Burlington-based jazz-fusion unit Freefall have been playing together in one form or another for 15 years, but it's been awhile since we've heard much from them. Many of the members have kept busy with other projects, but recently the whole group found time to finish Square One.
Featuring the technically impressive and melodically inventive playing of guitarist Steve Blair, Freefall are heavy on musical muscle. Although chops are a major part of the group's dynamic, the players avoid stepping on each other's toes.
Keyboardist Andy Hildebrandt's vamps combine flamboyance with economy, while drummer Gabe Jarrett's clean, polyrhythmic shuffles demonstrate why he's so in demand. Bassist Stacy Starkweather's low-end work is busy but always spot-on. Adding another textural and melodic dimension is tenor/alto/soprano saxophonist Lee Gillies, whose sharp attack and impeccable solos make you wonder why he's not in the latest touring incarnation of Steely Dan.
But fusion is not for everyone. While heavy on solos, Freefall's music is too complex for many jam-rock fans, and jazz purists might not approve of the band's more progressive leanings. Still, Square One is a whip-smart and crafty release.
Hildebrandt's "If I Were You, I'd Be Mad," is fairly traditional in form. Kicking off with a moderate swing, the tune soon switches to double-time, with the keyboardist taking a rhythmically savvy solo.
"Spiral Steps" features a sophisticated acoustic guitar intro by Blair, complemented by Gillies' cascading sax lines. The two face off with short solos before coming together for several quicksilver runs.
Blair's "Wacky" is just that, a samba-fied oddity that's equal parts Discipline-era King Crimson and Warner Brothers cartoon soundtrack. The tune's labyrinthine arrangement is dizzying; if anything shows off Freefall's collaborative dexterity, it's this cut.
Closing track "Mozambique" -- another Blair composition -- places bionic melodies in a propulsive, polyethnic rhythmic structure. Blair's solos are fluid but lack a certain amount of soul. Likewise, Hildebrandt's chordal stabs seem too mechanical for such an exotically named tune.
Freefall win big with their ensemble playing, though. They are among the tightest, and most telepathic, fusion bands I've heard -- local or otherwise. Square One is a fine summation of the group's daredevil musicality.