If jazz/prog rock fusion sounds like trying to put a square peg in a round hole or teaching a fish to ride a bike then look away now, go on, I saw you peeking, it’s not for you!
To me jazz and progressive rock can be closely related. When you get the wild twiddling of such keyboard virtuosos as Derek Sherinian and Jordan Rudess and take it out of the mainstream prog they have been known for (specifically Dream Theater in both their cases), it has a distinctive jazz vibe to it. Add in some seriously good bass playing along the lines of Alberto Rigoni and you are nearly straying into pure jazz territory. To temper that we throw in Satch like guitars and classy drumming and you have formed a seriously good jazz/prog fusion in your crucible of rock and you don’t need to be in a smoky underground club to enjoy it!
I have absolutely no idea if that was the intention of Italian keyboardist Alessandro Bertoni when he first formulated the idea for his debut solo effort Keystone but it certainly feels like it. An eclectic mix of musical styles bouncing off each other and taking the listener on a magical mystery tour through a world inhabited by guitar, drums and bass but where you never lose sight of the fact that keyboard is king. This is an instrumental album of polished, technical inevntiveness.
Alessandro Bertoni hails from Treviso in Italy. He took up classical piano at an early age before moving onto jazz and contemporary music whilst studying in Milan and Padua. He spread his wings and moved to the high energy environment of Los Angeles where he now lives and works. His musical style has intense instrumental technicality well blended with jazz fusion to produce something where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
His first project was with Aphelion with whom he released Franticode in 2008, an album produced by the keyboard guru Derek Sherinian.
Keystone sees Alessandro team up with such luminaries as Brett Garsed on guitar, Ric Fierabracci on bass and Virgil Donati on drums. Once again, production duties are taken care of by Derek Sherinian.
You get a sense of the student learning from the master as there are touches of Sherinian’s playing style, melded with hints of Jordan Rudess to produce Alessandro’s distinctive keyboard sound. There are hints of modern day Joe Satriani in the album blended with something else which was always out of reach but I finally reeled it in, if you have ever heard Neal Schon’s solo masterpiece Beyond The Thunder you will have some idea of what I mean. It really stands out in the more mellow sections where we relax and chill out for a bit, a subtle undercurrent of smooth jazz painting pictures before your very eyes. All of the tracks are compact and never outstay their welcome
We open with Megas Alexandros Pt1 – The great Portrait, a technical keyboard and guitar opener, frantic pounding of the keys interspaced with staccato guitar, a vocal, almost cat like guitar sound blending with the fluent keyboard.
A distinctive bass leads us into Megas Alexandros Pt2 – City of Gordium before the keyboard and guitar lead into a very smooth jazz/rock fusion, the guitar picks up the pace slightly, intricate fretwork from Brett Garsed showing utmost skill that still has emotion.
Megas Alexandros Pt3 – To The Ends of The Earth throws the keys right back at the forefront of the mix, hints of epic Sherinian and Rudess but Alessandro always owns his own style. This is seriously complex, wizardly stuff before the guitar mellows the mood, not for too long though, that hard edged keyboard sound carries us on a wave of brilliance to the end.
Pacifica Rampage starts with an almost Rush style guitar overlaying the keyboards before a more lyrical sound lifts us up and takes us on, the Satriani comparison quite prevalent on this track as Brett Garsed showcases his talent with some rather excellent noodling, the drums always distinct in the mix.
Talking of drums, the intro to Tertium Non Datur is drum heavy before guitar and keyboards take up the story again, complementing each other vividly. It’s on this track that Alessandro really gets to showcase his talent with some intense and scintillating keywork before we have a drum interlude. Almost fighting to get out again, the keyboards lift us up again. On this track all of the instruments meld fantastically together, the keyboards being the glue in the mix.
Galactic Halo is, perhaps, the weakest track on the album, not to say I didn’t enjoy it but it just didn’t hit me straight away like most of the others did. Technically brilliant and very bass heavy, it almost felt like a filler track and out of place with the rest of the album.
I love the intro to The Keystone Age, very edgy keyboards providing the backdrop for a great piece of guitar playing, super fast fingers on the fretboard belt out a frenetic rhythm halted by a keyboard interlude and then a fantastic running guitar theme that is insanely catchy. The edgy sound returns along with some virtuoso keyboard playing before an abrupt ending.
The final track Magnolia Sunrise blends great piano playing with distinctive bass at the start, the piano taking up the narrative and the bass always acting as a foil throughout. A nice gentle track but I somehow got the impression that this was the artist’s way of showing he wasn’t all technical wizardry and brilliance. Along with Galactic Halo, this song feels adrift in the sea of intense and energetic musical sorcery that is otherwise presented to us on this release.
Alessandro Bertoni should be rightly proud of Keystone, the musical brilliance, seamless blending of styles and, in the majority, song writing excellence are all to be roundly applauded. As a showcase of his musical talent it hits the spot. Fans of the genre and keyboard based prog will love it. The album just doesn’t have the magnificent ending it deserves.