. Improvisations trade hands with the ease of a family passing dishes at the dinner table.


Still, enough of each man’s personality remains to give the tunes interest while serving to keep the program varied. Much of the distinction is made in the writing. DiMeola’s contributions rely on classically inspired detail, Spanish flair and world-music vision (“Chilean Pipe Song,” “Morocco”). Clarke’s tunes have a dreamy quality that derives from his use of bow (“Topanga”). Ponty sets up passages of easy swing over which he glides effortlessly (“Renaissance”). The overall feel--one that suggests Mediterranean landscapes rather than big-city attitude--comes from supple, simple melodies embellished with tasteful, if not virtuosic, solos.

The biggest thrill here is hearing Clarke’s upright. Though the bassist made his first impressions playing acoustic bass about 25 years ago on recordings with Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders, among others, he has used the instrument only sparingly since. Here he delivers the kind of strong supporting lines and fill that gained him a reputation as a prodigy. Occasionally, he resorts to the kind of repetitive lines that mar his electric play, and his arco work sounds a bit buzzy rather than resonant. But for the most part he works with agility and intelligence, especially in support.

“Rite of Strings” may offend hard-core fans of the participants’ electric work. On the other hand, it may open up their ears to the potential of acoustic sounds.

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