The Big Blast!

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Perhaps people weren't complaining about the lack of creativity in instrumental music in 1987 the same as they do these days, but both then and now, a badly needed spark of originality comes from a couple of guys who -- believe it or not -- began playing together as the backing band for Barry Manilow. In the late '80s, fresh off their latest Manilow tour, keyboardist Ron Pedley and guitarist Jon Pondel joined their mates, drummer Bud Harner (now an exec with Verve) and bassist Marc Levine, to form Uncle Festive -- a band that blended melodic pop elements with improvisations and fusion ideas, all geared off the beaten path. It's been way too long, but Pedley and Pondel's re-emergence as Kombo is a welcome magic well in the midst of the same old, same old. It's fitting that they end the set with a swinging cover of Booker T's "Green Onions" (with Pedley's B-3 racing over a shuffling groove slower than the original), because the MG's are no doubt the inspiration for this buoyant mix of blues, jazz fusion and retro-soul elements. On tunes like the opener "Talk the Talk," Pedley jams on the Hammond B-3 over a throbbing funk beat as Pondel's electric crackles harmony behind him. The groove foundation is provided by Matt Bissonette (bass) and his brother Gregg (drums). While Pedley and Pondel -- whose tunes convey a pop sensibility, mindful of certain commercial considerations despite the adventure -- have the most fun on the jams (check out way mod hip-hop intensity of "Sassy"), there are a few cool-down moments where Pedley's B-3 or Fender Rhodes simmers rather than jams. Maybe it's ironic that you have to go almost thirty years retro to find a truly original contemporary jazz sound in 1999, but this Kombo brings that classic sound up to date with flair. One of the best recordings of the year.

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