THIS IS A good, solid, groove-oriented outing. It's also a big disappointment coming from a jazz-funk supergroup you would think was capable of raging bonfires. Third Rail's leader is guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, whose chunky, convoluted funk generally has enough abrasive power to make him the logical heir to Sonny Sharrock, if not Jimi Hendrix. Here he claims composer's credit for noodling through nine tunes' worth of durable riffs that mostly belong in the public domain, while displaying passion via rasping vocals that have no range. When Ulmer does get busy, the funk he spools meanders in a folkish blues vein (think Brownie McGhee) or stays on a grits-friendly, organ-jazz vibe.
Former P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and bassist/co-producer Bill Laswell both know these bumpity moves and grooves by heart, but have done their own space-age funk thang infinitely better on compilations for the Axiom label. And the distinctive voice of keyboardist/vocalist Amina Claudine Myers is wasted, her unique singing style relegated to a bit part on one song. The only bandmember on top of his game is stalwart drummer Ziggy Modeliste, who plies gumbo-inflected march rhythms with an irresistible panache that's on a par with his best work with the Meters, snapping snare accents and riding the cymbals in a manner that both tugs at and pushes the pulse. There are a couple of tunes that probe for magic within the relaxed interplay of extended jams, notably "Grounded," the slightly modal spaciness of "In the Name Of," and a "Blues March" expertly marshalled by Modeliste. This quintet can't make a bad album; the surprise is that they have settled for one just a notch above ordinary. (Britt Robson)
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