Update 11/7/07: I've republished my review below.
School Of The Arts (Magnatude Records) is the latest album from keyboardist T Lavitz (Dixie Dregs, Jazz Is Dead, Widespread Panic). A great collection of acoustic jazz compositions, School Of The Arts is presented not as a Lavitz solo album exactly, but rather a project or band album, spearheaded by Lavitz. The roster of players on this release is quite impressive - Dave Weckl (Chick Corea) handles all drums and percussion, John Patitucci (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter) is on bass, Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Dixie Dregs) plays violin, and on acoustic guitar - Frank Gambale (Chick Corea, Vital Information, Nu Alliance), and Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple). Lavitz plays piano exclusively on the album, and wrote the bulk of the songs.
Though Patitucci does play some electric bass on School Of The Arts, this is, for all intents and purposes, an acoustic album. This approach gives the whole recording a bright, clean sound. And the compositions themselves, even dense pieces such as "On Fire," seem to have more breathing room as a result of the acoustic instrumentation. While this would best be described as a jazz record, it includes a wide array of influences including Latin music, bluegrass, and classical. When I think of the phrase "acoustic jazz," I generally think of other terms like "stuffy" or "cheesy," but that's far from the case with School Of The Arts. The writing on this album is very rich, both harmonically and rhythmically. There's some pretty complex stuff here as well; lots of fast passages and odd meters. In general, it's the kind of music you would normally associate with an electric ensemble. To play acoustic guitar on songs like these, you absolutely need to be a great picker. Lavitz knew this, and enlisted two of the best.
The lion's share of the guitar work on School Of The Arts is handled by Frank Gambale. Great pickers, such as Gambale, usually sound strong on acoustic, but that's not necessarily a given. In Gambale's case, his legendary sweep picking (aka economy picking) technique allows his acoustic runs to cut through loud and clear. He uses his speed wisely as well, never shoehorning fast licks into places they don't belong. On the track "High Falutin' Blues," for example, Gambale leans heavily on blues and jazz phrases, and uses well placed fast runs as a tool to ratchet up the excitement. "Fairweather Green" is another great Gambale track. His solo on the Latin-flavored juggernaut "A Little Mouse Music," however, is probably his best on the album. A study in dynamic improvising, Gambale starts the solo so softly you can barely hear him, then builds the intensity with heavier attacks and dizzying sweeps. Gambale also wrote two tracks for the album; the playful and jazzy "Teaser," and one the albums high points - the mellow waltz "Gambashwari," which features a jaw-dropping guitar solo over some cool changes. Having Gambale on board is a huge asset to this album.
The other guitarist on School Of The Arts is Lavitz's old friend Steve Morse. In addition to making guest appearances on each other's solo albums, they of course played together for many years in the Dixie Dregs. Musically, they complement each other very well, and any Morse/Lavitz collaboration is cause for celebration. Sadly though, Morse appears on just two tracks here, only one of which has a guitar solo. Granted, Morse is technically making a guest appearance on this album, as Gambale is the main guitarist on the project. Still, we don't get to hear Morse on this type of acoustic-jazz material very often; it would have been nice to hear more from him on this record. His lone solo is a great one though, and is a total contrast to the rest of the guitar work on the album (no surprise since Morse and Gambale are very different players).
Whereas Gambale seems to tailor his electric approach a bit for the acoustic on School Of The Arts, Morse makes no such distinction. His solo on "Portrait" sounds identical to what he might play on an electric. Wringing the life out the guitar with heavy bends and loud double stops, it sounds like the neck is going to snap off the way Morse attacks it so aggressively. "Portrait" is also one of the best, and most interesting compositions on the album. A harmonic and rhythmic tour de force, if it was recorded with electric instruments (distorted guitars, etc), it might take on a prog-rock quality, especially in the exotic Phrygian Dominant sections. Morse and Lavitz sync up for lots of fast, doubled lines on both "Portrait" and Morse's other School Of The Arts track, "On Fire".
Obviously, this album isn't designed to be a guitar showcase - there's great playing from everyone involved. Jerry Goodman contributes some great violin work to a few tracks, and really steals the show on "Like This." Dave Weckl lays down some particularly impressive drum tracks, especially on "A Little Mouse Music," and bassist John Patitucci is rock-solid throughout (great acoustic solo on "High Falutin' Blues"). Through it all though, Lavitz's great writing and piano playing is the dominant force on School Of The Arts. While some songs do have the distinctive Lavitz writing style, he branches into other areas here (such as Latin music) that he hasn't explored much in his previous recordings. "Fairweather Green" is the only track that made me think, "this was obviously written by T Lavitz." On a song like "Dinosaur Dance," for example, you can hear Lavitz's style in the melodies, but you can also tell he's trying something different as a writer.
Lavitz turns in some great playing on this album as well, especially on "Portrait," "A Little Mouse Music," and the solo piano piece "Maybe Next Time." All in all, School Of The Arts is a fine album, and a great accomplishment for Lavtiz. The musicianship from the players he's assembled is impressive, and the acoustic approach gives the album a refreshing, distinctive feel.
T Lavitz - School Of The Arts (Magnatude Records)
1. Fairweather Green
2. No Time Flat
3. On Fire
5. Like This
6. High Falutin' Blues
8. Dinosaur Dance
10. A Little Mouse Music
11. Maybe Next Time