by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2021 Anil Prasad.
Between 2015-2019, bassist and Chapman Stick player Nick Beggs, drummer Craig Blundell and keyboardist Adam Holzman served as three-fifths of the Steven Wilson band. They toured the world, providing mercurial contributions to the expansive rock artist’s ambitious performances.
Typically, the most interesting part of being on the road for musicians is the gig itself. Everything else is pretty much a hassle, whether that’s border crossings, baggage checks, endless travel across planes, trains and automobiles, and soundchecks.
Most of that holds true for this trio, except the latter. Throughout the Wilson band’s global itinerary, Beggs, Blundell and Holzman took part in what they called a “jazz club.” They used soundchecks to jam, workshop compositional ideas and explore their collective chemistry outside the boundaries of Wilson’s material. At the end of their 2019 tour, they had compiled many works in progress.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a sudden, unwelcome pause in live activity for the musicians. But they put it to productive use. One of the key projects that emerged is their debut album as Trifecta, the appropriately-titled Fragments.
Even though the album had jazz-rock origins, the fact is Fragments reflects the wide diversity of the band’s collective backgrounds. The album combines its core focus with a melting pot of pop, funk, electronica, gospel, and minimalist influences.
Beggs co-founded the bestselling ‘80s British pop outfit Kajagoogoo and the modern-day art-rock band The Mute Gods. He’s also played with countless major rock and pop acts, including Sarah Brightman, Steve Hackett, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, and Gary Numan. In addition, he has three Chapman Stick-focused solo albums to his credit, which were compiled into a 2019 multi-disc collection titled The Darkness in Men's Hearts.
Blundell is a virtuoso drummer, known across the world as an educator and first-call progressive musician. In addition to working with Wilson, he has performed with Steve Hackett, Fish, Pendragon, Frost, and Lonely Robot. He’s built a vast global community of virtual students on a bespoke online platform that he propels forward both in terms of percussive and philosophical concepts. He’s also contributed to a great deal of soundtrack and jingle work.
Holzman’s multi-decade impact on the jazz world is significant. He served as Miles Davis’ musical director during the ‘80s and has performed on albums and tours for legends such as Wayne Shorter, Michel Petrucciani, Grover Washington, Jr., and Chaka Khan. He also has seven uncompromising, adventurous jazz-rock albums to his credit with his band Brave New World.
Together, the trio have successfully expanded the vocabularly of jazz-rock on Fragments. As Beggs puts it: “It’s not fusion, but fission. It’s less efficient and more dangerous with fallout.”
Innerviews spoke to Beggs, Blundell and Holzman during a cross-continental Zoom call from their homes across America and the UK.
Describe the origins of Trifecta.
Blundell: I'm super-proactive. When I'm not on tour, I'm still working and I'm always looking at plan Bs. I absolutely pride myself on keeping the diary full and being as productive as possible. I don't think there's any better feeling in music. If you're making music with really good people and your friends, the whole process is extremely organic and fun.
When I first met these two idiots in 2015, Adam busted my balls massively and rightly so, and Nick was like a big brother. I don't think you can create chemistry like that overnight and form a musical bond. I think it takes time to understand feel and space. Five years later, I built up an immense friendship with these guys.
I eventually said “Why shouldn’t we be our own bosses outside the boss that brought us all together?” I thought we should really do something. So, we started jamming out ideas at soundcheck. I’d play some weird time signatures and we’d start creating ideas. Adam would then share notes. I’d write out time sheets for Adam and we’d trade these things. We’d get to soundcheck early to work on stuff. The whole process was wonderful, fun and organic. And then Nick would come on and jam. We all felt “Oh, this feels good.” And then Steven Wilson would come on and pull the plug and it would stop. [laughs] We all thought “Oh, that’s a shame." It was just getting into the orgasmic moment, so to speak. So, we were starting to really blaze with no shackles.
I thought “Why don’t we do this—something like Weather Report on steroids? Let’s go wild and do something different and cool outside of the stereotype of Wilson’s progressive musicians. Let’s just be ourselves and do what we do.”
The whole process was easy. It was friends first, musicians second. Normally, it’s the other way around. We shared bunks on tour and I even know Adam’s sleeping patterns. I know everything about Beggs. [laughs] We know everything about each other. So, why not make music together? If you can’t make music together, what’s the point? So, that was the idea.
Holzman: It was your drum beats that you whipped out of the blue that got us started. Your beats would suggest songs all by themselves. A good example is “Venn Diagram” which is clearly structures built around the rhythm part. Craig is right. We’re friends and so of course we loved making music together and that eventually turned into Trifecta.
Blundell: Thank you, man. As I grew in confidence working with the boys, and as I started to learn, I started to think of music in a different way. The whole process was organic. That was the last five years. I've never practiced so hard to get away from all the nonsense that came with the Wilson gig. So, I would just sit and noodle at soundcheck and then Adam would pick up on it and realize that we were on the same page. And then Nick would just add this bottom end to it.
The wonderful thing about Trifecta is I’d have wild ideas and phrasings going ‘round my head and the guys would be all over them. It felt like I had this huge safety net of musicality. Whatever I’d play, the guys would bring to life.
Talk about how the jams morphed into full-fledged compositions.
Blundell: Adam would record everything. He’d get out his iPhone and say "Play that again for me.” Then we would go back to the material the next day.
Holzman: We didn't really have an agenda. We were just messing around with ideas for a long time before it even became "Hey, maybe let's do a project." Those ideas were floating around for all the right reasons before any kind of a concept came up. Nick would play something or Craig would play a beat, and I would say to Nick, "Shut up a second. Let me record Craig's drum beat." [laughs] And then I’d record a couple of bars of that, and stockpile it away.
By the end of the tour, both Nick and I had a pile of voice memos in our phones that had these basic DNA ideas, and we started trading files. We started adding each other's ideas onto the tracks. And even then we were just having fun. There was still no big plan. We were talking about doing a trio album and it was going to be a different concept, but we ended up gravitating into this slightly more structured version of what we were doing.
When did you realize these explorations were worthy of an album?
Beggs: I kind of knew it when we were doing the soundchecks and pissing off the road crew. They’d go "Oh no, not fucking jazz club again." [laughs] During soundcheck, Steve would do like three songs, max. He doesn't like soundchecks. He’d do the tune, leave, and get ready for the show, and go eat. The crew wants to relax and have a drink or sleep before we start. And then there’s three of us tearing it up on the stage and the crew are waiting for us to leave so they can have dinner.
I think we all understood a few years ago “Hey, there’s something here. There’s time to expand it. We don’t need to be time sensitive. We can just let this roll.” And that’s what we did.
Holzman: We knew it was going to take us a year to put it together. And it did. We crawled through it and it started really taking some shape near the end of summer 2020. At that point, we had the Fragments concept going. We knew instead of doing a progressive rock album with three 15-minute songs that we’d do something more like 15 three-minute songs.
How do you look back on what you collectively achieved on the Wilson tours you did together?
Beggs: This lineup went on for a considerable period of time. Steve wanted to perpetuate it. We had cause and effect right away. It was a winning team and everybody really enjoyed working together.
Holzman: We had a free exchange of ideas and no-one was being uptight about that. So, that was big. We were good friends at that point, so we could say almost anything to each other. There was no diplomacy or anything like that involved. We were able to get on with it.
On a personal level, I'm very proud of all the Steven tours we did. I think it's the best touring work I've ever done in my life. And hopefully, there'll be more down the road. The thing is, when you play with people that become your friends and that are musically like-minded, it's only a matter of time eventually before you're going to start clicking on something. And when you play together almost every night for some of these tours, which would go as long as 14 months, the chemistry is going to emerge. I felt like we had something up our sleeves. But I didn't have any grand plans for how it was all going to unfold. I'm pleasantly surprised that it's gone to a more public arena.
Wilson once told me during an interview, “One of the things that saddens me about fantastic musicians is that sometimes, when they’re left up to their own devices, they end up making jazz-fusion that no-one wants to listen to except other musicians.” What do you make of that comment?
Holzman: I've heard him say that. I'm going to have to disagree with Steven on this point. I also disagree with many critics who say solos are self-indulgent. I don’t understand that. You can write a song and sing it all day long, and that’s not self-indulgent, but play a solo, and suddenly you’re self-indulgent? That way of framing things has always bothered me.
Beggs: We've all talked to Steven about this subject before. He kind of glazes over at certain levels of fusion. It doesn't interest him. He's incredibly well-versed on a huge gamut of music. But when you go over into that territory, he doesn't like some of it.
Holzman: I think Steve likes and respects the classic early Miles electric stuff, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I believe there’s songwriting, even in jazz-rock. If you look back on the work of Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, you’ll hear serious compositions. It’s intense, instrumental music. It’s another dimension. I think Steve respects those guys. And it’s clear he does because of the music he wrote for The Raven That Refused to Sing and Hand. Cannot. Erase. which have some of those influences. I think what Steve doesn’t like is fusion created today. He’s talking about music that’s blissfully free of ideas. I don’t think that’s the case with Trifecta.
Blundell: I know Steven can sometimes say things for controversy’s sake, but I feel that great music is great music, no matter what the platform may be. I feel music is supposed to move you. If it does that, it doesn’t matter what the genre is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Meshuggah, Opeth or Weather Report. It also doesn’t matter how many notes, bars or time signatures there are.
I have to say that I have huge respect for Steven, regardless of whether or not we work together down the line. I’ll always be very grateful for Steven asking me to work with him. I came late to that gig in terms of learning my trade. But I feel I have done that. He gave me that chance and it meant I got to meet Adam and Nick. It’s no secret that some of the fans didn’t want me in the band. But it’s also no secret that I grew as a player. I’ll always be thankful for that. Steven and I are still in touch.
The Trifecta project is one of the most emotive and amazing times I’ve ever had behind the kit. I sat down and said “Right, I’m just going to pour my heart out.” Steven gave me the tools to do it. I feel very lucky to be able to work with these guys I met through him.
Tell me something each of you consider special about the other two musicians in Trifecta.
Beggs: Craig said some people didn't want him on the Steven tours. But what I felt he was doing was educating those people. I felt it was very important for him to challenge that kind of snobbery. He gave the band a new color. It took a lot of guts to come in and to sit behind a kit after Marco Minnemann had been there. it took a lot of balls to do that. He brought a military mindset to making it work and did it very well.
Adam's experiences and interests are very similar to mine. We grew up listening to the same sort of music. We had the same passion and attention to detail. I think that it's very important when you work with people to identify your similarities, and they become very apparent quite quickly. It's almost like, "Oh, you've got that in your wardrobe, too. Yeah. I like to wear that from time to time and dress that way." That road continues into fusion and jazz, where things get really interesting. That's where I think the really exciting stuff happens, because it expands the landscape and Adam's experience in that field is unlike most of the musicians I've worked with.
One of my philosophies is "Always make sure you're the weakest player in the band." It's my job to be the Derek Smalls or the lukewarm water because then I'm learning something. Jazz is a language of its own and I get to work these two great educators.
Blundell: This comes from the heart. I came into this unbelievable rolling machine of a tour with Steven. Nick took me under his wing. I'd never toured on this scale before. I was completely out of my depth musically and mentally, which was a big problem. Nick helped me with dealing with the trolls and he's helped me with, dare I say, being in the public eye. I'm not used to it. I don’t like it at all. Nick has been a tremendous ear over the last five years, listening to me when I've wanted to scream, moan, shouts, struggle, or cry. If it wasn’t for Nick, I probably would have walked. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.
The one person I would go to day in, day out is Nick, because I know it's completely in confidence. Musically, speaking, he’s a man who has an amazing track record playing with so many important artists. Nick is always open to ideas. He’s such a strong musician and so vibrant, but when he leaves the stage, he’d still say “Did I play okay? How was my timing?” He’s always keen to learn and for me, that’s fascinating. He still wants to become a better player, phraser and time-keeper.
Adam busted my balls from day one in rehearsal. Of course, Adam’s track record and experience are insane. The band turned into a different beast over a few months together. I remember after we’d finish rehearsing a track, Adam would come off his riser and come up to me and go "Hey, Craig, you should try this.” He was trying to build a team. Dare I say, I wasn't really a team player at the time? I'd never been in this sort of environment at this level. So, I'd just play and be scared. But Adam would encourage me.
Initially, I was like “Oh my God, he absolutely hates me.” But what he wanted me to do was succeed and be a badass. We developed this beautiful bond and friendship on and off the stage. I wouldn't be the player I am without Adam. Adam suggesting how to hit the drums, how to lay off here, push the beat there, and try ideas changed everything for me. I would never be where I am without him. I’d still be playing in clubs down in England. I owe both Adam and Nick a tremendous amount.
Holzman: Let me come to Craig's defense for a second. I think that he was a victim of a fan backlash and there was no rational reason for it. I think it was on the Internet mostly. Marco was a tough person to replace, because he’s great and has a large following. So, there was going to be a little bit of blowback on that. Craig also had to come into the middle of a tour. It wasn’t like we had all gone home for a few months, learned new music, and started from scratch. We were already up and runing. It was a real sink or swim situation for Craig and he definitely swam. He was always an excellent drummer, but I’ve never seen anyone improve the way Craig did over the first six months with Steven. It was a massive jump forward. He did a great job.
Both of these guys are some of the only people in the world I can talk to about anything. If I ever had a real problem, I know I could talk to one of them about it. That’s pretty big. Like Craig said, I know we have each other’s backs. Nick is such a positive force in my life and one of my favorite people. At the same time, he’s the one that cracks the whip on us. He’ll say “Okay guys, let’s get this video done now.” After a couple of terse emails from Nick, we hop to it. Nick is the businessman. He knows how to walk into a board meeting and walk out with a record deal. I have no idea how to do that. I’ve got to give it up to Nick for creating a connection to reality for Trifecta.
There were also many years where I wouldn’t publicly admit it, but I’m a huge Yes and Genesis fan, and so is Nick. We were both massive fans back in the day. We have a lot of reference points we share.
Nick is also our resident freak show. [laughs] I’ll write a prissy piece of music, then Nick will plug in his Chapman Stick, put distortion on it and go “Raaaaah!” All of a sudden, my prissy little piece of music sounds kind of cool. So, I’ve got to give him credit for being a complex personality. There are many facets to Nick Beggs.
Beggs: The distortion isn’t because of the fuzzbox. It’s because of the underwear.
Holzman: And the special lotion.
Beggs: I like where this is going.
Blundell: Please move on to the next question, immediately.
Okay, tell me something about each other that nobody else knows.
Beggs: I don’t think many people know Craig was in the Marines. He did a tour of duty in war zones like Belfast. He faced down some seriously frightening scenarios. Most people don’t know that wherever we play, somebody from his past always turns up to see him. And these are people who would always look after him.
Holzman: Like airplane pilots.
Beggs: Yeah. Good people. And a lot of people don’t know that Adam and his family have an incredible lineage in the music industry. Adam grew up with people like Jim Morrison turning up on his doorstep and buying him birthday presents. Adam’s dad is a legend—Jac Holzman, who founded Elektra and Nonesuch.
Blundell: A lot of people don’t know that Nick is one of the most driven people in terms of becoming a better musician as you’ll ever find. He’s always practicing, trying to perfect what he does. And Adam is pretty much the best drum teacher anyone could want. He has musical ears and phrasing like no-one else.
Holzman: I don’t think many people know Nick is a real mother hen. When he gets into a venue or dressing room, he’s always nesting. He sets up a little area, gets the incense going, sits on the couch, gets the computer out, and works on tracks. I also don’t think people realize Craig is in about 1,000 photos with Queen Elizabeth II. He was even on the Queen’s yacht.
Blundell: Yeah, I was on the Royal Yacht as part of the Royal Marines’ Brittania Band for a while. I did quite a lot of engagements with the Royal Family for years.
Holzman: Nick also considers the Internet his personal fuck toy.
Blundell: He’s an eccentric mentalist on social media.
Beggs: And everybody out there deserves it. I haven’t finished with their arses by a long fucking mile, let me tell you. [laughs]
Holzman: He doesn’t care about social media norms. It’s just a big rubber ducky to him.
Let’s discuss the creative process behind the album.
Holzman: Several tracks start with the raw drum loop that was played at soundcheck, and then the full arrangement of the song kicks in.
Blundell: You’ll hear some of Adam’s iPhone recordings on the album. There’s no click—nothing. The guys would get the drum loop and write the song around it. Then I’d create overdubs for it. So, you’ll hear me playing in time with my own drums over it, which itself is just a beast. It’s one of the weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever done. Because some of it was from soundcheck, I might have had a cup of tea and I must be speeding up or slowing down. But part of the beauty of the album is that it’s very organic. It doesn’t feel like it’s done to a click. It’s not metronomic. It breathes, which I absolutely love.
Holzman: Yeah, we’d take the raw loop and basically turn that into a click track, so to speak. Nick and I wrote the songs around those. Also, it’s quite likely any imperfections aren’t in Craig’s personal timing. Sometimes, it might have been a bad loop. If you’re just 10 frames off in a loop, it still might sound okay when it’s whizzing by. But it’s not going to lock onto the grid. Craig had to deal with that later. The drums went in last on a lot of these things.
Albums like this that are recorded remotely often don’t have that much chemistry. A lot of times, I’ve attributed that to lack of previous interaction between people. And other times, I attribute that to the process itself. It’s kind of a removed way of doing things. But that’s not the case here. Often, during these remote sessions, people haven’t actually played together in another context. That’s why the shit sometimes doesn’t really connect.
The reason I feel this album doesn’t sound like a layered project is because we’ve all played together so much. We all moved together more organically. It was just like we were overdubbing in the studio with the other guys in the control room checking it out. It doesn’t feel like the remote coldness of a file-sharing session.
Blundell: The beauty of this album is that almost everything on the album is a first take with the exception of “Venn Diagram.” Some of it’s a bit edgy, some of it’s a bit breathy. It brought a real sense of urgency and push-pull to it.
Holzman: Really? I didn’t know that. I assumed you worked that shit all out. Wow. Amazing.
Blundell: Everything after the first takes I did weren’t as exciting or emotive. Some might have been more perfect in terms of chops or musicality, but they didn’t have that “Let’s lay this down and have some fun with it” feel to them.
Beggs: One of the other things people don’t know about me is that I don’t like being in recording studios. I don’t enjoy that. I don’t like the red light. I don’t do my best stuff there. The only time I’m really on top of it is when I’ve rehearsed my arse off and know every note I’m supposed to play.
I’m not going to come up with great ideas on the back foot in a studio. In the case of Fragments, when I got home from Steve’s tour, I’d sit down and really drill into the ideas and vignettes we put together. Then I’d come up with my own idas. Then I’d go to bed, get up, have a cup of tea, listen again, do some editing, and revisit it. Eventually, I have something to present the guys that I feel is different enough.
As a result, I think the record is very left-field. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on that you don’t necessarily expect. It sounds very good, if I may be so bold.
Holzman: Post-90125 Yes syndrome didn’t kick in here. You know, when a lot of progressive rock was about trying to get a hit single. We ended up with 20 years of a lot of plodding 4/4 grooves from those bands. Maybe some of it had interesting stuff going on, on top of the pop elements, but it wasn’t the same as the really intense, jagged kind of instrumental work that was done many years before. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I think we managed to put back some of the twisted, syncopated instrumental approach into Fragments that’s been missing for a while.
Fragments includes funk and gospel elements. Tell me how those influences found their way into the album.
Beggs: When we were on tour with Steve, we’d all have our little rooms. We’d usually be playing our beatboxes and when we were all together, we’d share beatboxes. Adam was listening to a number of really heavy gospel musicians. He’d say “You’ve got to check this out. This is great. I don’t know what they’re on. Maybe God is real, because this stuff is serious.”
Holzman: Singers like Marvin Sapp and Fred Hammond.
Beggs: I've done my time in the gospel world. I've worked with a lot of gospel people over the years, but Adam brought it back into a bit of vernacular. I think when it came time to add some originality to each of the pieces and give them their own signature, Adam was really good at picking up on that element, because he introduced it. So, the gospel stuff is from him.
Holzman: I didn’t even think about that. But I do think progressive rock can absorb a lot of styles, but it rarely absorbs funk. And that's a big mistake.
Blundell: Yeah, I absolutely agree. For me, it's more about groove than funk. The progressive genre per se is pretty much a stereotype and it's become a parody of itself. Everyone's trying to outdo themselves. Today, it’s got to a stage where people are trying to invoke the “wow factor.” It’s like every musician has an abacus by the side of them. I generally think that groove and soul are going out of progressive music. It’s music by numbers and I’m not into that.
I hate being called a progresive musician. But I think the best progressive musicians are forward-thinking ones. They’ll have a deep groove inside them. My favorite musicians have swagger, funk and soul. It all comes out when they play. They play time signatures from the heart. I think Fragments stands out a little bit because it is music played from the heart.
Beggs: The progressive genre has been good to us, but it can also stagnate. I’ve never seen myself as a progressive musician. I’m a pop musician who likes to listen to and play progressive music. Most of my career, I’ve been a pop artist.
Holzman: I think the word “progressive” is good. I think the word “prog “is the one that can be a bit of a nasty word. When you say “prog,” it immediately invokes visions of people going widdly-widdly-widdly on a synthesizer wearing long capes. When you say “progressive,” that can mean something like the new Thom Yorke album. “Progressive” should mean an attempt to move forward. Ironically, “prog” is the complete opposite of progressive sometimes.
If you look back at the masters like Herbie Hancock, they’ve got all the chops in the world, but they’re also soulful as hell. They've got the heart.
Unsurprisingly for you lot, the album has provocative and humorous track titles. Do the titles tend to align with the musical content or were they applied retroactively?
Beggs: Some of them were, some of them weren't. “Have You Seen What the Neighbours Are Doing?” is a piece I originally wrote for The Mute Gods, but it didn’t work in that context. I thought “I don’t know how, but I’m going to make it work anyway.” So, I sent it to the Trifecta guys and they took it somewhere else. It was inspired by one of Adam’s neighbors.
Holzman: There’s a zombie house next door to me. The guy who owned it disappeared and it’s been sitting there empty for ages. Nick’s always asking me what’s going on in the house. He became fascinated with the abandoned house.
Beggs: I’d also heard a song by Ween called “So Many People in the Neighborhood.” I thought it would be really good to write a song in answer to that one.
Holzman: “Have You Seen What the Neighbours Are Doing?” is very Miles Davis-ish.
Beggs: It’s out, isn’t it?
Holzman: Going back to naming songs, Nick and I just write down song titles. We might have a list of 50-100 possible song titles at any moment.
What were some of the rejected song titles for Fragments?
Holzman: One of the rejects was “Sally Bitch Face.” [laughs] One time, we rolled off a gig and I called Nick that, and he thought it was pretty funny. It was a nickname that kind of stuck. So, we kept that title for a while and then realized it might be too inappropriate for this day and age.
Beggs: It became “Sally Doo-Dally.”
Holzman: Something a bit safer.
Beggs: They call me “Auntie” as well.
Holzman: The whole crew calls him “Auntie.”
Beggs: That’s why we initially named a track “Auntie’s a Slapper.” It’s because I’m doing funky slap parts on the Chapman Stick. I remember we took that to the record company and they said “No, we can’t put that title out, either.” Fair enough, but it was about me, not anything else. So, that’s why it just became “Auntie.”
Tell me about the decision to name a piece “The Enigma of Mr. Fripp.”
Beggs: As many people know, Robert and his wife Toyah have a wild series called Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch on YouTube in which they perform many different cover songs. So, there’s that unexpected thing he’s doing. But the title is more about the pentatonic movement and cross-picking in the piece. I kind of channeled Tony Levin in it. I also suggested Adam holds things down while Craig does something like Bill Bruford may have done on Discipline or Beat. It ended up being a drum feature, really.
The album has a single song on it with unconventional lyrics titled “Pavlov's Dog Killed Schrodinger's Cat.” Describe what you’re exploring on it.
Beggs: That was another song I wrote for The Mute Gods that didn’t work. It’s basically written from the perspective of trying to understand quantum theory. I thought “I wonder if I send it to Adam, what he’d think?” And he took it in this completely lateral direction, using Fender Rhodes and changed the vibe. We also felt we should include a tune on the record as a promotional hook.
I’m going to name six classic jazz-rock albums. Tell me the first things that come to your minds. First up is Miles Davis’ Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968).
Holzman: There’s a misconception that Bitches Brew was Miles’ first real move towards contemporary music with rock and backbeats. But it wasn’t. In my opinion, it was definitely Filles De Kilimanjaro. This is something Wallace Roney pounded into my head. Listen to Tony Williams on “Frelon Brun.” Miles told him to play like he was working with James Brown. Miles later said “Tony played everything.” By that, he meant Tony played every James Brown beat in the world at once on that track. Also, “Frelon Brun” has some very unusual electric piano work on it from Chick Corea. It really was a breakthrough album that some people are sleeping on. You really hear the transition into a new style.
Nucleus' Elastic Rock (1970).
Beggs: I was hoping you’d mention that, because that’s at the top of my list. They’re a Welsh fusion band with two seminal musicians in Karl Jenkins and Ian Carr. Jenkins went on to be a really important voice in contemporary classical music. Carr is one of the most influential jazz musicians. I think this album is the zenith of their careers. The compositions are really out. There’s some really weird tuning and timing going on. It’s the quintessence of serendipity.
Blundell: It’s a great album. It features John Marshall on drums, who I studied with. I love everything he’s done and recorded.
Mahavishnu Orchestra‘s Birds of Fire (1973).
Holzman: One of my top-10 albums of all time. Mahavishnu was the next step for John McLaughlin after Tony Williams Lifetime. McLaughlin brought along that deep groove from that band to Mahavishnu. Mahavishnu is so important in so many ways. The record had the debut of Jan Hammer playing Minimoog solos. He’s my hero.
Blundell: I had never heard a groove like “Miles Beyond” on that record before. Cobham’s groove on that album is superhuman. It has that lovely little fade, then the loop comes in and he just lays it down. The middle eight of that track makes you go “What are they thinking, man? What’s going on?” It’s pioneering music. The whole album is so forward-thinking. It’s incredible where some of those passages go.
Holzman: We were talking about what progressive means. This was a progressive album. They’re playing the most out shit, but grooving like crazy.
Beggs: It’s an unbelievable album.
Soft Machine’s Bundles (1975).
Beggs: This album represents the cross-pollination of lots of seminal British musicians and bands. I think it really worked. If you drew a family tree of stuff that was happening around the time, they would all point to this record. It’s very important.
Holzman: It's a very interesting album. I love Allan Holdsworth’s work on it. He takes a lengthy solo on “Hazard Profile” that’s almost a little bluesy. I think Holdsworth was coming out of that British blues thing a little bit. He almost sounds a bit like Robben Ford on it.
Blundell: John Marshall and Roy Babbington just lock in together on this album. They had done quite a few tours and albums before Bundles, so they had gelled into a really incredible rhythm section.
Weather Report’s Black Market (1976).
Beggs: That was a very influential record for me because it's one of the first ones I heard. My art teacher played it to me when I was in sixth form doing my A levels. I can always remember learning the bass phrase on the title track. It’s a very fun favorite for bands to jam on during soundchecks.
Blundell: The head’s really confusing. I played it once with Jennifer Batten and Stu Hamm. It’s really out, isn’t it?
Holzman: You want to know why? Because Joe Zawinul wrote that head on a reversed keyboard. You can change the polarity of the ARP 2600 so the low notes are high notes and vice-versa. So, if you play typical phrasing, you’ll end up coming up with something backwards. It was a really unusual direction and note choices. That’s why the melody line is so strange. I like Black Market very much, but I prefer Tale Spinnin’ even more. Black Market was a transitional record. Jaco Pastorius was coming into the band and the drum chair was shifting around.
Blundell: That album had Chester Thompson on it in his pre-Genesis days. It’s also got Narada Michael Walden, Alex Acuña and Don Alias on it. Incredible musicians.
Beggs: And two bass players. Alphonso Johnson also plays on it.
There’s another Genesis connection on Black Market. Genesis considered replacing Steve Hackett with Johnson in 1977. Johnson ended up recommending Daryl Stuermer join instead.
Beggs: That’s not surprising given Weather Report was Phil Collins' favorite band.
In 2007, I met up with Collins when he was touring with Genesis. All we did was talk about Zawinul, who had passed away a few weeks earlier. We discussed the Genesis track "Wot Gorilla?" from Wind and Wuthering that was directly influenced by Weather Report. Collins told me he was good friends with Zawinul. In fact, Zawinul asked him to play with him on his 2002 album Faces & Places, but Collins didn't think he was up to the task. Zawinul told him to "Get in touch when you're ready." But Zawinul passed away before they could make a collaboration a reality.
Holzman: Oh, come on Phil. He was probably a little intimidated by Joe. He could be intimidating. Yeah, “Wot Gorilla?” from Wind and Wuthering is a direct lift from Weather Report’s “Nubian Sundance.”
Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979).
Blundell: Fabulous. “Hell’s Bells.” That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
Holzman: And “The Sahara of Snow.”
Blundell: Yeah, it’s off-the-chart good. Jeff Berlin is amazing.
Holzman: I think it’s one of Bruford’s personal favorites. I got the feeling everything came together for him on it with that lineup.
Beggs: It’s one of my personal favorites. Every single player on the album is stratospheric in their own right. Berlin was channeling Jaco. There’s a Floridian connection between Berlin and Jaco Pastorius. Jeff is a benchmark player. It doesn’t get much better.
Holzman: I think the stuff Berlin did with Bruford was probably his best stuff.
Blundell: I agree.
Beggs: Allan Holdsworth’s work on it and the arrangements Dave Stewart did are also fantastic. I love how they used technology on it. It’s an album caught exactly in that moment of time. For instance you’ve got Bill playing Rototoms on it. It’s got all those great late-‘70s sounds on it. It’s really hard to regenerate those sounds with samples, today.
Holzman: The mix is also killer. They did everything right. It must not have been an easy record to make, but it’s definitely an amazing album.
What does the future hold for Trifecta?
Holzman: I’d like to do another album and then I'd love to get out and play. But right now, with the COVID-19 situation, there are so many variables with that. But if we do get out and play, it’s probably a good idea to have two records to pick stuff from. We’re going to do another one, right guys?
Holzman: I’ve got a few things in the hopper I’m ready to start moving forward on.
Beggs: If any promoters get wind of Trifecta, I hope they’ll make us an offer. Propose it and we’ll play live. But we’re not in the position to do that until promoters say “Come out and tour.”
Tell me what you’re all up to outside of Trifecta.
Holzman: I’ve started to do a few concerts and just put out a new album called The Last Gig. It’s a concert I did with my band Brave New World, recorded just a day before lockdown started in March 2020. By some freak of nature, the soundman recorded the show on Pro Tools. I really like how it came out. I’ve never put out an official live album before and I think it’s got great energy and intensity. It’s a nice cross-section of the stuff I do with the band. You’ll also hear a version of Steven Wilson’s “Abandoner” on it. He liked the version of that very much.
Blundell: I’m still working all the time. I created an immersive learning platform for drummers that I do every Sunday called Worldwide Weekend Masterclasses. I’ve done dozens of them now. I’m also recording with a lot of artists and am touring with Steve Hackett this fall. I also play on his new album Surrender of Silence.
Beggs: I’m playing with Howard Jones as part of his acoustic trio and full electric band. I’m also working on a Chapman Stick and symphony album, which was recorded at Abbey Road with a 32-piece orchestra. It’s very cinematic. I’m working with an amazing guy named John Ashton Thomas who's Michael Bublé’s orchestrator. He did all the orchestrations and conducted. The album will come out through a company called Audio Network. The orchestral album is our first project. After that, I’ll be doing two more Chapman Stick albums. One will be about my nasty, vicious, industrial side. The other one will be me doing solo, lilting medieval madrigals and stuff like that.
What has this incredibly strange pandemic period we’re living through taught you about the value of music?
Beggs: My daughter Willow is an inspiration in this regard. She's studying art at Liverpool University, but she's in three bands as well. She’s been writing with people and using technology to rehearse and share ideas. Nothing seems to have stopped her. She's just flowering. She's growing exponentially in all her creative ways, and that to me is a huge inspiration and I want to take that lead with her. I want to always be creating. One lifetime's not enough for me.
Blundell: Life is precious and things come and go. But without music, what would we all do? I feel so grateful I’m still involved in music and get to teach hundreds and hundreds of drummers. Seeing them smile when they achieve a groove or beat, or go on tour is so inspiring. I think when live music really comes back that it’ll be a bigger force than ever. I get so many messages from people desperate for live music. We used to take it for granted, and we really shouldn’t.
Holzman: I agree, you shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s definitely the lifeline that’s got me through everything. I’m fortunate I can keep teaching and doing projects. I know a lot of other musicians who don’t have work coming in and are a little more stuck. I’ve lost some friends over the last couple of years and I realize how little time we all have. We have to appreciate everything we can do and push forward as much as possible. I’m trying to keep pushing myself to stay involved in new projects in the middle of all of this. It gives me a sense of light at the end of the tunnel.