The Queen City’s other prodigal sons return! But don’t call it a comeback. Forged in 1977 by goateed gunslinger Paul Asbell, Kilimanjaro never really left. The avatars of Vermont fusion saw their eponymous debut tear up the jazz charts in 1981, fueling a run at Montreux and collaborations with Paul Butterfield. Tours segued into teaching gigs as the years wore on. But three-fourths of the Burlington quartet endured — with Lucas Adler replacing original drummer Bill Kinzie. Asbell went on to mentor some of the 802’s finest young artists. Tony Markellis — long a session bassist — landed steady work with Trey Anastasio. Keyboardist Charles (Chas) Eller founded his namesake studios, which would grow to boast clientele as varied as Bonnie Raitt and Keith Jarrett. Who says there are no second acts in American lives?
Commissioned by the Flynn Center to kick-start 2006’s Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, Kilimanjaro refocused, penning compositions that would power Homecoming, the band’s first album in 25 years. Playful and precise, the record is an expression of the group’s unique jazz idiom. It’s an ambitious project, spiked with inventive melodies that should please more than just the Pat Metheny crowd. From Lenny Castro’s dizzying percussion on “Amazon” to the swinging sax standard “We Remember Big Joe,” there is no half-measure to their effort. And everyone is complicit in its success. Rhythm devils Adler and Markellis trade swagger for sturdy backbeats, an in-the-pocket discipline that allows the “Paul and Chas Show” room to run. Eller in particular shows great versatility, sampling his Hammond, Clavinet and traditional piano throughout the disc.
“Herbin’” finds a bluesy Asbell flirting with Jennifer Hartswick’s smoky flügelhorn. It’s like the conversation Clapton and Miles never had; a narrative as seductive as it is satisfying. The group then counters with “Pepino,” a kinetic Latin jam that pits fiery guitar licks against a battery of horns, led by Dave Grippo.
At a lean nine tracks, Homecoming is surprisingly diverse, reflecting decades of musical travels. Some, like the sparkling “Neon Leon,” bear smooth-jazz hooks that border on cliché. Still, for every bit of Weather Channel treacle, there’s a ballad worth prizing. “Innocento” is a beautifully spare dance between Asbell’s six-string and Will Galison’s lyrical harmonica. It’s a breezy gem that James Taylor would no doubt covet.
Homecoming is flawlessly crafted, a capstone release that speaks to the quartet’s veteran poise and Eller’s engineering expertise. Collectively, the talent here is unassailable. And there’s nary a musician at this latitude unaffected by Kilimanjaro. They are the captains of their industry. Come watch ’em rock Burlington City Hall Auditorium this Saturday, January 31.