New album, new Protocol: For the fifth release from his long-running project, journeyman drummer Simon Phillips, who’s fueled the music of everyone from jazz pianist Hiromi to classic rockers the Who, has revamped the lineup. This time, he and longtime bass-guitar collaborator Ernest Tibbs are joined by keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz (Dianne Reeves, Alex Acuña) and two firebrand musicians Tibbs recruited, guitarist Alex Sill and saxophonist Jacob Scesney. The result: more high-flying fusion melodies and shredding, with sax textures now injected into the mix and the rhythm section again driving home pulverizing rock and funk grooves.
“Jagannath” launches the album with a blast of high energy as careening riffs alternate with patches of sticky comping, later opening up for Ruiz’s electric-piano solo, some blistering back-and-forth trading between Sill and Scesney, and an extended drum feature. But there are other flavors here too. “Undeviginti,” frontloaded with clavinet-like keys and featuring metallic guitar and soprano sax, thrives on a 19/16 meter, while “Isosceles” is built on Tibbs’ deep-grind popping and slapping and Sill’s bendy six-string explorations, and the laidback “Nyanga” brings in some world-music colors and rhythms.
Ruiz’s Fender Rhodes takes center stage on the twisting “When the Cat’s Away,” the moody “Dark Star” benefits from atmospheric washes of keys and guitar chords, and closer “The Long Road Home” thrives on flickering guitars, soprano, a too-brief Tibbs solo, and acoustic piano. Yes, Phillips’ music occasionally hints at the likes of Pat Metheny and old-school fusion stalwarts like Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But he’s up to his own thing, an engaging concoction that offers plenty of pleasures and surprising twists.