Review: Dojo - Studiojo
Dojo is a Kansas-based fusion trio featuring guitarist Brian Baggett, bassist Chris Handley, and drummer Luke Stone. Much of their music has the shimmery chord-plus-Holdsworthian shred approach that many other "local" fusion bands tend to have. I've heard several of these types of bands over the years, but as much as I love that style of music, it's often hard to tell one of these bands from another. Dojo, however, is possibly the most distinctive band of this ilk I've yet heard. What sets them apart is their overall melodic sense - Dojo's writing has a tunefulness that most other bands in the genre either don't have, or perhaps shy away from. On their latest album Studiojo, every track is dripping with great melodies. There are plenty of high-tech chops on display here as well, no question, but the melodicism is what will grab you first.
Most of the Studiojo tracks are built around Baggett's clean chordal guitar parts, with heavier riffs coming in at times to beef things up. Overall, the writing (which is solely credited to Baggett) has a Steve Morse-meets-Bill Connors sort of vibe. Baggett's high-gain guitar tones are well defined without being too fuzzy, and his clean tones are just gorgeous. Possessing awesome picking and legato chops, Baggett has what I would call a rock-fusion style. The title track provides a good display of what he can really do from a technical standpoint. The solo on this tune starts with a highly legato approach, before shifting gears into some insane picking. I love the odd time grooves in this piece also, and the great drum solo Stone provides at the end. Another standout track is "Muscle Shirt," which opens with a cool intro reminiscent of Joe Satriani's "Midnight" before settling into an smooth groove. Handley and Baggett both take nice solos on this one. The band takes things out on the aptly titled "Demented," but even here among the trippy mood swings, cool melodies are the driving force. Another favorite of mine is "Fusion Blue" - great staccato chords, a melody that sticks on your head, and long solos from everyone.
"Something She Said" is the lone ballad, and it's yet another example of great writing. The contour and rhythmic structure of the melodies here were obviously well thought-out, resulting in one of the most memorable tunes on the album. The album closes with a great piece called "The Ball," which is augmented nicely by Ken Lovern on keys. There's a definite Eric Johnson influence on this song, but it reminded me of Carl Verheyen's work as well.
As someone who listens to a lot of jazz rock fusion music, it's rare that I hear many melodies on a given album that stick with me the way, for example, a great TV or movie theme does. It seems as though harmony and improvisation are higher priorities for most fusion artists. And that's ok - cool chords, great solos, heavy grooves; I expect and enjoy these traits from this style of music. What I don't expect is what I hear throughout Studiojo - a tangible focus on melody. This album clearly shows that Dojo's writing chops are just as impressive as their playing. Highly recommended.
Rich Murray, June 10 2009