Bassist Percy Jones' Overdue Ovation profile - April issue of JazzTimes
In the mid-1970s, a young musician playing fretless electric bass started a groundbreaking career in jazz/fusion as a session musician, solo recording artist, and member of one of the subgenre's highly-regarded groups. And it wasn't Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), the meteoric bassist of solo, Joni Mitchell, and Weather Report fame.
Percy Jones first recorded with guitarist John Goodsall, keyboardist Robin Lumley, and drummer Phil Collins (of progressive rock act Genesis) in 1975 as Brand X, the band Jones would be associated with through 2020. The results were unearthed on its 1976 debut release, #Unorthodox Behaviour#. Collins had also recently become lead vocalist for Genesis when original singer Peter Gabriel departed, but sought an outlet for his more complex instrumental talents. And in the Wales-born Jones -- with his unique three-finger-and-thumb technique, impeccable intonation, and use of harmonics and effects -- he found a one-of-a-kind rhythm section partner.
"Myself, Goodsall and Lumley were initially signed to Island Records," the 74-year-old Jones says by phone from his home in New York City. "We did a record for them with a vocalist and different drummer that I'd compare a bit to the Average White Band. But we canned it, because we were listening to what Miles Davis and Weather Report were doing and wanted to take a shot at an instrumental album. We knew we'd need a different drummer than John Dillon, who was such a groove-oriented player. Island's A&R guy, Danny Wilding, suggested Phil. Then Island gave us the boot, but we were fortunate to have #Unorthodox Behaviour# released on [UK imprint] Charisma, probably because that was Genesis' label at the time."
For its 1977 album, #Moroccan Roll#, Brand X added percussionist Morris Pert, and its subsequent live album #Livestock# alternately featured Collins and a young drummer named Kenwood Dennard, who would go on to work with Pastorius and become head of the percussion department at the Berklee College of Music. By the 1978 disc #Masques#, Collins was so busy with Genesis that he was replaced by Chuck Burgi (now with pop star Billy Joel). Each album included an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, funk, classical, and Middle Eastern styles.
But by 1979, Brand X was literally splitting in two, and apart. The group had thus far appealed largely to musicians, establishing a sizable following with its instrumental format. Yet the band's label and management wanted to spur record sales via vocals. On the album #Product#, Goodsall was the only constant in two separate lineups on its nine tracks, one with Collins (on vocals, drums, and percussion), Lumley, and fretless bassist John Giblin; the other instrumental with Jones, Pert, keyboardist Peter Robinson, and drummer Mike Clark, formerly of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. The exception was "Wal To Wal," a fascinating fretless bass duet between Jones and Giblin, yet Collins-sung tracks like "Don't Make Waves" and "Soho" sounded as much like Genesis as Brand X. Those same recording sessions would also yield the largely-instrumental release #Do They Hurt?# in 1980. When the 1982 effort #Is There Anything About?# was released, Brand X had already started what would be a decade-plus hiatus.
"We were under pressure to pander and achieve a bigger audience," Jones says, "and I rebelled against the idea. So there was a split in our direction, and the only solution was to have two lineups. Our management even figured out how to get two records for the price of one regarding recording costs by having us record in shifts. The other lineup recorded during the day, then we'd go in from around 8 p.m. until 4 a.m."
The self-taught Jones' approach to fretless bass, with haunting harmonics, customized flangers and filters, and unique string stretches, double-stops, and occasional distortion, is every bit as original as that of Pastorius while being completely disparate. Influenced by Alphonso Johnson, Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Miroslav Vitous, and Scott LaFaro, Jones even played some acoustic upright on Brian Eno recordings and the first Brand X album before concentrating exclusively on fretless four-and-five-stringed electric instruments by Fender, Wal, and Ibanez. In so doing, he influenced bassists from late fretless master Mick Karn (who played with Japan, Polytown, and David Sylvian) to fretted icon Anthony Jackson (Buddy Rich, Al Di Meola, Hiromi). Jones has consistently tried, and succeeded, in making his instrument sound unusual and unlike that of any other player. And as a composer, he proved invaluable to Brand X. The group wrote both collectively and solo, and examples of his own introspective, often burning compositions include "Malaga Virgen" (from both #Moroccan Roll# and #Livestock#), "The Ghost of Mayfield Lodge" (#Masques#), "Dance of the Illegal Aliens" (#Product#), and "D.M.Z." (#Do They Hurt?#).
Jones also has a handful of solo releases under both his name and the group moniker Tunnels; session recording credits with vocalists like Sylvian and Suzanne Vega, and a completely-improvised 2021 instrumental double-CD called #PAKT# with guitarists Alex Skolnick and Tim Motzer and another former Brand X drummer, Kenny Grohowski. As if the improvised setting alone didn't require enough bravery, the quartet recorded in August of 2020 -- right in the teeth of the COVID-19 lockdown -- at the ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, masked and socially distanced with no audience and only minimal recording personnel.
"I'd worked with Kenny in Brand X, but hadn't even met Alex or Tim before then, let alone played with them," says Jones. "But as we sound-checked for about a half-hour, things started to take shape and I got confident about it. We then improvised for a couple hours, and it's all there on the recording."
The veteran bassist's other 21st Century projects include MJ12, an improvisational collaboration with drummer Stephen Moses that released a self-titled 2016 CD, and Box of Noise, a recent live trio with Grohowski and Alex Machacek, the Austrian guitarist who subbed for Goodsall (1953-2021) last year after he'd contracted pneumonia and missed a handful of shows by Brand X. By then, Ric Fierabracci had replaced Jones.
"John had some underlying health problems," Jones says, "but he died while also having complications from COVID-19. I tracked him down at a Mayo Clinic near where he lived in Minnesota, but couldn't get any further information. So I called his ex-wife in Los Angeles, the mother of his daughter, and she had no idea of his condition. She was able to get more information from them, and contact John's sister in Canada and his first wife in England. John died shortly thereafter and was cremated, and we were able to have a ceremony in California and spread his ashes from a boat on the Pacific Ocean."
Goodsall, Jones and Brand X will forever be intertwined. The two founders reformed their famed instrumental brand for the albums #Xcommunication# (1992) and their final studio release, #Manifest Destiny# (1997), both largely in a trio format with Tunnels drummer Frank Katz. They then went primarily, and separately, back into studio work until reuniting in 2016, after which they released only the occasional live Brand X recording with drummers Dennard or Grohowski, keyboardist Chris Clark, and percussionist Scott Weinberger.
"I started getting cold feet by 2019," Jones says. "I wanted to play new stuff, and it seemed we got stuck playing mostly material from the first three records. I had a couple new tunes, and remember someone from management saying of one of them, 'It doesn't have a melody I can hang my hat on.' It wasn't 'Jingle Bells,' mind you, but it did have a melody. So I felt like we were becoming almost a cover band of ourselves. There were also problems with management regarding accounting. But I didn't leave on principle, because I still feel it was my band, along with Goodsall's. I think we created a good legacy."
For the last word regarding Jones' own legacy, a quote by a fellow musician is appropriate. Especially one able to witness the bassist's work alongside him on stage with Brand X. Clark played with Jones until his departure, and with Goodsall until his death, between 2016 and 2021.
"I don't think Percy completely gets his due," the keyboardist says by phone from his home in New York City. "He's first on a very short list of worthy fretless bass players who haven't been disciples of Jaco. I think any bassist who plays a sliding harmonic phrase should pay a royalty to Percy. He may not have invented that, but he perfected it."
Brand X: #Unorthodox Behaviour#
Brand X: #Livestock#
Brand X: #Masques#
Brand X: #Manifest Destiny#
(Purple Pyramid, 1997)
Tunnels: #Tunnels With Percy Jones#
Percy Jones/Alex Skolnick/Kenny Grohowski/Tim Motzer: #PAKT#
ProgJect concert review - May issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper
Tribute acts are the latest acid for the masses, especially in South Florida. Most of the artists being paid tribute to have either died or are still touring past age 50 -- meaning they're often popular enough to charge exorbitant fees for concert tickets to compensate for their lost recording royalties in the musical streaming era.
So consumers who either can't, or decide they can't afford to, see artists like Tom Petty, Prince, The Who, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or the Eagles settle for tribute acts to them, tickets for which are comparatively only a fraction of the cost. That accessibility is usually a trade-off involving a lack of musical quality, but in a market like ours, listeners seem willing to give inequality a pass as long as they're hearing their favorite songs.
Yet ProgJect (www.project.com), which played two separate three-quarter-full shows at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on April 29, offers something different -- a tribute to the majority of worthy acts from the entire subgenre of progressive rock. Drummer Jonathan Mover (Marillion, Joe Satriani, Aretha Franklin, The Tubes) came up with the concept after subbing on tour with Canadian Genesis tribute act The Musical Box in 2019.
ProgJect also features vocalist Michael Sadler, guitarist/vocalist Mike Keneally, keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, and bassist/guitarist/vocalist Matt Dorsey. The quintet stopped at the Funky Biscuit during its long-awaited first tour, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic since the band's inception.
"I call us an homage band," the Massachusetts-born Mover said from his home in Los Angeles before the start of the tour. "Our foundation is the prog giants like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. After that are branches like Gentle Giant, Rush, Jethro Tull, U.K., and Peter Gabriel. And others, of course."
"Others" came early in the 90-minute opening show in the form of "Up From the Deep" by The Tubes, the underrated San Francisco band that's blended comedy and theatrics into its own progression, notably in the 1970s and 1980s. The piece was appropriately highlighted by Mover as he played a set of tubular bells set up behind his expansive, customized Pearl drum kit.
A "Siberian Khatru/The Gates of Delirium" Yes medley followed, featuring three-part vocal harmonies by Sadler, Keneally and Dorsey; Okumoto's dramatic stretched-armed attack on separate keyboards, Keneally's late high-note histrionics, and Mover's use of a gong. Still, the vocals remained a bit buried in the mix early on.
That was rectified by the middle of the subsequent King Crimson medley of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One/One More Red Nightmare/Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two." Keneally alternated between finger-picking and using a standard plectrum to navigate Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp's unique mixture of classical and metallic elements during what became an early gem. As was the Genesis medley of "Firth of Fifth/Cinema Show," with Okumoto's emotive piano intro, plus Sadler's use of a guitar-and-bass double-neck instrument, combined with bass foot pedals as he and Keneally performed Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett's six-stringed harmonies.
The 60-year-old Keneally was, as always, a whirlwind throughout the show. The best-known quantity within ProgJect, the Long Island, NY native landed the challenging role of guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist in Frank Zappa's final 1988 touring ensemble while he was only in his 20s. He's since wowed audiences as a singing multi-instrumentalist within the bands of guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and created his own singular form of progressive rock with his Beer for Dolphins trio and self-titled quartets, quintets and sextets over the past 30 years.
Sadler, who had plenty of down time over the course of the evening's long instrumental passages, has a primary prog association with Canadian rock band Saga, which first formed in the late '70s. Okumoto's prog band is 30-year-old Los Angeles-based act Spock's Beard, and fellow veterans Mover and Dorsey (Sound of Contact, In Continuum, Beth Hart) have been effective rhythm section members for artists both prog and pop.
"When Saga did its 20-year anniversary tour," Sadler said, "our support act was John Wetton. Just John, singing and playing acoustic guitar. And he played a beautiful song that we'd like to do for you now."
Wetton (1949-2017) was best-known as the lead-singing '70s bassist for King Crimson, yet ProgJect chose the ballad "Rendezvous 6:02," by his influential band U.K., which also featured keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and drummer Terry Bozzio. Keneally and Dorsey left the stage to only Sadler, Okumoto and Mover, who employed percussion instruments including an Earth chime in the piece's stripped-down arrangement. Yet the singer, who was otherwise solid to remarkable all night, took liberties with Wetton's soaring vocal melody that tended to undercut its beauty.
The original U.K. lineup featured Wetton and Jobson with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and drummer Bill Bruford -- whose own subsequent, influential self-titled quartet was rounded out by Holdsworth, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin in the late '70s. A Bruford medley including "Hell's Bells," "The Abingdon Chasp" and "The Sahara of Snow" showcased Keneally and Mover, who was heavily influenced by the iconic drummer, whose career included banner work with Yes through the early '70s and a 25-year stint with King Crimson thereafter.
All five ProgJect members are filling a closet's worth of big shoes, but perhaps none more than Keneally and Mover. The guitarist not only has to recreate the intricate parts, but also the disparate tones, of Fripp, Hackett, Holdsworth, Steve Howe, Greg Lake, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, and Martin Barre. And rock drumming doesn't get more complex than in prog, where Mover navigates the patterns of Bozzio, Bruford, Alan White, Phil Collins, Carl Palmer, Neil Peart, Clive Bunker, and Barriemore Barlowe.
Keneally is also an equally-impressive keyboardist whose second childhood instrument became guitar a few years later, so he was as influenced as Okumoto by Keith Emerson's work within the '70s trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. That group's medley included frenetic readings of everything from "Karn Evil 9" to its cover of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown," complete with enough cowbell accents by Mover to please Christopher Walken. It also included a comically-long guitar strap malfunction for Keneally -- who soloed on with a smile, and as only he can, while Salder held his guitar in place and a roadie furiously tried to get the strap back on for more than a minute before finally succeeding.
The guitarist's lone lead vocal was during "Wish You Were Here," the opening Pink Floyd track in a late highlight collage that included "Money" and "Have a Cigar." King Crimson's epic "21st Century Schizoid Man" would then close the show, with Okumoto strapping on a keytar hybrid instrument late and trading phrases with Keneally, with the two firing notes at each other like fighter pilots.
An encore Genesis medley of "Dance On a Volcano/Los Endos/Squonk" left the crowd begging for more. Sadler and Keneally sang the harmonies of Peter Gabriel and Collins; Okumoto recreated the textures of Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, Dorsey again utilized his double-neck and bass pedals, and Mover showcased the influence of the band that jump-started him into creating this unique homage.
Still, the crowd could only beg for more because a late show necessitated the quintet's hasty early exit. The first show would feature nothing by Jethro Tull or Rush, two of prog's titans, as the band audibly whittled down its usual set list on stage because of time constraints. Perhaps future ProgJect tours through South Florida will feature multiple nights at the Funky Biscuit rather than multiple shows on one evening, allowing this impressive band to also dip toes into Mover's promised forthcoming catalogs of Zappa, Brand X, and the Dixie Dregs.
Ironically, the last words would go to Keneally before the first show even began: "It's a shame you can't see our entire two-and-a-half-hour experience."