Jeff Lorber still fusing jazz elements after all these years

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In the late '70s and early '80s, the Jeff Lorber Fusion, then based in Portland, Ore., was one of the brightest lights in the second wave of jazz's fusion movement.

Nearly 30 years after the group's last album, the keyboardist, composer, arranger and producer for whom the band was named has revived it and is bringing it Friday to the Manchester Craftmen's Guild's Jazz Hall for two shows.

Oh, and by the way, the group has a new album out -- "Now Is the Time," nominated for a Grammy last year.

'Jeff Lorber Fusion'

Where: Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Metropolitan Ave., North Side.

When: 7 (sold out) and 9:30 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: $42.50. 412-322-0800; www.mcgjazz.org.

Mr. Lorber grew up in Cheltenham, Montgomery County, the same Philadelphia suburb as former baseball player Reggie Jackson and fellow musicians Randy and Mike Brecker. He originally knew the Brecker Brothers "only by reputation," he says. "When I was in sixth grade, they were in high school and were already legendary."

After his studies at the Berklee College of Music, where he was friends with guitarist John Scofield and the two played together in a blues band, he and his then-wife settled in Portland, which at the time had a burgeoning music scene. While there he fell in with fellow keyboardist and native Tom Grant, studying with him for a bit.

"He had a band [that was] smoking," Mr. Lorber says. "I decided, 'That's what I want to do.' "

Mr. Lorber formed the Fusion and released two albums on the obscure Inner City records label in the late 1970s.

"Like a lot of artists, my first record was probably more derivative than original," he says. "What I was doing was creating instrumental music that was more melodic, more from a pop music perspective, not just jams -- more melodic, but with some bebop chord structure."

By the time "Water Sign," his first effort for Arista Records, came out, he says he was developing more of his own sound.

Soon after that, Mr. Lorber hired a then-obscure saxophonist out of Seattle named Kenny Gorelick, who made his recording debut on the Fusion's 1980 "Wizard Island" album. And the man known -- and reviled, depending on your perspective -- today as Kenny G "was fun to be around," Mr. Lorber says. "His ambition to be a solo artist and make his own records hadn't taken hold; he was basically happy to be playing with me." Kenny G, who holds an accounting degree from the University of Washington, had another function in the band -- he also kept its books on the road.

By the early 1980s, however, Mr. Lorber says, "I was spending more and more time in [Los Angeles] recording and was finding myself [enthralled with] all the talent that was in L.A. and not finding stimulation in Portland."

After the group's last album, 1981's "Galaxian," Mr. Lorber decided to break up the band and moved with Kenny G to L.A., producing his own first solo release, "It's a Fact," on which Kenny G figured prominently; and Kenny G's eponymous debut, both in 1982.

Mr. Lorber left Arista after 1984's "Step by Step," produced by the techno-funk band the System and featuring vocals prominently -- "[label honcho] Clive Davis told me, 'We really want you to put more vocals on your records' " -- but panned by critics. He considered that direction a mistake.

"I have a fan base that likes what I'm doing, and if I change it they might not come with me."

After 1986's "Private Passions," his only recording for Warner Bros., he took an eight-year break from recording his own material and became a studio musician and arranger, participating on saxophonist Dave Koz's first album in 1990 and making a lot a dance remixes.

Eventually, though, he realized he needed to do this own thing again.

"I had had enough of taking other people's direction," Mr. Lorber says. "My attitude became less positive -- 'I know more than they do.' " The year 1994 saw the release of "Worth Waiting For," and his output has remained steady since, though he has done studio work with the likes of Herb Alpert and Richard Elliot.

Mr. Lorber's basic sound has changed significantly over the years. The material he wrote for the original Jeff Lorber Fusion was more jagged and angular, while his 1980s output was warmer and heavily dependent on synthesizers. These days, he's become focused more on piano.

"[A synth] doesn't have the expression that a Rhodes [electric piano] or an acoustic piano has," Mr. Lorber says. "Especially the real thing has a very different nature to it -- the touch sensentivity. I love the sound of a real Rhodes," which he's convinced can't be duplicated electronically.

Mr. Lorber also has redone some of his older tunes such as "Pacific Coast Highway," "Katherine," "Tune 88" and "Toad's Place."

"I felt like I could bring something new to [them] and play [them] with some new musicians," he said.

For the new record, Mr. Lorber shared production duties with bassist Jimmy Haslip, a mainstay of the Yellowjackets; and Bobby Colomby, the original drummer for the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears -- whose brass section appears on several tracks.

"They come at things from a different direction," Mr. Lorber says. "I tend to start a lot from a rhythmic context. Bobby's interested in harmony, and Jimmy's very, very intuitive."

For the MCG shows, Mr. Lorber said that audiences can expect to hear mostly stuff from "Now Is the Time" with a sprinkling of older material. The band also includes Mr. Haslip, drummer Lionel Cordew and saxophonist Bob Franceschini, who has occasionally subbed with the Yellowjackets.

"Hopefully there will be a lot of energy," Mr. Lorber says.


Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.


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