Lenny White was a Jazz Fusion drummer who emerged chiefly with the group Return To Forever in the 70s. he became associated with the “power drummers” of the era such as Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Aphonso Mouzon & Tony Williams. although it is generally observed that he did not quite have the chops of the aforementioned A-listers, he did, however, as a leader, produce two of the most emblematic & exemplary 70s Fusion albums of the era, Venusian Summer & Big City. the “conceptual” Fusion albums, where each track would often possess it’s own personnel, varying instrumentations & specific themes or ideation, was a strong feature of the genre in its prime. imagination & sonic costume was required, & Lenny White’s first two albums as a leader personify that precedent as some of the strongest examples of the genre.
Venusian Summer CD:
Ha! now this is a special one. this is Lenny’s first album as a leader, from 1975. the line-up is ridiculous, there are fifteen other musicians stationed (including Al De Meola, Larry Young, Larry Coryell & a slew of Lenny’s boys) & two orchestras (the Brooklyn Snynthharmonic Orchestra & Inner Mission Quire Orchestra). that does not assure you anything really, but this album is definitely a success. there are just six tracks, with one being an interlude. this album is a glory of versatility…it is all over the place. it goes from rickety, kitsch, junk funk that sounds like it is self-ridiculing, laced with heaping wads of screaming MSG synthesizers & moogs, to cult, medieval fantasy orchestral set-pieces, to up-tempo hard rock Fusion, to epic, complex time cachette super guitar battles (Meola vs Coryell). it is a hugely straying voyage. it also has a very pleasing raw finish (the guitars are especially coarse & loud), despite clearly being of high-end production. Lenny as a drummer is a real character. he simply does not have the virtuosity or stamina to compete with his apex predator peers in the power drummer spectrum that he managed to inveigle himself in. he is actually quite ropey as a drummer, with plenty of mistakes & sloppiness on display (Tony Williams also had his shabbier moments). in all honesty though, it almost becomes part of his charm & definitely character…you have these kind of half-baked, precarious & uneven beats. at the same time, he can pull out some serious tricks, has his own flavours & stylings & can – when required – play & improvise within awkward time signatures. his scuttling breakbeat driven hard grooves very much have an angle of their own. another inclination of Lenny is his wallowing in corniness. ultra cliched, shamelessly cheap trick n’ treat & almost painfully generic typicalities abound. but this actually becomes part of the strength & uniqueness of his albums, specifically when they adnate with almost contradictory brilliance from the recordings other proficiencies. plenty of Fusion & other Fusion artists suffered from the like, but Lenny was more frequent & took it further, without crashing the craft whole (something that is actually not easy to do). the brash & trashy funk numbers on the album have a childlike, almost facetious attitude. the moogs are insane! & seem to be almost double the volume of everything else. there is a real cavalier levity & adolescent boldness. you then drift into the stark sophistication of the Venusian Summer Suite, an eerie & evocative orchestral interlude that sounds like it is straight out of a fantasy or sci-fi arrangement, complete with piercing drawn-out notes, blowing wind, mysterious synths & rippling harp menageries. part two is pure funky slush with lashings of gauche. but the sheer gumption of it! & they can play! & some of its dope! so you are left with this extraordinary paradox that looks awful but tastes delicious. & the freaking synthesizer solo. it is concluded with a death/doom scene where the dude obviously gets devoured by the siren (Prelude to Rainbow Delta) . Mating Drive “quest for the ultimate satisfaction” … you son of a bitch! has an atmospheric ethereal synths intro, & then, at last its time to git’ busy. this is the driving power plunger. Lenny’s guitarist Raymond Gomez gets to fuck it up & let that raw & acidic guitar howl. simple, but great stuff.
the best is saved for last. this is the colossal & hugely daring Prince of the Sea, with Meola & Coryell going head to head (one per speaker/channel), both with separate solos & interplay. its spectacular. Lenny has composed an odd & tricky pattern in 10/11 that is the bulk of the track before it alters for its culmination. the guitar face-off is superb – with Coryell the more raw, thrawn & aggressive whilst Meola is more nimble, fluid & fast. the exchanges, comparison & interactions are just fantastic, as is the complex backbone which slowly escalates. the sense of crescendo is tremendous. a complete triumph. Meola & Coryell playing together on the same track was an example of the kind of good-willed rivalry that existed in Jazz during this period. other examples such as Cobham & Mouzon on the same album with 11th House, early albums from Stanley Clarke, & Meola roping in Lenny, Cobham, Gadd, Mouzon & Tony Williams as did John McLaughlin on Electric Guitarist (which also included Jack Dejohnette) & of course; the three guitar performance with McLaughlin, Meola & Santana. it was a much better, fairer, braver & more honest way, rather than today’s covert sidelining & network exclusions where rivals out promote each other & secretly sabotage each other’s careers.
Venusian Summer, as a whole piece, is a classic cut of Jazz Fusion. it totally captures the genre with it’s six-track, high diversity, fully inventive format. the shoddy side, & the deluge of cheap tack involved, actually becomes an endearing strength.
1975, Nemperor/Wounded Bird
Big City CD:
the second expedition from 1977. my cards are with Venusian Summer, but this excellent joint is arguably just as good (i think of them both as a double album). Big City pulls in the entire Tower of Power horn section & rolls-off a slow, slick hard funk number of distinction with chunks of cheese & commercial cooperation squeezing in between genuine craft. Sweet Dreamer is just the ultimate radio action that is better left un-played. Rapid Transit is the up-tempo Jazz Fusion funk, a nice number indeed. Dreams Come and Go once again enacts Lenny’s wizardry for being both crassly commercial &, somehow, totally credible/satisfying from a hard rock/fusion perspective. then the albums wildcard is produced. this is a giant, complex & ostentatious Enchanted Pool Suite with freakin’ Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman & Miroslav Vitous, complete with descriptive set pieces like “The Maidens discover the pool” – “…And begin to bathe” followed by “The ritual”. cue long exotic interludes, very well constructed & evocative. Hammer & Pat Gleeson play some crazy moog synthesizers that are designed to sound like insects, birds, alien life forms, elves or whatever…strings, a harp, running water …. you gotta’ love this shit! & it pushes the “sonic role play” vehicle to the max, on some ol’ Dungeons & Dragons come Fighting Fantasy tip. Hammers moog work is ballistic…vintage. the lopsy beat is in eleven, with the chorus in seven. silly, but fantastically wonderful stuff with excellent playing & soloing. the dude has done it again…. Lenny’s boys are here again as is Bennie Maupin & Herbie Hancock even. a smashing “jovially preposterous” LP & another classic of the genre. this is the last bulls-eye Lenny got before it started to slide!
1977, Nemperor/Wounded Bird
The Adventures of the Astral Pirates CD:
Lenny’s third album as a leader. comes with a comic book style inlay with a picture for every eleven scenes/tracks. everything is going in the albums favour, the concept, the time-scale (one year after Big City) but alas, this is a pretty weak number. all ambitions are excelling, but the reality is flagging. for a start, the sound is fluffed…. its soft & clean, with zero rawness – poncey as, & the drums sound like fucking Tupperware & stretched plastic with wet mutton. the super line-ups are out, Lenny scales back massively opting for just four personnel, none familiar to me outside of this LP as far as i know? they all seem like competent players, so no complaints there, though his A-list motley bonanzas were a thing of great relish & it is a shame to see them depart. Lenny was always a sap for cheese, but this album suffers appalling gloss, commerciality, limpness & ultra corniness without off-set. there is also basically no hard fusion…everything is light-weight, not possessing the same kind of balance as his previous two albums in the slightest. the closest we get is in the last two tracks, Assault & Climax, but it is hyper patchy & devoid of any real muscle, having what seems like more of a prog element that is heavy with priss. – that said, & as weak as the album certainly is overall, certain qualities have to be acknowledged. the ambition & territory alone (a ridiculous cosmic comic album of trashy 70’s Fusion from non-other than Lenny White) along with the musicianship of those gathered to give it a fair shot, make this at least a micro event worth your time. it is a great idea, splurging out of Lenny’s extremely playful imagination. there are also a few bits, especially in the first three tracks (the rest of the album i find a real drag) that stand out. the “theme tune” style lick in the first short track Pursuit is one such segment, which we could of used more of really. it is also immediately followed by an insane Bosa twist…the kind of mad shit that only really Lenny, & just a few others, would actually consider ambushing you with. hilarious & ridiculous. next comes the absurd Mandarin Warlords, complete with ultra trash synthesizers dispensing oriental canards & Lenny on the gongs. he also does ludicrous, but totally cult, high pitched & melodious jibber vocalizations. it almost takes balls to be that ridiculous. onto probably the best track of the album, the short but very sweet The Great Pyramid, which is really an ant-upped version of Big Cities “interlude” Egypt, but better. great use of synths, playing shimmering, highly cliched but cult Egyptian themes…i consider this the album´s highlight.
despite the belly-flop, you can’t really deny the cult factor here, even if most the album is a write-off. some even may find exceptional fondness for Astral Pirates tackiness. it is so bad that it is almost a cult novelty, with a kind of gleeful feather-weight tawdriness that is almost a niche in itself. Lenny White’s ideas & concept are again part of the quality, even if on Astral Pirates the sonics don’t really manage to reflect that prospect. I think, quite possibly entirely inadvertently, that others into much more wild & unpopular styles of music may be able to find something special here, even if its just from one listen, as it is just such a “ridiculous” album.
1977, Elektra/Wounded Bird
Lenny descends into complete commercial wash-out! its 1978 & the door is clearly closed! it is just pure schmaltz. all efforts to provide some serious Fusion seem to have gone to garbage disposal. the only thing this album may offer, for those that have the masochistic predilection for ultra trash of the era, where the corn is so extreme its considered a sub-delicacy, you may be in luck here cos this stuff reeks something savage!!!
1978, Elektra/Wounded Bird
Return to Forever-Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy CD:
here y’ go! in Lenny White’s best foray outside his own excursions as a leader, it’s Chick Corea’s 70s Fusion “supergroup” with their first full pelt – & by far best – outing: 1973’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (some could argue that Stanley Clarke’s preceding Children of Forever from 72 that included both Lenny & Corea was their first prototypical release). ensconcing Bill Connors (a brief but influential & excellent electric guitarist mainly associated with the Fusion circuit) on guitar (he would later be replaced by Al Di Meola for the duration of the band’s career), RTF on this album play vigorous & dynamic Fusion with full engagement. Lenny offers his finest & most muscular “power drumming” of his career on the prevailingly upbeat tracks. everybody seems out to “prove themselves” without shame or under indulgence, which by on large makes for excellent & highly energetic stimuli. what is also great, & particularly at odds with most of Corea’s work, is that the album is damn raw! although ample, the production is bordering on lo-fi. this rough & unkempt finish makes the contents all the more sapid. Corea also has some kind of electric organ or harpsichord with one of the most melodramatic, semi harsh & brilliant phonetics i have heard exiting the instrument. on the wilder & faster tracks where it is allowed to really let-rip, it elevates the whole thespian space vibe stratospherically in the degree of the best, most ridiculous 70’s mad moog manner. Clarke, who seems to have tuned his bass incorrectly for the session?, & is not yet going by the name of ‘Stanley’ (just Stan here) also plays some mean “fuzz bass” via pedal modulation on the excellent After the Cosmic Rain, again luxuriating in the raw, expansive & “astro” themed dalliance. along with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy & best of all The Game Maker you can be assured of high-energy, busy & intense Fusion – as it should be. for me personally, none of the succeeding RTF albums came anywhere close to this one (i actually cannot get on with any of them).
Lenny also appears on two more classic Fusion albums of the era – Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love & Al De Meolas – Land of the Midnight Sun which are both worth your time.