27 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Tony Senatore - Holyland (2005, Jive Momentum Records)

Tony Senatore is a bassist.

This is easy to figure out, since he appears on the cover of his album Holyland wielding a 12-string bass.

But Holyland really isn’t like most bass-featuring albums you might imagine. There’s no overabundance of tricksy bass solos, nor are there songs written to show off Senatore’s chops to the exclusion of anything else. Instead, what we have is a collection of what appear to be 13 carefully selected songs, both originals and covers, that feature fine band playing and excellent individual skills without the later overpowering the former.

Senatore is a new name for me as far as bass players go, but one look at the back of the CD booklet shows a list of influences so impressive that I knew I was in for a treat before I popped the CD in for the first time…

Jaco, James Jamerson, Carl Radle, Berry Oakley, Bernard Edwards, Felix Pappalardi, Dee Murray, John Entwhistle, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Ray Brown, Roy Buchanan.

I can say I hear little bits here and there that might remind me of these musicians, but in the end, what I hear is a bassist that has mastery of his instrument. His playing never feels forced; it’s always fluid, graceful, tight and grooving. On Holyland, he’s joined by a veritable who’s who of musicians as well…Tom Brislin handles organ and mellotron, Dregs drummer Van Romaine pounds the skins. A load of horn players guest here and there, anchored by Tom Timko on alto/tenor/bari sax and flute, additional drummers, percussionists and piano players come and go from track to track as needed. The music is diverse…some tracks grind in a heavier classic rock groove, whilst others have a serious countrified twang to them. One vocal track, and a couple Beatles covers add to the diversity here.

‘Money Dulls the Pain’ opens things off with a hot little Latin groove, horn-laden happiness, and loads of danceable energy. I love the horn charts…it’s easy to say that this reminds of the Average White Band, and it’s an unfair comparison, but even my boss at my ‘real’ job says it, so I can’t be the only person thinking it. An original, it’s groovy as all get out, and it really sets the stage in a big way. I love this track…funky and fun, it’s a great wake up call in the morning. The mood shifts noticeably for ‘A Black Place,’ a serious workout for Senatore on 6 and 12 string bass. As he explains in the notes, he originally did the melodies on 6 string, played them a second time an octave lower, and then added 12-string chordal bass as a comp instrument. It grinds heavily…until I read the liner notes, I was sure there was guitar on here, and it amazed me to find out that everything but the drums is handled by Senatore.

‘Holyland, USA’ comes closest to being a title track, so we’ll treat it as such. Remember a paragraph or so back I mentioned countrified twang? Well, here it is, and if you miss country music when it wasn’t just rock and roll with some steel guitar added over top, or a token fiddle bit, this song is so much up your alley that you’d better just skip right to it. There’s loads of slide and pedal steel all over this one. Another Senatore original, I’d love to see more stuff like this (and the rest of his originals) on a future album. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate his covers, but that’s just how much I enjoy the originals.

The first cover on this album is an older tune by Dennis Coffey named ‘Scorpio.’ I had to look this one up because I was sure I’d heard it before. It turns out this was a top ten single in 1971, hitting #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and sold over a million records. This is another funky and very energetic horn driven tune, and I am betting a good number of you out there will recognise it. Luthur Rix replaces Van Romaine behind the kit, and between his grooving kit playing and his percussion additions, this is a tune that demands feet on the floor. It’s followed by ‘It Was Love,’ an older tune originally recorded by Senatore’s father with Tito Puente in 1968. Again, I’m struck by the groove…I can’t help but nod my head along, snap my fingers, and I really get into the Rat Pack-esque vocal delivery from Lewis La Medica.

Prog fans will love Senatore’s ripping take on Frank Zappa’s ‘Apostrophe,’ filled with fuzzy, distorted bass spewing dirt and funk all over the place. Tom Brislin amps up the heat with some great Hammond B-3 playing. Where Zappa’s original rocked, Senatore’s rendition takes those elements and adds a hefty helping of deep southern soul to things. I love both the original and this cover for different reasons, and have no problems listening to them back to back, just to relish the differences heaped on top of the similarities.

Speaking of covers, Holyland includes a pair of Beatles remakes. While I don’t feel that the Beatles’ music is sacred and beyond re-interpretation, I will say that I’ve never been fully satisfied with any Beatles cover I’ve heard. I’ve liked some, sure, even loved a few here and there. But in general, none of them really hit me the same way that the originals have. Now that I’ve said this, I’ll say that Senatore’s cover of ‘Because,’ originally off Abbey Road, comes the closest to being a perfect remake as any cover I’ve come across. This is a piano and bass only rendition, no vocals…Senatore handles the vocal parts on bass, while the harpsichord/spinet parts are played by Tom Hammer on piano. This take is almost impossibly sad…I feel it tugging at my heart every time I play it. It’s restrained, gorgeous in its simplicity, and I love it, full stop. I’m glad it’s an instrumental..I think that helps me love it even more.

It’s followed by ‘Shapla,’ an 8-minute medley of Beatles melodies and song snippets. This time, things are handled in a fuller band environment, with Romaine, trumpeter Steve Jankowski and Manolo Badrena (percussion) joining him. I could list all the songs that I hear snippets from, but all that would do is pad out my word count totals. I love the little bit of Santana’s ‘Black Magic Woman’ that bridges the opening riffs from ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and ‘Blue Jay Way,’ and the song just takes off from there. Holding down the root and handling the vocal parts at the same time, it’s an interesting track that I enjoy listening to. I don’t know that I’d end up wanting a full album of Senatore doing Beatles covers, but as a musician that was so wildly influenced by the Fab Four (Senatore’s first concert was George Harrison at MSG), to not pay homage to those roots would be a disservice.

One final original closes out proceedings on Holyland. How appropriate it is that it’s called ‘A Final Song.’ The opening riff for some reason reminds me of the Animal’s ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ but that’s the only bit that seems reminiscent of anything. Another lyrical bass work out, Senatore’s 6 and 12 string playing impresses just as much as it has throughout. Van Romaine lays back on the kit, adding little percussive flourishes here and there while keeping time and moving the piece along. It’s a subtle and restrained closer on an album chock full of restraint and tight playing.

Having read this review, I think the question most people might be asking is ‘This doesn’t sound like a prog album!’ And maybe it’s not. Not in a stylistic, songs in 7/4 with mellotron and lyrics about faeries or elves kind of way. What it is, is a great bass player showcasing a mess of songs that he loves, with musicians who respect them and play the hell out of them ever bit as much as he does. It took me way too long to listen to Holyland…don’t make the same mistake I did.

Track Listing:
Money Dulls the Pain (It’s the Tony and Frank Show)
A Black Place
Life and Times (of the ‘Paisan’)
Holyland USA
Scorpio (Dennis Coffey)
It Was Love (Bobby Marin)
Lord of the Subtones
Apostrophe (Zappa)
Too Shy To Say (Stevie Wonder)
Vocalise (Rachmaninoff)
Because (Lennon, McCartney)
Shapla (Lennon, McCartney)
A Final Song

Tony Senatore: bass guitars
Manolo Badrena: percussion
Tom Brislin: Hammond B-3, mellotron
Van Romaine: drums
Al Marz: Fender Rhodes
Andrew Rothstein: guitars
Steve Jankowski: trumpet, valve trombone
Tom Timko: alto, tenor, baritone sax, flute
Frank D. Fagano: percussion
John Widgren: pedal steel guitar
Luthur Rix: drums and percussion
Chris Biesterfeldt: guitar
Matt King: piano
Lewis La Medica: vocals
Marco Giovino: drums
Tom Hammer: piano

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