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Catalyst - The Complete Recordings, Vols. 1 & 2

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Artist: Catalyst

Album: The Complete Recordings, Vols. 1 & 2

Label: Porter

Review date: Aug. 18, 2010

Catalyst emerged from the wildly diverse music that we’ve given the unfortunate label “fusion.” The band existed roughly from 1970 through 1976, and Porter Records has collected all four of its albums on these two discs, following up a similar venture from 32 Jazz in 1999 that’s now out of print (and did not present the albums in chronological order anyway). Listening to the albums in order of release reveals compositional and timbral advances even while the group maintained its roots in funk and soul-drenched groove.

For its 1972 debut album, Catalyst featured keyboardist Eddie Green, drummer Sherman Ferguson, bassist Al Johnson (later to be replaced by Tyrone Brown) and saxophonist Odean Pope. On “East,” we’re dropped unceremoniously, but refreshingly, straight into the mix, as Green’s electric piano provides lush and meterless atmospherics in support of Pope. When a groove finally does emerge out of Ferguson’s crystalline percussion, it carries the sparkling textures along without dominating them, much like early Weather Report. Then, without warning, “Catalyst is Coming” plunges into territory where swing alternates with rock in the service of complex free-bop melodies. In this, the band had as much in common with its art-rock counterparts as with more well-known fusion aggregates.

By the time of 1974’s Unity, some distortion enters the picture, courtesy of Brown’s take on what Hugh Hopper had done with Soft Machine. Again though, the band’s sound changes radically throughout the album, sometimes incorporating strings, as on the wistful “Athene.” These timbral developments pervade the fourth and final album, After a Tear and a Smile, especially on the two-part “The Demon,” where Pope’s slightly reverb’d tenor glides over the tight crisp drums and synth sweeps of prog, or maybe Romantic Warrior-era Return to Forever.

The playing is excellent throughout, no matter what musical types are invoked. Odean Pope fans owe Porter a debt of gratitude for reissuing and issuing so much of his material, and these two compilations shed light on yet another facet of his long and distinguished career. More than that, they document a band whose contributions have yet to be acknowledged, and unlike the 32 Jazz set, this also includes “Jabali” demos. I hear no real difference in remastering from the out-of-print reissue, but the tone is clear, bright and deep when needed — and it all sounds a lot better than the crackly vinyl I wore out years ago.

By Marc Medwin

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