In 1978, keyboardist/composer Neil Larsen released his first solo album, a touchstone in the fusion genre. Jungle Fever, entirely instrumental, displayed a perfect blend of jazz, rock, funk and Latin influences used in combination with innovative and interesting compositions and some brilliant musicianship, which included his longtime partner Buzz Feiten on guitar.
Larsen and Feiten had first teamed on the seminal jazz-blues-soul album Full Moon in 1972, a modest hit on the charts but highly influential. Likewise Jungle Fever did well enough on first release but wasn’t a chartbuster by any means. Still, it made a lasting impression on the music scene.
He followed it with a similar collection on High Gear (1979), almost as artistically successful, then enjoyed genuine chart success with Feiten in the Larsen-Feiten Band (1980) and a reprise of Full Moon (1982) featuring the two. Both Larsen-Feiten albums brought pop into the mix along with Larsen’s usual influences and crossed over to the Billboard 100. During the 1980s, he became an influential and very much in-demand studio musician.
The list of artists he has worked with is daunting. You can find it here in notes for his latest album Orbit, released in 2007. This list of musicians ranges from Gregg Allman and The Allman Brothers to George Benson, Cher, Commander Cody, Dr. John, George Harrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, The Stones and many, many more. This past year, he has been playing with Leonard Cohen on the folk singer’s worldwide tour.
But there is no Neil Larsen web site per se and although you can find him in Wikipedia, there is no page dedicated to him. Despite his influential status in the music community and accomplished playing and composing, he simply is not well known to the public in general.
I have Jungle Fever and High Gear on vinyl. Jungle Fever has been available on CD for a while as an import but at prohibitively high prices, so I transferred my vinyl to CD, using a deck connected to my stereo system not my computer, to excellent effect. High Gear is destined for the same treatment.
Fever is a highly consistent piece of work with burning Latin grooves, as in the title track and in the heavily Brazilian-influenced Sudden Samba, and a number of Larsen’s trademark slow-to-moderate tempo, lyrical ballad grooves in tunes such as Red Desert, Promenade and the glorious and poignant From A Dream.
What all these have in common is not only the high quality of musicianship and infectious rhythms but also a singular sense of captivating melody. Larsen’s writing style is always built around this melodic invention.
He has released two other albums since the late ’80s, Through Any Window (1987) and Smooth Talk (1989), both worthy and in basically the same style as Fever and High Gear, albeit with a slight move toward the mainstream.
But in Orbit, Larsen captures the fire of the early releases, reprising some of the tunes from those albums, including one track from the original Full Moon album, and he achieves it live in the studio. In fact, this album is a direct-to-disc recording. In other words, what you hear is what you get. Not only no overdubs, no mixing beyond what is captured at the session. Really remarkable.
As in Bernie Grundman’s notes, it’s “to achieve the most spontaneous interaction between musicians and to attain a purity and naturalness of sound that is rarely found in current recordings.” Well said. If only more musicians would record this way. If only more musicians could record this way. It takes a special talent.
You have to marvel at albums recorded using this technique. George Fame did it for his album Cool Cat Blues, although I believe that one was actually mixed later, and I can think of a handful of others I’m familiar with. It really does get you inside the performance, something like being at a great live show.
Of couse, Larsen is recording with some wonderful musicians on Orbit in Robben Ford, guitar, Tom Brechtlein, drums, Jimmy Haslip, bass, Gary Meek, sax and Lee Thornburg, trumpet and flugelhorn.
The addition of the horns, which were usually only featured on a few tracks of his previous solo efforts, is a nice touch, and Meek delivers some inspired solos, particularly on Demonette, a tune from High Gear. Other songs from past albums include Jungle Fever, From A Dream, Sudden Samba and Red Desert, all from the album Jungle Fever, Midnight Pass, from the first Full Moon record, and Aztec Legend, from the first Larsen-Feiten title. All the new interpretations are interesting takes with some updated ideas on each, including varying the phrasing slightly on some of the melodies.
The new material fits in nicely with the old, including C Note, on which Ford takes an appropriately jazzy solo. Ford is much in evidence on all the tunes as Feiten was on past albums, but has a distinctly different sound and approach to the compositions. He glides through an octave-laden jazz solo on Midnight Pass and takes more rock-oriented turns on other tunes such as Aztec Legend. And his concise, biting solo through Jungle Fever has the listener begging for more.
In fact, he uses all of his various stylings in one way or another throughout the album. He is noted so often for his many blues interpretations, it’s nice hearing him here in an array of modes in which he is just as adept, particularly jazz.
Let’s not forget Larsen’s adeptness as a soloist on both organ and piano as well. So few use organ to produce such stunning results, mixing a blend of rhythmic passion with melodic-leaning virtuosity. He has the chops, but he uses all his skills with taste and restraint where warranted.
If you haven’t heard one of Larsen’s solo albums, you’re in for a treat and this is a good place to start. Jungle Fever is the jewel in his catalogue but as noted can be pricey. Orbit is readily available, can be picked up quite reasonably and has many of Larsen’s landmark compositions as well as impeccable playing by all.