Palmetto Records releases TESTAMENT Guitarist's ALEX SKOLNICK TRIO Album 'Conundrum'   

If you've attempted to keep up with the news cycle in recent years, then Conundrum, the title of the Alex Skolnick Trio's new album from Palmetto Records/MRI, should be a no-brainer. "It represents the sense of confusion many of us are feeling in the midst of the strangest sociopolitical upheavals of our lifetimes, " says Skolnick, the guitarist and composer who helped define thrash metal as a founding member of Testament, before establishing himself on the international jazz scene. "This album captures many styles in an effort to channel that angst into art and inspire others to do likewise."

Ironically, given its globally pertinent message, Conundrum is in many ways Skolnick's most intimate record yet. It is the trio's first new studio album since 2011's Veritas, and it features original music almost exclusively, with six compositions by Skolnick, one apiece by bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski, and a gorgeous interpretation of maverick composer Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1."

Far removed from the musical tunnel vision of "guitar" or "shred" albums, Conundrum reflects Skolnick's wide-ranging knowledge as a player and, even more important, as a listener. "What would I want to hear, regardless of the instrument and regardless of technique?" he asks. "That's the type of music I try to create as an improviser and composer."

The multi-layer, multi-section songs that resulted are, in a word, sweeping— and include plenty for guitar heads to dig into after all. Skolnick's "Unbound, " part of which originated on piano, kicks off Conundrum with springy slapped harmonics. Beautiful chordal work follows, as well as soloing that lays out the guitarist's m.o. as a lead player: to tell a story by varying his attack, tone, intensity and harmonic approach with masterful control. "Django Tango, " which Skolnick originally wrote for his acclaimed world-music project Planetary Coalition, is precisely what it proclaims to be—a sensual commingling of Reinhardt and Piazzolla (plus, Skolnick notes, a touch of downtown attitude via Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos).

The record's title track feels open and airy, with inspiration culled from Chick Corea's Spanish-influenced acoustic tunes. (The melodies are so whimsical that you might not notice the section in 5/4, or that the solos' order upends jazz tradition.) Peck steps away from his double bass, proving a nimble presence on the electric bass here and on a couple of other tunes. A lover of classical piano, Skolnick plays Satie's melancholy reverie on steel-string acoustic, atop Peck and Zebroski's suitably graceful, empathetic backing.

"Culture Shock, " on which Skolnick alternates between hollowbody and Telecaster, is a go-for-broke mashup that flies from Nashville to Dubai and back again; it's also one of the album's tunes where the title puts Skolnick's social and political ideas in plain sight.

Zebroski's "Dodge the Bamboula" borrows its changes from "Dodge the Dodo, " by the late Swedish pianist-composer Esbjörn Svensson, and applies them to the much-overlooked bamboula rhythm that became a cornerstone of New Orleans' second-line groove. During a middle section, Skolnick picks up a Gypsy-jazz guitar and we're transported to a café in '30s-era Paris. Skolnick's "Key of Sea, " crafted toward the end of the album's writing session, takes its cinematic textures from the ambient-music innovator Brian Eno and from ECM Records. (Like so many jazz devotees, Skolnick was ecstatic when ECM began streaming its entire catalog last fall; "Key of Sea" was particularly influenced by one of the label's curated playlists, "ECM Atmospheres.") "I think I realized not every tune needs a super-singable melody, " Skolnick comments. The album's last two tunes find the trio more firmly on jazz terrain: "A Question of Moral Ambiguity" is a hip midtempo swinger that allows Skolnick and company to get their blues fix; and "Protect the Dream" (not to be confused with the Grover Washington Jr. tune of the same name) finds Peck, its composer, digging deep into post-Wayne Shorter harmony. Skolnick spends most of the track on steel-string acoustic, but goes full electric tilt to close, per Peck's request.

Born in 1968 and raised in the Bay Area, Alex Skolnick was still a teenager when he made heavy-metal history on Testament's essential debut, The Legacy. Over his next five years with the band, he cemented his reputation as one of metal's most gifted lead guitarists, setting chops benchmarks with his work on songs like "Burnt Offerings" and "Practice What You Preach." He left Testament in 1992 and rejoined in 2005, and following his return the band has released three well-received studio albums and remained a major touring act in heavy music. Most recently Testament has been hitting arenas and amphitheaters as part of Slayer's blockbuster "Final World Tour." In 1995, after nearly getting the guitar spot in Ozzy Osbourne's band — the Prince of Darkness seemed thrilled; his wife/manager Sharon, less so — Skolnick found himself at a crossroads. "The ultimate guitar gig, and then for it not to happen, that was really motivating for me. I really asked myself, 'What am I going to do?' Especially in the mid-'90s, when the guitar solo was disappearing from rock. And what do I want to do?"

His interest in jazz had been gathering steam since before he left Testament, so Skolnick headed east toward the end of the decade and enrolled at Manhattan's venerable New School. It was there that he dug even deeper into recordings by Miles, Trane, Wes, Jim Hall, Scofield, Metheny and more; studied with jazz greats like saxophonist George Garzone and bassist Reggie Workman; and formed his trio, which debuted on record in 2002 with Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation.

The album, with its wholly convincing jazz makeovers of hard-rock staples by Kiss, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith and more, made waves that roiled through the jazz, rock and guitar communities. "The strong melodies lend themselves to improvisation in a way that their composers never imagined, " Tad Hendrickson wrote in The Village Voice. And in DownBeat, Glenn Astarita offered, "Besides the musicians' technical prowess, they execute these rock tunes with a slant that might imply an antithesis to what was originally conceived."

Dates at high-profile venues like the Iridium, in Manhattan, Yoshi's, in Oakland, and the Blue Note Milano followed, as did three more critically lauded studio albums. Each of those contained at least one rock-to-postbop transformation, which has become something of a calling card for the trio. "Doing the cover tunes was something I stumbled upon, " Skolnick says. "There have been so many albums and interpretations of jazz standards and the Great American Songbook, but I really felt a connection to these songs."

On Conundrum, however, the opportunity to showcase his inspired original music was too good to pass up. "I'm not saying we'll never do another [rock cover], " Skolnick says, also pointing out that the vinyl version of Conundrum will contain a rendition of Scorpions' classic ballad "Still Loving You." "But I always wanted to expand as a composer. I always wanted my instrumental work to reflect that."

Expansion, progress, the trust that develops within a band—these are concepts Skolnick wades into when discussing the future of the trio, and of his life in music. "With every record we do, every gig, I feel like there's a sense of improvement, " he says. "I feel like I'm playing circles around where we were when I started improvising. Scofield, Metheny, Jeff Beck— my improvising idols—they're always developing."

And while Testament continues to thrive, it’s the trio and its repertoire that Skolnick can see growing old with. “These days I still love playing screaming, loud guitar and heavy metal, though I don’t think I’m going to be one of these guys who’s past social-security age and in a rock band and touring, ” he says. “But I can see myself doing these songs with the trio for many years to come.”

is promoting the new album performing live
Sept 9 - Chicago, IL (Reggie's)
Sept 12 &13- New York, NY (The Iridium)
Sept 15- Los Angeles, CA (The Baked Potato) w/ Stu Hamm
Sept 16 - San Diego, CA (Brick By Brick)
Oct 17 - The Woodlands, TX (Dosey Doe)
Oct 18 - San Antonio, TX (Fitzgerald’s)
Oct 20 - McKinney, TX (The Guitar Sanctuary)

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