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  • Jonathan Widran


We all know the sports metaphors associated with the term “Grand Slam” – and both the baseball and tennis connections would be perfect metaphors for the massive, bold and adventurous rock-soul-jazz fusion vibe of Project Grand Slam, the melodic, hard grooving collective led by bassist, songwriter, arranger and producer Robert Miller. Miller, who launched his career as part of the Boston music scene in the 70’s (when jazz fusion icons like Weather Report, Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra held court), actually named his ever-evolving ensemble after “Operation Grand Slam,” the scheme the title character in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger came up with to steal the gold out of Fort Knox. That’s just as apt because under Miller’s direction, the group’s had the Midas touch since its first lineup recorded their debut album Play in 2008, performing throughout the East Coast and opening for everyone from Mindi Abair and Boney James to YES and the late Scott Weiland.

PGS lineup on Trippin’, their sixth and most explosive album to date, is beyond what typical musical adjectives can describe. Let’s just say, to paraphrase legendary funkmeister George Clinton, Mario Castro (saxophone), Tristan Clark (guitar), Baden Goyo (keyboards), Joel E. Mateo (drums), Gullermo Barron Rios (percussion) and Ziarra Washington (vocals) tear the roof off the sucka. If they’re this scorching in the studio, imagine their intensity when they hit the stage! Miller is a generous bandleader, letting each get their due as a soloist in just the right spots.

Trippin’ is the perfect title for this 11 track joint because the loose vibe and instrumentation is so decidedly retro. “1972” is time traveling, jangling fun, mixing it up with simmering old school keys, wah guitar, swirling percussive sax and a blistering electric guitar solo. It doesn’t take too long for us to get acquainted with PGS’ divine vocalist Ziarra, whose passion on the soul-jazz funk rocker “You Started Something” quickly fulfills the key line, “You started something that makes me feel sublime.” She’s also featured, with a more subtle romantic approach, on “Lament,” an urgent song of desire including powerhouse solos by Castro on sax and Clark on guitar; and the buoyant, crackling guitar driven “gotta get away” romp “No No No.” Miller’s next batch of instrumentals are just as emotionally impactful, starting with his brassy, organ and guitar fired, live in the studio jam “Trippin’” (Miller describes it as “smokin’” and there’s no argument here!) and splashing on with the sizzling sax-slide guitar led country-jazz fusion explosion “Country Drive” (wait, I thought those were supposed to be mellow!).

PGS takes the intensity down a few notches on “March of the Diplomats,” a dreamy wordless vocal tune (courtesy of Ziarra’s ethereal coolness) inspired by Astrud Gilberto that begins with exotic percussion and a snappy bass solo by Miller. Most PGS albums find Miller re-imagining a classic rock tune, and Dave Davies of the Kings really loved “You Really Got Me”; Trippin’s contribution to that tradition is a wild slamming guitar, feisty sax and heavy organ chorded ride through The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” with Ziarra tackling the Roger Daltrey vocals magnificently. Further showcasing her ability to go from intense to seductive, her lush vocals float above a hypnotic laid back urban jazz flow on “Everyone Swears.” Trippin’ wraps with the mid-tempo, pocket urban jazz tune “Ride ‘em High” (with saxman Castro struttin’ his stuff throughout) and the two minute coda “Cousins,” a soulful, jangly guitar and smooth sax piece highlighted by more of Ziarra’s quirky wordless vocal magic.

A truly amazing album, Trippin' is one of the most spirited, energetic and engaging urban jazz related recordings of the year. It releases in June ahead of an active performance and festival schedule over the summer, including the band’s first two European performances in August at the Silda Jazz Festival in Norway, followed by he Nisville Jazz Festival in Serbia.

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