Greg Skaff: Soulmation – Jazz Guitar Life CD Review

At 16 years of age, Greg Skaff was drawn to the guitar after hearing Jazz Guitarist George Benson’s soulful sound on It’s Uptown. Since then, Greg has followed the tradition of Blues and Soul based Bop guitar players by honing his most impressive chops in bars, clubs, large venues and wherever else he could lay his hat whether it be in New York City, South Africa, South America, Japan or Europe. He’s also played with a list of top-shelf Jazz leaders such as the late and great Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Watson, Lonnie Smith and Jack McDuff to name but a few and also has been a leader himself for many years.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Greg has continued to develop as a player and musician throughout the years and has expanded his playing style to not only reflect his Jazz/Bop origins but to take on other forms as well such as the Blues and Rock idioms ala Jimi Hendrix, Leslie West and Eric Clapton. In fact, if you have Greg’s latest CD, Soulmation, just select track 6 – “Bottom Feeder” – to hear how he stirs up all these elements into one big heaping delicousness of musical Gumbo! The head to this tune could easily be mistaken for a Cream jam tune from back in their hey-day. The only difference would be that a lot of the notes Greg plays would have Eric scratching his head in wonderment! 🙂

The same could be said for “Mother Root” with its Robin Trower meets Jimi Hendrix meets Stevie Ray Vaughn meets Greg Skaff vibe! The funk of “Conjure” and the equally funky title track are similar as well and bring to mind – at least to my ears – the genre mixing experimentation brought about in the late 60’s and early 70’s when guitarists were searching for more modern approaches to enhance the music, regardless of their stylistic affiliations – think John McGaughlin, Larry Coryell, Denny Diaz, Joe Beck, Steve Khan and other trend-setters of that musically stimulating epoch.

This is not to say that Greg Skaff is searching, rather I feel that with this CD, he has found a home in which to appease the many obvious influences that he brings to the fore. Of course Jazz – the improvised line – is still his main priority, but, like many before him, he has reconciled his love for swing alongside his need to burn up and down the fret-board with an intensity that can only be found by stepping on an overdrive pedal and laying it down! “Talisman” and “Snake Oil” bear witness to such dynamism and dig the trippy – almost psychedelic – “Somewhere In The Middle East” where sound, slightly overdriven chords, texture and feel, not to mention a feed-backed whammy bar, creates a vibe that is both nestled in the past and “strung out” in the now.

And in case you’re wondering if Greg has forsaken the Blues, you need not worry as “Juke” and “Genmaicha” bring a modern take to the oft-repeated Blues progressions, fueled by Pat Bianchi’s fat Hammond organ tone and Greg’s fleet fingered, slightly overdriven lines that pay homage to Greg’s musical upbringing. “Genmaicha” takes a big hat off to Benson and Wes while “Juke” rocks it up a little with some bent string stinging and a repeated “riff” that brings to mind a similar guitar lick from Steely Dan’s “Home At Last”. Very cool!

The remaining tunes, “Smoke In The Sun”, “Fleurette Africane” and “Porcupine Hat” add a slight change of pace as “Smoke In The Sun” and “Porcupine Hat” are as straight-ahead as your gonna get on this CD. Greg tears it up, demonstrating that while he loves the energy of Rock and Blues, Jazz can bring its own energy when needed. A nice detour indeed to remind us that “yeah…he can play changes!”

Fleurette Africane” gets into a culturally diverse – yet still swinging – drum and bass motif that would fit nicely in any Russ Meyer film of the 60’s and 70’s. His tune also reminds me a bit of Bill Frisell, with its shimmering chordal clusters and minimalistic bent. Greg is surprisingly restrained on this take which serves the tune nicely. Definitely a cool vibe this one!

Now…as great as Greg is, he still needs help laying it down, and for that he calls upon a stellar group of players. Drummers Jonathan Barber and Charley Drayton (trks 1,2,9,10), alongside the electric Bass playing of Fima Ephron, takes care of the groove and feel big time. Plus they are great soloists to boot creating a more than solid rhythmic tag team. Such praise can also be heaped on organist Pat Bianchi who is Greg’s right hand man when it comes to putting down the harmonic foundation needed for Greg to soar on top of. I’m sure they all had a blast!

If you’re a fan of Greg Skaff, or you’re just looking to check out something new and exciting, do give Soulmation a listen. If your feet don’t start tapping almost immediately, consult a physician!

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