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National Health : Playtime

Recorded during two shows in 1979, this CD covers the final incarnation of the band that included Alan Gowen on keyboards, John Greaves on bass and vocals, Phil Miller on guitar, and Pip Pyle on drums. What really struck me was the intense jazz-fusion vibe going on during this whole set, kind of like a cross between Miles Davis, Weather Report, Lifetime, Return to Forever, Brand X, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The CD kicks off with the fifteen minute “Flanagan’s People”, which is a complete throwback to early 70’s fusion, highlighted by the articulate Fender Rhodes electric piano work of Alan Gowen. He lays down lots of light and airy notes ala Chick Corea throughout this romping tune, and is joined mightily by the staccato lead lines of Phil Miller’s guitar. What is really interesting about this song, is the bands ability to build the intensity and drama of the piece throughout the song, yet never succumb to bombast. The music just swells and pulses, building to a raucous crescendo with weaving guitar lines from Miller and energetic drums from Pip Pyle. Drummer Pip Pyle really struts his stuff on the energetic “Dreams Wide Awake”, an uptempo barn-burner that also sees guitarist Miller slash some jagged leads. Pyle and bassist John Greaves are locked in here at a furious pace, while Gowens’ synth leads whip over the horizon to do battle with the distorted tone of Millers’electric guitar. Fans who relished the duels between John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer in the early 70’s will be right at home here.

“Pleaides” is a ten -minute romp that utilizes some Gentle Giant inspired counterpoint to a wonderful effect within an instrumental context. Two short little ditties are thrown back-to-back, called “Rhubarb Jam” and “Rose Sob”, both very tongue in cheek numbers that lets the band quickly solo together at breakneck pace. To bring up the Mahavishnu Orchestra again, I was reminded of some of the blinding tradeoffs exchanged during parts of the Between Nothingness and Eternity album, especially on “Rhubarb Jam.” “Rose Sob” is the albums lone vocal number, a very jazzy piece, which segues right into the distorted bass lines that open up “Play Time.” The last two tracks included on Playtime are “Square For Maude Parts 1 & 2.” Here the band goes back and forth between light jazz-fusion fare and blistering prog rock fury, much like Brand X from the same period. Amidst the bobbing bass line from Greaves, Miller and Gowen spurt waves of melodic notes across each other’s palette for a hypnotic effect. Don’t be fooled, the trance only lasts for a brief moment, before Miller once again rampages in with a Herculean blast of distorted fusion guitar that would make McLaughlin, DiMeola or Holdsworth shiver. This two- part suite runs at over twelve minutes long, and really shows how diverse this band could be, as well as prove what truly outstanding musical skills they had.

Cuneiform has released a remarkable statement here, from a band that will amaze those new to the sounds they were able to create in their short time together. The fact that these songs are so tight would have the listener assume that this version of the band was together for years honing their skills. In reality that was not the case, as this version barely stayed together for two years. As far as progressive jazz-fusion goes, it doesn’t get any better than this. Sound quality is excellent here as well, and the playing monumental.

Added: October 15th 2001
Reviewer: Pete Pardo
Related Link: Cuneiform Records
Hits: 3196
Language: english

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