After ten years together as a working unit, the members of Tribal Tech have developed an uncanny group mindset that allows them to do the unthinkable -- go into the studio to record an entire album with no preparation whatsoever. Few bands are audacious enough to even attempt this 'blank slate' approach to recording, and yet Tribal Tech has developed it into a working aesthetic. While it may not be brain surgery, it is Rocket Science .
On their latest leap of faith, these four adventurous souls -- guitarist Scott Henderson, bassist Gary Willis, keyboardist Scott Kinsey and drummer Kirk Covington -- collectively ride out to the stratosphere while still tethered to Earth by solidly grounded grooves.
"I'm real proud of the band's ability to get together and come up with this kind of unique music just from jamming in the studio," says Tribal Tech co-founder Henderson. "This stuff is totally fresh when it first hits the tape. And when we overdub on it later, it's not like we're playing something we've already practiced. It's more like overdubbing and composing at the same time. It's just painting at that point and it makes overdubbing a helluva lot more fun."
Tribal Tech tested these uncharted waters on its previous album, Thick . Pleased with the results of that purely improvised outing, the band has adopted this jam-to-tape-and-shape-it-later aesthetic as its modus operandi. "I think this process is really working for us," says Henderson. "It was sort of an experiment with Thick . It definitely could've sucked but Thick was a pretty good record so we thought, 'Well, let's try it again.' And now with Rocket Science I think it's working, so we'll keep doing it this way."
On ultra-funky tunes like "Astro Chimp" and "The Econoline" (named after the group's road warrior touring vehicle), Willis and Covington unite for the kind of loose-tight syncopation and interplay reminiscent of such classic funk rhythm tandems as Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter Jr. from The Meters or Mike Clark and Paul Jackson from The Headhunters. Their simmering interlock on the title track allows for some over-the-top flights of fancy by Kinsey and Henderson while their supple chemistry propels the infectious groove of the Middle Eastern flavored "Space Camel," a standout tune underscored by Kinsey's entrancing vocal sample. A Joe Zawinul/Weather Report influence can be heard on the earthy world beat groove of "Moonshine" and also on the urgent shuffle swing of "Cap'n Kirk," a kind of "Mr. Gone"-ish vehicle which provides a great showcase for drummer Covington's phenomenal quick-wristed fills around the kit.
"I've known Kirk since 1979," says Willis of his formidable rhythm section mate. "I played with him a lot back when we were going to school at North Texas University, so there's a long history there. I remember thinking the first time I heard him play, 'Yeah, that's how things should feel.' So we kind of hear things the same way and there's this unspoken communication between us. In the middle of playing there will be this adjustment, a kind of give-and-take that can happen. We don't talk about it and yet it sounds like we've agreed to go there together. But one guy actually may have suggested this new direction by what they were playing."
Apart from the pyrotechnics and scorching jam energy, the band reaches a more subdued accord on the hauntingly lyrical "Sojlevska" and creates a spacious soundscape on "Song Holy Hall," with Kinsey's sampled Buddhist vocal choir setting an ominous undertone.
Perennial guitar hero Henderson pulls out all the stops on Rocket Science , playing in the kind of fiercely liberated yet technically demanding fashion that Tribal Tech fans have come to expect from him. On the percolating opener "Saturn, he affects an astonishing legato quality, sounding more violinist than guitarist while making some darkly dissonant note choices and outrageous whammy bar articulations along the way. On the ferociously slamming title track he unleashes some particularly hellacious guitar work, splooging all over the track with shards of sonic shrapnel summoned up from his Mooger Fooger ring modulator. On the slow-grooving, organ funk of "Mini Me," Henderson wails with grungey distortion-laced abandon, triggering fantasies of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Medeski, Martin & Wood. He provides further thrills with his explosive, hyperkinetic blues licks on "Moonshine" and "The Econoline." Few guitarists with this much technique also exercise this degree of imagination and daring in their music.
Henderson's low-end counterpart, Tribal Tech co-founder Gary Willis, is among the Top Four electric bassists in these post-Jaco times. An astounding soloist, as he so capably demonstrates on "Saturn" and his incredibly nimble, Mu-Tron-inflected showcase on "Space Camel," Willis is also adept at providing a near subliminal bottom that anchors the proceedings, as evidenced by his unerring pulse on the title track, his groovilicious presence on "Cap'n Kirk" and "The Econoline" or his zen-like approach on the requiem-like "Song Holy Hall."
Tribal Tech's secret weapon remains keyboardist Kinsey, who not only adds harmonic meat with his richly provocative chordal voicings, hip comping and counterpoint melodies but also stands as one of the most creative and unpredictable (yet criminally under-recognized) synth soloists around. Rhythmically he is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition while sonically he is always looking to push the envelope. "Kinsey's a scientist," says Henderson. "He's awesome, man; a great musician. It's fun playing with him just to hear what the hell he's gonna come up with next."
Which is an apt description of Tribal Tech's appeal in general. And with Rocket Science , they have come up with their most fully realized spontaneous blueprint yet. "I think maybe this one is not as diverse as Thick ," says Willis. "Whereas Thick had more extreme departures, almost like novelty things, this one is more intensely focused on groove, with all the subversive stuff happening on top of that. Sometimes Kirk and I setttle into this hypnotic kind of stable thing, where we let things simmer and cook for a long time. And I totally dig that direction too."
"We're real proud of this one," adds Henderson. "For the way that we're doing these records, creating music from nothing by just jamming, it's a really a feat. And I don't know if there are too many bands around that can accomplish that to the degree that we're doing it. Because in the end it sounds very much like a strictly composed record but it still has all the jam qualities too. So it's like the best of both worlds."
It's a loose approach based on a extraordinarily tight connection forged over time, resulting in some of the most dynamic and adventurous instrumental music being made today. "We're still talking about things and developing things when we work together," says Willis. "So it's an ongoing process."
It started when Henderson and Willis first joined forces as Tribal Tech 16 years ago. Kinsey and Covington came aboard 10 years ago, and the juggernaut has been rolling on ever since. Stayed tuned for more subversive tones and scintillating grooves from the world's greatest fusion band.