It's easy to get tangled up in the complex and often cinematic jazz-fusion of guitarist Lee Barbour's expansive and innovative solo album, nonfiction. The levels of tension, energy, and expression are high throughout, and while some of the more complicated and abrasive pieces can be challenging to the brain and ears of the listener, most of the music darts and bounces with twisted grooves.
Barbour spent several years composing and arranging these songs, and he enlisted some virtuosic musicians to help execute his rhythmic, melodic, and not-so-melodic ideas. Drummer Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jeff Coffin, Jimmy Herring Band) and saxophonists John Ellis (Charlie Hunter, Norah Jones) and Kebbi Williams (OutKast, Derek Trucks Band) collaborated with Barbour on nearly half of the 11 tracks. The guitarist's Gradual Lean bandmates Quentin Baxter (drums) and Charlton Singleton (trumpet) join in on other tracks, alongside bassist Jake Holwegner, pianist Gerald Gregory, and drummer Ron Wiltrout. Fortunately, nonfiction has a continuous fluidity over all, despite the rotating cast.
The brassy opening track, "Blues for America," moves slowly with a delightfully nasty swagger. Barbour's raw, distorted guitar tone and dissonant licks add an edginess to the blabby conversation going between the horns and the rhythm section. The more upbeat and psyched-out "Scarlet Circle" starts with a handsome melodic theme on guitar before racing through a series of stimulating elaborations.
There's a soft side to the album. Led by sax, cymbal accents, and Barbour's chiming rhythm guitar, "Guinevere" moves slow and easy. It's the closest nonfiction gets to contemporary smooth-jazz. Meanwhile, the 13-minute "Monolith" sounds like a sensuous soundtrack searching for an indie film.
On the gritty, heavier side of things, "Wolf Blitzer" features Sipe doing a hectic drum 'n' bass-styled rhythmic shuffle beneath some of Barbour's most incendiary guitar lines. Things get a little "free" and heavy on the highly improvisational "Ape Naked," from the sax to the rhythm section. Barbour's guitar and amp seem to be suddenly possessed by the prog and acid-rock spirits of the 1970s in the middle of the amusingly schizo "Rebekah" and the jarring closing song "Only Shallow," a jam that switches from a cool jazz groove in 4/4 time to fiery fits of fuzz-tone guitar exploration.
All together, nonfiction is an unconventional instrumental album with more than a few flashes of brilliance. Far from being a mellow, light jazz affair, the music demonstrates Barbour at the height of his compositional and technical prowess. A full session with this disc is worth the challenge. (leebarbour.com)
Lee Barbour plays with Post-Cobra every Thursday evening at Fish on King Street.