I first came across this talented guitarist back in 1991 when he was part of David Lee Roth’s band. The performance by Jason Becker on A Little Ain’t Enough was remarkable enough for me to seek out his other work. He had worked with another guitar wizard…a certain Marty Friedman in a “rock guitar duo” known as Cacophony. Shortly after getting the DLR job he was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a debilitating and fatal condition with a life expectancy of maybe five years. He did lose the ability to play guitar, walk, talk, and breathe on his own, but he never lost his will to live or his desire to create music. Jason has not only defied medical science he has, with the aid of a system developed by his father, learnt to use eye movements to spell words as well as notes and chords for his compositions. It is a measure of his skill, resilience and popularity that saw a plethora of prominent musicians band together to produce two albums of their interpretations of Jason’s music. Both volumes of Warmth In The Wilderness were a tribute to him as well as a fund raising effort to help Jason get the support he needs to survive…and they are worth a listen as long as you forgive some of the overblown versions of some great solo and DLR tracks.
Now, nearly thirty years since that diagnosis, Jason has released an album of (mostly) his latest compositions and the stars have come out to play his music; to bring a vision of this genius trapped in an uncooperative body to life and to our turntables…other playing media available!
Called Triumphant Hearts, the album’s 14 tracks show Jason’s talent for melody and his knowledge of classical and orchestral arrangement. As Jason cannot play himself (apart from a couple of sequences where he has inserted some old recordings of his from the 80s), the guitar parts are performed by some of the biggest guitar names in the business. The compositions, including a Dylan cover, also move away from the shred at any cost of some of his solo work and embrace a more structured, classical and melodic approach.
The title track opens the album with sweeping symphonic sounds and, after an entrancing violin piece from Glauco Bertagnin, the piano and orchestra lead us quite aptly to, Marty Friedman on guitar, albeit for a short phrase or two. He takes the base melody and uses string bends to feed the power into it. OK, not what was expected but entrancing nonetheless. Hold On To Love is a more traditional melodic rock ballad. Codany Holiday takes the deep lyrics and puts the right emphasis on Jason’s heartfelt message. The choral backing adds atmosphere too, before we get an extended Floydish ooh and ahh vocal interlude. The guitar solo is reminiscent of Gilmore to keep the overall sound in context. Fantasy Weaver is next and the music actually reflects the title as the orchestra weaves magic from a simple melody and Jake Shimabukuro adds some neat acoustic flourishes over a (stringed) harp…it sounds like an extract from a fantasy film soundtrack and, whilst it is pleasant enough, it will inevitably disappoint the guitar fans that buy the album. Once Upon A Melody features Jason on guitar from tapes made in his youth and shows the depth and tonality he can bring to a slow and occasional atypical shred masterpiece over more sweeping orchestral tropes. We Are One is a vocal track that injects some serious funk into the mix…even with, or because of, the trumpet leading it all and Steve Knight does a sterling job of fitting it all in, while the wah drenched guitar lights it all up with Hendrix like phrasing shining through. Magic Woman mixes it up again with Chris Broderick on acoustic while the indomitable Uli Jon Roth plays the whammy bar like it is about to snap off…great stuff. Next up is that Bob Dylan cover…now, I have often said that Dylan’s songs are improved immeasurably by being done by someone else. This cover is no exception, as in Jason’s hands, it becomes a Kansas like acoustic prog master class. Gary Rosenberg sings the lyrics with just enough Dylanesque inflections but gives it a life the original didn’t have…the acoustic soloing in the middle also lifts it way past the dour original. River Of Longing…the first of two versions…is more than replete with guitar magic and for a slow instrumental it has a delicacy that many similar songs could and should follow. Valley of Fire is an exceptionally clever track, and worth a listen for the gunshot and horse whinny alone. Seriously, it is great fun identifying all thirteen guitar parts as well as the whole being an enjoyable western flavoured gallop. (The thirteen are…Greg Howe, Neal Schon, Gus G, Steve Vai, Michael Lee Firkins, Paul Gilbert, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Hunter, Ben Woods, Jeff Loomis, Mattias IA Eklundh, Richie Kotzen, and Marty Friedman. The second version of River Of Longing is perhaps an unnecessary track…that’s not to say that Trevor Rabin, whose best work is still his solo album Wolf in my opinion, doesn’t play extremely well…it’s just that the melody is, of course the same, and although he injects some superb, quality acoustic into his version, one or the other would have sufficed. There are also a couple of ‘bonus tracks’, Taking Me Back and Tell Me No Lies sound like older Becker demos; the former most certainly from the DLR days. There is also a fifty-five second track that seems to be a blending of children’s voices (most likely Becker’s) called You Do It…although why, I do not know.
All in all then, what you get here are the flashes of genius that Jason has always displayed with an added demonstration of his all-around musical knowledge and skill in the melange of textured guitar and orchestration that washes through this exceptional album. No, it won’t be on repeat but each and every track…well, except You Do It, will be welcome when they come around on shuffle. Guitar geeks…guilty your honour…will also find much to enjoy. All of that before you add in the adversity in which this album was conceived and composed make for a remarkable and fascinating album.
EIGHTdoodle paws out of TEN …
Track Listing and featured artists:
- Triumphant Heart (ft. Marty Friedman, Gluaco Bertagnin, Hiyori Okuda)
- Hold On To Love (ft. Codany Holiday)
- Fantasy Weaver (ft. Jake Shimabukuro)
- Once Upon A Melody
- We Are One (ft. Steve Knight)
- Magic Woman (ft. Uli Jon Roth, Chris Broderick)
- Blowin’ In The Wind
- River of Longing (ft. Joe Satiriani, Aleks Sever, Guthrie Govan, Steve Morse)
- Valley of Fire (ft. The Magnificent 13)
- River of Longing (ft. Trevor Rabin)
- Taking Me Back
- Tell Me No Lies
Gregg Bisonette: drums
Matt Bissonette: bass
Dan Alvarez: keyboards
Daniele Gottardo: guitar
Andrew Jay: guitar