Scanning the names of musicians included on Scott Petito’s Rainbow Gravity, jazz-fusion listeners might understandably think they’ve died and gone to heaven: the drum chair alone’s occupied by no less than Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Simon Phillips, and Omar Hakim. Consequently, calling Petito’s second outing as a leader indispensable for longtime lovers of Weather Report, the Pat Metheny Group, and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters isn’t overstating it. The list of projects with which Petito’s been involved is approaching a thousand, and one imagines the total amount of those appearing on Rainbow Gravity would have to be in the tens.
Petito, who studied composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music in Boston, has played with everyone from James Taylor and Pete Seeger to Chick Corea and John Scofield, literally hundreds of leading musicians in jazz and popular music. On this ten-track collection, his electric and piccolo bass playing’s augmented by the contributions of saxophonist Bob Mintzer, trumpeter Chris Pasin, guitarist David Spinozza, keyboardists Rachel Z, David Sancious, and Warren Bernhardt, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, and percussionist Bashiri Johnson, in addition to the aforesaid drummers. Though the material Petito’s crafted for his musicians harks back to the classic ‘70s period when Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report built on the foundation Miles established with Bitches Brew, Rainbow Gravity never feels like some stale retrograde exercise or nostalgia trip. Tackled with joy and enthusiasm by all involved, the material feels vibrant and alive.
“Sly-Fi” bolts from the gate like some glorious Headhunters-Weather Report fusion, with Hakim and Petito laying down a fabulous jazz-funk groove and Mintzer and Spinozza ably handling the front line. Though fine solos from the saxophonist, guitarist, and Sancious appear (typically brief), it’s the bottom end you’ll probably gravitate towards when the rhythm section digs into the material so lustily. And with Johnson adding colour throughout, you’d be forgiven for hearing echoes of Black Market in the playing, especially when a classic Zawinul keyboard figure surfaces at the five-minute mark. “Masika,” on the other hand, calls to mind Metheny’s Still Life (Talking) and Letter From Home days in its sitar-like guitar and synthesizer textures, while the exuberant title cut exudes the kind of luscious uplift so characteristic of the guitarist’s group releases.
A South American feel emerges in “The Sequence of Events,” its acoustic radiance sweetened by the leader’s piccolo bass playing, elegant pianisms by Rachel Z, and Erskine’s ever-tasteful swing. Perhaps the recording’s strongest composition, “Balsamic Reduction” alternates between breezy verses and aggressive choruses, its effect intensified by the presence of Mainieri’s sparkle and Phillips’s drumming. The latter in particular shows why he’s long been admired for the way he enhances the material with inventive fills and accents without ever overplaying. For Phillips, it’s always about supporting the song and the other musicians.
“Helicon” is distinguished by memorable unison lines voiced by the leader and a mute-wielding Pasin, plus a late-inning surprise comes by way of an inspired treatment of Carla Bley’s ballad “Lawns,” Petito voicing beautifully lines earlier played by Steve Swallow on her 1987 Sextet release and Mainieri leaving a strong mark on the material, too. There’re also two duets featuring Petito and DeJohnette, but while “Dark Pools” and “Cymbal Bells” are credible additions (the former even including cello playing by the bassist), they don’t register as powerfully as the fuller ensemble pieces. Bassheads will certainly find Rainbow Gravity satisfying, but Petito, as prominent as his playing is, is no grandstander (though his playing on “The Sanguine Penguin” resembles Jaco’s, Petito’s walking lines are the very model of restraint). The ten pieces, nine originals by the leader plus the Bley cover, are first and foremost ensemble performances, though they also include many opportunities for individual players to shine.