In this day and age, it is not easy for jazz-rock music to find listeners. It seems decades ago that legendary groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever or Weather Report, with their grooving music bursting with energy, inspired a whole generation of musicians. Today, there are only a couple of bands left in this genre.
Someone who has been nurturing the flame of jazz fusion for the past 15 years with fresh compositions is Bremen-based composer and keyboardist Michael Schmidt a.k.a. MSM Schmidt. Schmidt is an insurance clerk with an exclusive hobby: he has repeatedly managed to get top-class US jazz fusion musicians to perform his compositions. His newest release, “Life,” is his 6th album, and features Allan Holdsworth and Oz Noy on guitar, Virgil Donati, Dave Weckl and Gary Novak on drums, Jerry Goodman on violin, Mitch Forman on keyboards, and Jimmy Haslip on bass, to name but a few.
Haslip (“Yellowjackets,” “Jing Chi”) is not only an excellent bass player, but he is also the mastermind behind this transatlantic all-star ensemble. He has pulled the strings by selecting the musicians for the tunes, organizing the recording sessions and refining the compositions, and he is the producer as well. “Without him nothing of this would have been possible. He is the man to make dreams come true, even those I did not know I had,” says Schmidt.
This statement alludes to a particular coup, since Jimmy Haslip managed to get Allan Holdsworth to perform on “Life.” It had become quiet around the British guitar virtuoso, who passed away on Easter Sunday of 2017 in Vista, CA, following a heart attack. Holdsworth was known to have a personality of his own, being seldom content with his work, and moreover, he did not like to work under pressure. “We had not managed to work with him in the past, though I had always hoped for it,” explains Schmidt. “Therefore I was more than happy to learn from Jimmy about Allan’s surprise appearance!”
The Holdsworth session went far smoother than expected: “He loved the songs right from the start. He carefully prepared for the session and really went beyond the call of duty,” Haslip says about Holdsworth, with whom he shared not only an extensive musical partnership but also a close friendship. What makes this recording special is the fact that Holdsworth’s solos on “Trance” and “Vista” are, in all likelihood, the last recorded performances of the late guitar genius. “His fast legato lines and his flowing tone are unmistakable, and yet, to my ears, these solos feel intimate and soulful to me,” says Schmidt about the musical legacy of Holdsworth, who had redefined guitar playing through his trademark tone and his saxophone-like phrasing.
While he is virtually unknown in his home country, Schmidt has an excellent reputation on the US West Coast. He takes his time for working on his compositions, which, in the course of seven to ten minutes, manage to shift through various moods and varying themes. Songs like “Exodus” and “Medusa” make it evident that Schmidt is a passionate fan of science-fiction stories and film music. On “Medusa,” the eponymous greek mythical figure is brought to life by keyboardist Scott Kinsey’s dark, cutting synth sounds and drummer Virgil Donati’s sheer lunatic changes in tempo and time signature. In contrast to this, the title track, “Life,” exudes an optimistic, positive feel, thanks to its African-inspired rhythms, exhilarating choir and flute parts, as well as the heavily-grooving playing of renowned German drummer Jost Nickel.
The varied palette of sounds and the sophisticated arrangements on this record provide the musicians with an opportunity to stretch out, lifting Schmidt’s compositions into a new, exciting dimension of jazz rock.
“Working with Michael as a producer is always a beautiful challenge and quite rewarding on several levels, and this project was a joy to work on,” reflects Haslip. “My hopes are that he will reach a larger widespread audience with the release of this new recording.”