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Artist: The Phil Keaggy Trio
Label: Strobie Records
12 tracks / 49 minutes
The notion of an instrumental project from a band called The Phil Keaggy Trio elicits a Pavlovian response from fans of the great guitarist. While I wipe my mouth, then, let me tell you about Inter-Dimensional Traveler.
If Jack Giering ever said, 'Hey, I'm dying to play with Phil Keaggy,' he was a prophet. In fact, the music on Inter-Dimensional Traveler is the result of keyboardist/composer Giering's 'dying' some seven times following a heart attack. The twelve tracks on this CD attempt an instrumental articulation of Giering's soul-journey – 'a sound track,' he says, 'of my short death.' Together with drummer/percussionist John Sferra and guitar-legend Phil Keaggy, Giering gives us an aural glimpse into a surprisingly funky, somewhat ambient jazz afterlife.
Like meeting old friends, faithful followers will recognize certain licks from Keaggy, like the familiar run in “Never On Time.” While this is a group effort right down to the fine, understated production, it's still Phil's stunning guitar work, which stylistically spans everything from soft jazz to rock to psychedelic to a dreamy Ventures tone reminiscent of “Sleepwalk,” that stands apart as something special. The cool Steely Dan funk of “Cold Girl” really gives Phil a chance to nicely strut his stuff before fading out, while “Thin Ice” and “Funny Bonz” showcases the whole band at its best.
While Keaggy has spent much of his solo career writing, performing, and producing most of his recorded output as a one-man band, it's a delight to hear him set free to simply play on someone else's material. Right from the opening title-track, we hear a Phil Keaggy freed-up enough to pour on some funk and even tease us with a wah-wah infused sixties-influenced guitar part. That being said, the album certainly is not a 'live-in-the-studio' effort, with each player apparently layering on multiple tracks before calling it done. Keaggy plays rhythm and lead, often with overlapping guitars, and even plays bass on the title track (leaving Giering to handle the bass on the rest of the album). The keyboards are indeed sensuously layered, implying everything from piano to organ to strings and more...
Although Jack Giering comes as somewhat of an unknown quantity, the names Keaggy and Sferra are instantly recognizable, often paired as two-thirds of the legendary art-rock trio, Glass Harp and frequent co-conspirators on numerous projects from Keaggy's 'solo' career. As one would expect, John Sferra's drumming is deft and articulate, if occasionally a bit more restrained than we might hope for (I suppose near-death experiences don't lend themselves to drum solos). The very, very capable Sferra does his job with taste and amazing dexterity, handling the drum/percussion parts with careful sensitivity to his other band-members – you can almost sense his attempt to blend in instead of overpower. Producing intricate patterns, Sferra uses brushes a bit more than I thought he would, perhaps alluding to the studio-assembled aspect of this project. Keaggy's guitar work is typically brilliant and occasionally breath-taking. We'd expect no less. Giering's synth/keys are tasteful and often understated, providing washes of atmosphere and fields of musical ambiance for his partners to dance across.
The songwriting is serviceable, and almost seems an excuse for these musicians to play together. The compositions occasionally lack tight endings, meander a bit, and sometimes seem to be searching for solid ground. Although they possess moments of melodic beauty, the tracks fail to embed themselves into the mind. In other words: no real hooks, but plenty of nice stuff to listen to. The question is: what did you come to this album for? The songwriting or the playing? Maybe that perfect balance didn't happen, but your ears are still in for quite a treat.
It would be great to hear these three musicians really take off and jam in a live context. Not to detract from Inter-Dimensional Traveler's wonderful blend of ambient jazz and funk, but there's that certain studio safety-net which, if removed, might take this music to the next level in terms of excitement. And, by 'next level,' I don't mean a post-death experience... although it just might sound pretty out of this world.