Spirit Fingers ‘Spirit Fingers’ 2LP/CD (Shanachie) 5/5

Here at UK Vibe, we continually consume and absorb a great deal of music essentially on a daily basis, whether purchased, from promotional material or via recommendations, but inadvertently we sometimes miss the odd release and Spirit Fingers was one of the those initially missed gems from 2018.

This quartet is almost the Marvel Avengers for contemporary jazz; renegades coming together for a common cause, and in this instance, delivering high quality writing, playing and performing. Consisting of four colossal players including bandleader and pianist Greg Spero, Italian guitarist Dario Chiazzolino, Parisian bassist Hadrien Feraud and from Dallas, Mike Mitchell on drums. More later regarding the band, but this their debut as Spirit Fingers (they were previously known as Polyrhythmic) was actually released in March 2018 on Shanachie, a large US independent label more known for contemporary R&B and smooth jazz than heavyweight fusion.

The album contains 12 compositions, although, four have a running time of less than two minutes and may be seen as interludes, but it begins with the hypnotic ‘Inside’, a technically brilliant but fluid piece (with a 12/8 time signature) especially its use of serialism with immaculately repeated piano motifs, a common technique employed by Spero, together with super complex unison playing by the band. ‘Maps’ emphasise the dextrous guitar work of Chiazzolino and Feraud’s vibrant bass playing, with ‘For’ further sanctioning this exquisite guitar and bass interaction.

The longest track of the set, ‘Find’ (with 13/16 and 17/16 time signatures!), continues the musical assault after its initial tranquil introduction but then it’s business as usual with terrifically mesmerising solos by all four members. The dynamic ‘Release’ highlights drummer Mitchell’s virtuosity, from his subtle and delicate rhythms to frenetically intricate and technically precise timings. The track ‘You’, which is remarkable in that it employs the common 4/4 time signature (I’m being sarcastic) begins with a traditional jazz-funk type groove, before Feraud intercepts with one of his fiery but perfectly controlled bass solos.

With 2018 being an exceptionally fruitful year for jazz, this writer feels this is one of the strongest albums of the year, although, due to its relative obscurity comparatively to other releases may not appear on many best-of-year charts – which would be unfortunate. But nothing is perfect, and personally I would love to hear Greg Spero play Fender Rhodes rather than acoustic piano on a few pieces to break away from the piano-centric formation. And the album cover is reminiscent of a reformed boy band’s comeback album!

But it’s unsurprising that individually the band have deep and rich musical backgrounds which is evident throughout the album. Composer Greg Spero, who is originally from Chicago, has had a broad professional development, from working with major hip hop artists as well as playing with Robert Irving III with Herbie Hancock being one of his mentors. Spero was also briefly in a duo with Makaya McCraven, who also co-produced this album, before starting the ill-named Polyrhythmic. Now based in LA, which is where he met esteemed bass player Hadrien Feraud (Chick Corea, John McLaughlin), virtuoso guitarist Dario Chiazzolino (Billy Cobham, David Liebman) and drumming prodigy Mike Mitchell (Stanley Clarke, Erykah Badu).

As complicated and technical as the musicianship is here, there is a soulfulness that permeates throughout the project. Historically, jazz-fusion practitioners have utilised overlapping polyrhythms and obscure time signatures more as a technical showcase which almost became somewhat of a jazz fusion cliché, but here one feels that Spirit Fingers use complexity more as another tool in their musical arsenal rather than for bragging rights. The CD booklet includes technical information for each track, listing time signatures and soloists, which is welcomed, especially as I’m a sucker for rhythmic displacement and unusual time signatures. But I would argue that this is an album not only for musicians or those with an understanding of the music, but anyone with an interest in the progressive side of jazz. They could have a similar impact to what Snarky Puppy have had in recent years if they continue with this direction.

While writing this review, it appears that the album is now available on limited vinyl from the band’s own US-based website. With vinyl now becoming a crucial component to new jazz releases, hopefully European distribution will not be far away, as records like this need to be made available from larger retailers such as Juno and HMV which would definitely broaden their reach and fan base outside of the USA.

Damian Wilkes