Every so often, an album like Hectic Watermelon’s The Great American Road Trip comes along to give me hope that jazz-rock fusion hasn’t collapsed like a poorly-made soufflé under the weight of its own clichés. Multi-instrumentalist John Czajkowski (okay - he’s primarily a guitarist) is a new name to me. Oakland-bred and based in San Diego, Czajkowski’s resumé includes some truly rich life experiences (a happily married father of two, he teaches 11th grade in the San Diego Public Schools and is a Navy Seal who fought in the Persian Gulf War) as well as the sort of musical accomplishments one might almost take for granted (he has studied with Joe Satriani and is working on a Master’s degree in composition at SDSU).
One or two listens to The Great American Road Trip make it quite clear that Cjazkowski excels both as a composer and as a guitar soloist. Working in power trio mode with drummer Darren "D-Ride" DeBree and bassist Harley Magsino, Cjazkowski’s music bursts with high-octane guitar solos and sleek funky rhythms taken at near-breakneck tempos. The presence of former Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jerry Goodman on all but two tracks is an added bonus. Not only does Goodman sound as great as he did back in ’72, he totally gets what Czajkowski is doing and takes everything up another notch.
The relentless energy, shape-shifting changes and bounding asymmetrical rhythms of tunes like "The Third Derivative of James Brown," "Bionic Hillbilly," "Subterranean Rapid Transit" and "Bullets, Dice and 30 Megabytes" are more than just great listening, they extend and elaborate upon the groundbreaking work of artists like John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, and Jeff Beck. Though Cjazkowski’s music could hardly be called derivative, both "Bionic Hillbilly" and "Steve’s Stunt Double" had me fondly reminiscing about the Dixie Dregs at the very pinnacle of their abilities.
The sole vocal piece, "Twenty-first Century Visigoth," has the sort of oddball sensibility and anthemic rock power I associate with Mike Keneally and Adrian Belew. There is also quite a bit of experimentation going on here as well. "Dreams of Concrete Jungles" plays out like an avant garde percussion ensemble piece where the marimba parts are played by the guitar. "Layover in Hamemet" is a sparse, ghostly roadside soundscape featuring Magsino playing skeletal harmonics on acoustic bass.
The Great American Road Trip is fusion as it was originally intended: a lusty, happy marriage between rock and jazz, in which the best aspects of both styles shine through. Fans of fusion and progressive rock need to track this one down as soon as possible.