Album review: Alessandro Bertoni – Keystone
It’s happened again. I played this album through a couple of times. The first time, I put my brain in neutral gear and let the total effect of the music tell me what it was about. The second time was a more critical listening to identify the interplay and the nuances of the various instruments. The seven or eight subsequent complete play-throughs, however, have been motivated by sheer greed. I can’t get enough of this album. It keeps getting better.
Who should listen to Keystone outside the community of jazz-rock fusionists? Bertoni’s eclectic compositions should appeal to followers of avant-garde and symphonically inspired prog metal, symphonic prog rock and Rock Progressivo Italiano.
Bertoni is a king of the keyboards. The music he writes is understandably keyboard-based. Metal fans are usually more interested in supremely good guitar work, which abounds on this album. If you like the jazzy hard/fusion rock of guitarists such as Craig Chaquico, Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or the late Kevin Peek, you’ll be in for treat with Bertoni and his band.
Bertoni doesn’t shove himself or his keyboards to the fore. He showcases the expertise of the other musicians extensively. He has said: “I want the song writing to be at the centre first and foremost.” He added, justifiably: “Of course the musicians enhanced my song writing with brilliant performances.”
He was born in Italy, where he studied classical piano, then expanded his interests to jazz and modern rock. Since moving to Los Angeles he has studied further at the Musicians Institute. With Keystone, he has brought together a team that provides a musical definition of synergy.
Since his teen years he had wanted to collaborate with the three guys who are now in Keystone. They’re all highly respected in jazz-rock and fusion. Brett Garsed, guitar, was with Uncle Moe’s Space Ranch and Planet X. Ric Fierabracci has played bass for Chick Corea, Billy Cobham and Dave Weckl. Drummer Virgil Donati’s credentials include the names of Planet X, Allan Holdsworth and Steve Vai.
All the compositions are by Bertoni. With his background, he gained a good head start in the entrancing combination of prog and jazz. The unique and distinctive style of Rock Progressivo Italiano – the Italian form of symphonic prog – has included strong jazz influences since it began in the 1970s. Have I mentioned than I’m 140 years old? It was about 40 years ago that Italian prog enslaved me. Modern musicians like Bertoni are more than worthy flag-bearers for Italy.
Keystone isn’t an Italian band. It’s half American. The album production, which is flawless, is also American. The producer is Derek Sherinian, formerly of Dream Theater. The rich, crystal-clear sound characteristic of DT’s studio albums is matched by the production values of Keystone.
The album is a set of dialogues among the instruments. The first three tracks set the tone for the rest of the album and, I hope, future Bertoni albums. These tracks constitute three movements of a suite, Megas Alexandros. Mozart and Beethoven might never have imagined anything like jazz-rock, but they would instantly recognize the structure and scoring Bertoni has used.
The first movement is the allegro opening, fast-paced and energetic. In it, Garsed’s eloquent guitar woos the shy keyboards, which respond with restraint and understatement. That alone is unusual for a band and album put together by a keyboard man. The guitar is urged along by Fierabracci’s bass lines played high on the fret board.
In the second movement the guitar and keyboards are relaxed and contemplative in each other’s company. This is the adante movement. The guitar solo pieces are stratospheric – they shimmer down from above the sky.
Finally, the suite releases all the instruments in a focoso celebration, full of fire and passion. If Bertoni has ever been planning a signature composition for live performances, Megas Alexandros is it, completely.
The rest of the album lives up to the stunning quality of the opening. Bertoni is generous with his distribution of instrumental tasks. The fifth track, for example, gives free reign to Donati’s superior drumming skills.
This is definitely going to be one of my top albums of the year.