The names on the cover—Miroslav Vitous, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette—smell like supergroup, but the record doesn’t sound like the ego jam supergroups descend into. Rather, it sounds like one ego in complete control: the bassist. Vitous was a Czech prodigy who won a scholarship to Berklee in the late ’60s, dropped out, moved to New York, and fell in with the fusion crowd, becoming a founder of Weather Report. Since then, he’s drifted in and out of academia, recording sporadically. This is his first album in a decade, and effectively also the summation of his career. So he decided to make it perfect.
The supergroupers are just old friends. Vitous played on Corea’s 1968 albums, and McLaughlin and DeJohnette played on Vitous’s first album in 1969. The relationship with Garbarek developed after he returned to Europe. It includes two albums that feel like prototypes for this one: a duo, Atmos (1993), and a trio with drummer Peter Erskine, Star (1991). Those two albums explored the notion of musical improvisation as free conversations, untethered by obligations like the need to keep time. That let the bassist take the lead melodically, but also set the albums adrift. This time the bassist is as free as ever, but DeJohnette is a slave to the rhythm, imparting a vital pulse from start to finish. And while the conversations are as fresh and witty as you could hope for, that’s largely because they’re both scripted and meticulously edited.
Vitous’s method was to record with one player at a time. First he did his parts along with DeJohnette. Then he wrote parts for Corea and recorded him. Then McLaughlin. Then three brass players, who add little flares of sound to three tracks. Finally, he took his tapes to Garbarek, who fleshed them out. Then he mixed. The whole process took three years. And it’s perfect, or damn close: beautifully detailed, with an almost fractal intricacy, yet spacious rather than cluttered, and still spontaneous sounding—note that for all Vitous’s control, three of the compositions are double-credited. The bass is loud and clear, central to everything. Corea and McLaughlin are used sparingly—the latter is nearly imperceptible except for one tightly wound bit on “Faith Run.” Even Garbarek lays out on two tracks, but his crystalline tone and thoughtful lines live up to Vitous’s claim that he’s “my musical brother,” and more than hold up his end of the conversation.