Following his triumphant worldwide reunion tour with Return To Forever in 2008 and separate trio tours in 2009 with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke and pianist Hiromi with Clarke, drummer Lenny White was primed to put out his own recording, his first as a leader in ten years. With Anomaly, the pioneering jazz-rock drummer returns to his roots, blending powerhouse backbeats and improvisational abandon in a bold, unapologetically aggressive manner that characterized the early 70s fusion movement. On that RTF tour he told sold-out crowds every night: “This is not a boy band, this is a man band. And we need to take back the music as musicians”.
“And I really meant that,” says White. “We need to restart a revolution so that we can take back the music and stop the fluff. And I’m hoping that this new album is a representation of that.”
Accompanied by a crew of unsung guitar killers in Nick Moroch (a former member of White’s Astral Pirates), David Gilmore, Tom Guarna and David Bendeth, keyboardists George Colligan, Bernard Wright, Donald Blackman(another Astral Pirate )and Vince Evans and bassists Victor Bailey, Richie Goods, Charles Fambrough and his RTF bandmate Stanley Clarke, White unleashes with Zeppelinesque fury on Anomaly, his tenth overall recording as a leader.
“I really wanted to rock out on this project,” says White. “Early on, David Bendeth said to me, “No one has made a jazz-rock or fusion record with the sound of a rock record.” So I said, “Let’s do it!” And one of the things for me that was a real boost before we got into recording was reading something that John Bonham had said in a book about the making of several famous Led Zeppelin tracks. Now, I have been a Led Zeppelin fan forever and ‘Black Dog’ had always been my favorite Zeppelin tune. But I actually recently rediscovered ‘In My Time of Dying,’ which became my new favorite Zeppelin tune. So I’m reading through this book and I got to the point where Bonham’s talking about constructing the track ‘In My Time of Dying,’ and he says, “We were kind of rocking a little bit more from a progressive standpoint at this point, and I had been listening to Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Lenny White.”So that really made my day.”
Anomaly, it turns out, is an apt description for a record that defies all industry trends with its sheer audaciousness. “I would’ve never been able to make a record like this if I were on a major label today,” says White. “Most record companies are very myopic in how they market things. So they want you to do one particular thing and you’re not supposed to stray outside of the line. I don’t know any musicians who are myopic but when they come under the umbrella of major labels, they suddenly become that way because that’s what is demanded of you when you are part of a stable of artists”. But on this project, White was free to explore his musical vision with a no-holds-barred approach.
He opens the collection with the riff-driven funk-rock of ‘Drum Boogie,’ a tune he wrote for his Lenny White Group more than 25 years ago. Nick Moroch takes a particularly blistering guitar solo here. “Nick is an undiscovered guitar hero. A lot of people know about him but not enough. He’s really a brilliant musician. He can play any style, any kind of guitar. He’s amazing.”
The crunchy, grunge-toned ‘We Know’ is decidedly in a Zeppelin vein and features a fleet-fingered piccolo bass solo from Stanley Clarke. Producer David Bendeth also turns in a scorching guitar solo on this aggressive number. “David is one of the top rock-pop producers in the world today,” says White. “He’s produced recordings for platinum acts like Paramour and Breaking Benjamin. And the truth is, he used to play in my band long ago. When I called him to work with me on this project I went by his studio in New Jersey and he told me, “Man, I owe all of this to you because you kicked my butt so bad when I was in your band that I learned a lot and I use everything that you taught me with all these groups. “So it was great to be able to reconnect with him on this project.”
White’s longtime friend, singer/producer and collaborator Nicki Richards is featured singing on ‘Forever.’ Some liquid lines from Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring coolly shade her soulful vocals. Guitarist David Gilmore brings in his composition ‘Dark Moon,’ which features Bernard Wright on piano and Victor Bailey in a rare turn on upright bass. Gilmore’s fluid solo here is spectacular. “I went to Russia and took David as a part of my group there,” says White. And during that tour, David wrote this song for me. We pulled it out for this session and recorded it, and David sounds fantastic on it.” “Then on another tour we went to Warsaw with Polish pop singer Tatiana Okupnik and opened for the Rolling Stones .
White offers an intriguing re-imagining of Joe Henderson’s ‘Gazelle,’ a composition that he recorded with the tenor sax great in 1970 on the live Milestone album ‘If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part Of The Problem.’ White turns in an extended drum solo on this fresh remake of the Henderson staple. “That’s always been one of my favorite tunes of Joe’s,” he says. “I just decided to put a different slant on it.”
Guitarist Tom Guarna contributes the exotic ‘If U Dare,’ which he imbued with his distortion-laced tones and considerable chops. “Tom’s another one of these unsung guitar heroes out here. He’s one of those guys that the public doesn’t know that well. And I really do like to bring the focus on great musicians that people don’t really know about. Tom can really play! And he’s a science fiction fan too, so that worked for me.”
‘Election Day’ is a big triumphant-sounding number that pays tribute to the historic election of President Barack Obama. Almost orchestral in scope, it’s a kind of heavy metal ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ As heavy as James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin rolled into one, this aggressive track features a remarkably grungy wah-wah synth solo by Wright and a stinging six-string solo by Moroch. “I wanted to have a rocking track that had strings like Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir,’” says White. “And this fit the bill.”
‘Coming Down’ is harmonically sophisticated tune in six with a cool distortion guitar solo from Guarna while ‘Anthem’ is George Colligan’s humungous-sounding arena rock number. Guarna erupts on this emotionally-charged power ballad like Tommy Bolin on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum.
White and his longstanding friend and drumming colleague Mike Clark (from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters) join together for a two-drum jam on ‘Catlett Out of the Bag.’ Opening with a quote from jazz drumming great Sid Catlett’s ‘Mop Mop’ lick, it develops into a funky, organ-fueled groove with punchy horn section and Maceo Parker-styled alto sax work by Danny Walsh, another White regular. “Mike and I go back almost 40 years,” he says of Clark. “We played together a few years ago in a band we started called New Brew. For this track we just went in the studio and jammed with Jerry Z, the organist who plays in Mike’s band. I have no problem playing two drum things because I do it from the perspective of having one guy with eight arms. And then afterwards we overdubbed some horns on there so it would sound like a big jam band.”
Perhaps the most stirring tune on the collection is ‘Water Changes Everything,’ an exotic African flavored number featuring a vocal choir consisting of Chris Williams, Vanese Thomas, Gregg Clark, Irene James, Michelle Weeks-Reynoso and Nicki Richards. White explains the meaning behind this powerful original. “Basically, I had written this piece of music and after the fact a friend of mine told me about a charity called Water where they build wells in Africa where people don’t have any water and have to travel six hours to get water in some cases, and it’s not really drinkable water. So we put some words together to address this issue and I got some of my great singing friends to sing on it. I wanted it to be like a ‘We Are The World’ kind of thing, where everybody sings a piece of the verse. And I think you get the message.”
Another thought-provoking number is the hugely orchestral ‘The Wait Has Lifted the Weight,’ White’s spoken word meditation on the Obama Presidency. As he explains: “The actual piece was a part of an opera I’m composing. When Obama’s election happened, I thought about a whole bunch of things and I wrote down what I was thinking about. And I would’ve loved to have gotten Laurence Fishburne or a great voice like James Earl Jones to speak those words. But it didn’t work out, so I decided to go on and do it myself. What I was talking about was that for so long black people in the United States have been waiting to have some sort of major respectability boost. And I think with a black president people are starting to shift their attitudes. And you know, we’ve been waiting a long time. So now that wait, which is time, has lifted this weight.
Bonus tracks on Anomaly (not available for Stateside release) are White’s ‘Inside Strait,’ a revved-up funk rocker he penned more than 20 years ago, and Colligan’s slamming jazz-rock number ‘Arpanet,’ which features more sizzling six-string work from Guarna and a soaring Mini Moog solo by the composer.
Largely self-taught on drums, native New Yorker White broke into the jazz world in 1968 with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. The following year he participated in Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, generally regarded as the album that birthed the fusion movement. He subsequently recorded with a Who’s Who in Jazz, including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson, Gato Barbieri and Stan Getz and renowned composer-bandleader Gil Evans, among others. As a member of Return To Forever from 1973 to 1976, White gained a solid reputation as one of the top fusion drummers of the day. “I’m basically a jazz guy, and that’s what I grew up playing,” he says. “But when this new thing happened with jazz-rock through Bitches Brew and bands like Tony Williams Lifetime and Return To Forever, I found myself on the ground floor of a movement. And this musical movement co-existed with other forms of music that came in during the latter part of the 20th century.
“I was fortunate when I started to make music,” he continues. “I made music at the same time that Igor Stravinksy was making music, at the same time that Jimi Hendrix and James Brown were making music, at the same time that Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and John Coltrane were making music. Led Zeppelin co-existed at the same time that Return To Forever did. All these artists co-existed at the same time and I listened to all that music and was influenced by all of it. So now when I put together an eclectic project I sometimes hear people say, “Oh man, what is he trying to do” “But the truth is, I’m not trying to do anything. I’m just representing the music that I came up listening to.”