Is there anything really decent, progressive rock or fusion-wise, that comes out of North Carolina, USA? Well, we do have wonderful, old-time, mountain music and those forever popular, shag-worthy, harmony-laced beach ditties. Plenty of southern-fried rock and alternative bands come and go. Some new North Carolina artists will surely make their splash in the mainstream charts. But which prog band will break through genre-biased barriers and survive? Could it be a jazz fusion rock band, with the right stuff, called the Ozone Quartet? Perhaps.
In the late '70s and early '80s Raleigh was home to an incredibly skilled, dual guitared, jazz rock fusion group called 3PM. They folded. 3PM bassist, Jerry Peek, went on to join the Steve Morse Band. Brian Preston, of current-day Smokin' Granny, was in a little-known, RTP, mid-'80s, prog rock band called Freehand. They folded. And then there was another NC jazz fusion band called Mind Over Matter. They mutated. Thus was born Cloud Nine -- an early incarnation of what later became the Ozone Quartet. They survived the usually deadly bandmate fluctuation rifts and have now released their second CD, Nocturne.
Ozone Quartet is Hollis Brown on electric violin, Francis Dyer on drums, Wayne Leechford on the Chapman Stick, and Kenny Thompson on guitars. Brown has been playing violin since age 11 with a brief hiatus during her college years*. She cites David Cross of King Crimson and Eddie Jobson, (Curved Air, Roxy Music, U.K.), as major influences on her playing. Dyer recounted to me that, (in his own polyrhythmic mind), he has always been a drummer -- since Day One. He believes he went "pro" in the 4th grade. Dyer lists Bruford, King Crimson, Zappa, Vinnie Colaiuta, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire in his "wake-up call" roster. Multi-instrumentalist Leechford has been tapping Chapman Stick for over 6 years. He has dabbled deep in guitar, bass, and even performed on saxophone at the White House in 1995 for the President and company. Leechford quickly alluded to John Coltrane's Giant Steps when asked what artist got his "lights turned on". Thompson, who replaced "G-Man" aka Graham Fry, after Ozone Quartet released Fresh Blood, has been playing guitar for 17 years. At age 15 he began his professional guitar playing, performing essentially everywhere, he stated. When asked who expanded his musical awareness most memorably, Thompson simply answered, "McCoy Tyner". I must say that Thompson wins the "most humble" award of any guitarist I have ever met even though he has a huge amount of skill.
Some convoluted history first . . . Dyer and Leechford came from a extended jamming, jazz fusion band Mind Over Matter. I actually heard North Carolina State University's not-so-ready-for-the-air, radio staion, WKNC, playing Mind Over Matter one night and never heard anything about them again. Alas, I was busy then though, with many things other than reviewing bands. They did have an interestingly complex weave of sound. "G-Man", Graham Fry came from Confessor, (speed metal), and Brown from blackgirls, (an all femme trio), with three releases to their credit. In fact, all of Ozone Quartet are veteran musicians with many touring miles and recording hours behind them.
Cloud Nine was born in the summer of 1992. Earlier on, Leechford suggested Brown consider jamming with him and the then current Mind Over Matter drummer, Steve Smith. Dyer replaced Smith as Mind Over Matter's drummer later. "G-man" Fry also began jamming with Leechford, Brown, and Smith. Oddly enough, Dyer then also went on to again replace Smith in the proto-Cloud Nine days. Tough luck there for Smith. Ouch. So we then had Cloud Nine as Leechford, Brown, Fry, and Dyer. Got it? Don't rest yet, this musical chairs gig keeps going.
A certain guitarist, namely Kenny Thompson, used to jam out with Fran Dyer -- so when Fry flew, Thompson stepped in. Thompson informed me that many of the early Ozone Quartet gigs had him nervously flying by the seat of his pants, with tons of "oh man whatta I play here" improv "winging it" and little familiar structures for him to grab onto. He further commented to me once at a live gig and also again at a practice session, I sat in on, that he really desires pursuing a more worked-out, planned flow, perhaps with more unison lines in the songs. Thompson handles both improv and tightly structured playing equally well. Thompson's precision axework is featured on Nocturne.To my ears, Thompson's guitar work has a wider range of fusion sensitivity and technique than ex-Ozoner Fry. Thompson still can crunch heavy but he steps far beyond Fry's speed metal-heavied background.
Tapes are made of practices and excerpta that has promise gets worked up further. Ozone Quartet songs are not predominately written by one person but are like the essential parts of an assembly line created engine or vehicle. All parts work together equally, not one being more important than the other. It just so happens however, that your Ozone Quartet Hummer car may have six wheels one day and then feature hoverjets instead the next day. Nevertheless, they still call it a Hummer. They get you where you want to go -- only a bit differently than you are expecting. It works for me. I like surprises in my fusion.
Leechford and Dyer's hyperkinetic heartbeat or lumbering behemoth crunches provide a relentless storm of syncopated winds and a free-flowing flood of percussive bass textures. It is obvious, sitting in on an Ozone Quartet practice session, that they love this stuff they are creating. They breathe their music. It is a soul-fired entity they birth. I witnessed the clear fact that even unison lines Thompson and Brown play, are born right on the spot -- having their genesis and maturation in a first-run through a new piece. Dyer's drumming sense and precise execution is an exciting thing to witness up close, let alone hear it. The last time I remember seeing such a monster drumming display was watching Billy Cobham way back in the Mahavishnu Orchestra era. Dyer is a natural. The man is beyond good! I can see and hear Thompson's years of professional playing have engendered him with versatility in his stylings. He gets exactly what sound he needs out of his axe and pulls it off comfortably and clean. He has an obviously deep connection to the jazz rock fusion foundation. Leechford can deftly lay down one mean, funkified, "slappa-you-upsidah-haid" groove on his Stick or mellow out to slow-death, quicksand mode.
Ozone Quartet holds an obvious unity of mind in the lively crosstalk they share on stage. No one takes the forefront musically. There is no domination here. Granted, there is the extended soloing and layering of sultry mood by Brown, the stage center position she commands, and her near-mesmerizing body language while "getting into" the song's thrusts and swoons. But it is immaterial when you close your eyes and really listen closely. All is one. Somehow though, I fear, the special chemistry of live playing may be squelched in the confines of the recording studio. I hope their 1999 release Nocturne fairly represents just how truly amazing the Ozone Quartet can perform their ominously dark and soulfired fusion. Watching them on stage is where one truly experiences Ozone Quartet's ultimate charm and relaxed power. Did I forget to mention that these are all a really nice bunch of people too? Well, they really are and they aren't out to prove anything or show-off. They simply love what they do and do it well.
" . . . musical meandering through bizarre realms, fog shrouded moors, and moonlit shrines of ancient Babylon. It is a sorcery of sound, each artist playing off the other as if many arms of one unseen being.
People like references to get a feel for things so here are some comparisons:
Mahavishnu Orchestra, (Between Nothingness and Eternity) early Dixie Dregs, Curved Air, (Air Conditioning), Darryl Dobson, (The Mind Electric), early Jean-Luc Ponty, Steve Kindler, (on Visions of the Emerald Beyond), Mark Wood, (Voodoo Violince), Boud Deun, (Fiction and Several Days), and of course King Crimson."
So there you have it. It's about time you check the Ozone Quartet out and see what they are all about -- not to mention, support the future success of another fine band from North Carolina.
*-Hollis Brown informed me by phone that she actually kept on fiddlin' right on through her college years.
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