Michael Whalen is a composer that you should have known by now. His latest album, Future Shock, will make certain that is made true.
Even if you don't know the name, chances are you know some of his music. That is, of course, unless you haven't paid attention to advertising, television, film, and/or video games for the last 30 years. He has won two Emmy Awards and is an internationally acclaimed recording artist and composer. If you are to include the albums he has produced or executive produced for other artists and his own recordings, you can list over 100 recordings without breaking a sweat.
Being that well-known, Michael would inevitably have his pick of whatever musicians he would care to enlist and his choices were magnificent. Joining Michael’s keyboards are Simon Phillips (Jon Anderson, Toto, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, Gil Evans, Stanley Clarke, Frank Zappa) on drums, Bob Magnuson (Paul McCartney, Alicia Keyes, Chaka Khan, BB King, Frank Zappa) on saxophone, flute, and clarinet, and Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe, John Lennon, Levin Brothers) on bass and Chapman Stick. It seriously does not get better than this, especially when the musical being played is in the Progressive Rock and Jazz Fusion arenas.
Influenced by the disparate and legendary Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, Return to Forever, and Keith Jarrett, the compositions on Future Shock carry moments that identify with those remarkable artists. But this is no tribute or cover album; Michael Whalen has written all the material and it is most assuredly his own creative force and drive that has rendered this splendid album. Bringing these three musicians with him guarantees the implementation of his musical vision.
The title track, Future Shock, opens the album and is introduced by an electronic ostinato before being joined by Simon Phillips thunderous drums and Tony Levin’s inimitable bass. The female and male programmed vocalizations are brilliant and are used as punctuation more than proclamation. The wailin’ Whalen keyboards (it had to be said) are as exciting as anything Joe Zawinul ever gave us. The dynamic teamwork of Levin and Phillips successfully supports everything Whalen attempts. The track is 5:54 of riotous fun and brilliant artistry.
Hop, Skip and Jump follows with fascinating electronic keyboard movement alongside Bob Magnuson’s smoking hot saxophone with Levin and Phillips providing the propulsion. There is some bone-crushing Funk going on here. The keys and reeds are in perfect lock-step.
La Hermosa Noche (The Beautiful Night) is set within island motifs as the rhythm section keeps a straight Jazz vibe behind the exciting keyboards. Enter the flute of Magnuson and things get even more animated. The musicianship was never in question but Whalen’s compositions are the stuff of wonder.
It is the Magnuson saxophone that takes the opening lead on Lights of Home. And it is soulful and sweet (in a good way). Whalen’s balladic piano is a beautiful trading partner with the sax and Levin and Phillips. This may be the loveliest piece on the album with everyone offering their gentlest touch and sincerest warmth. An altogether beautiful work.
Memories of You is another soulful Jazz number with straight-ahead rhythms. The sax hook ties in beautifully with the groove from Levin and Phillips. This is a memorable tune.
It is followed by Poly Jam which features a return to the fast and the furious rhythms and melodies. Again, more Joe Zawinul than Chick Corea, the fierce times and powerful precision of bass and drums make the keyboards simply sail. The song bears repeated hearing to truly appreciate the marvelous contributions of each artist.
The swing shifts with Miracle Mile. While possibly referenced the Miracle Mile of Las Vegas or even that of Los Angeles, the sound certainly calls to mind the mind and music of Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile in South Florida. The Caribbean rhythms and intonations of the sax with the steel drum sounds of the keyboards turn this into a tone poem of the Miami neighborhood. Being raised just north of there, it struck me like a call from home. I love this so much.
That same feeling carries over into Morning Song. The joyous saxophone and delightful keyboards walk along with the rhythm section in this leisurely andante stroll into the warmth of the morning sun. It is emotional and fulfilling for the listener who waits for such moments. I didn’t want this song to ever end.
Wanderlust transitions from the stroll to the sprint. The fast pacing of the bass and drums give the traveling feel as saxophone and keyboards offer a wistful view of the sights along the road. Whalen is great a creating a visual imagery through his compositions and performances. He paints such vivid sound pictures. Close your eyes and see with your ears.
Your Eyes, Your Touch, Your Kiss closes the album and what a way to close. It is not a maudlin reminiscence by any stretch of the imagination. It is a straightforward look at what is still there—not a departed love but a present one that is still full of life and energy and warmth and affection. The Fender Rhodes offers a cool comfort and the sax takes over for it with its own warm embrace. The near-military drumming keeps things dependable while the bass moves dance-like in a tight touch beneath the visions and sounds of the keyboard and sax.
The musicians of Future Shock allow Michael Whalen to set the bar high in terms of compositional demands. The challenge must be to bring everything possible from the likes of Levin, Phillips, and Magnuson. Whalen has done exactly that with compositions that leave everything on the field. Hearing Future Shock for the first time was like hearing Weather Report for the first time so many years ago. This is an album to be enjoyed from every angle.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
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