Over the past few years, North County has become a reliably fertile locale for purveyors of strange, mind-bending music. A long list of psychedelic rock groups of different shapes and sizes have launched along the Pacific Coast Highway, from the trippy garage sounds of Amerikan Bear to the heavier prog-psych of Astra. The latter's Brian Ellis has unloaded his share of solo recordings in the past decade as well, each one a uniquely interesting and peculiar piece of music that ranges from space rock freak-outs to funk-laden jazz. So far this year, two albums bear the prolific multi-instrumentalist's name, and his latest, Escondido Sessions, is a groove-heavy wonder of exploratory jazz fusion.

The album is credited to the Brian Ellis Group, and it is, by all means, a group effort. Ellis—who on other recordings has proven his abilities on both guitar and saxophone—sticks primarily to keyboards here, while drummer Michael Hams and bassist Trevor Mast keep the pocket deep, and saxphonist Patrick Shiroishi takes on his own melodic explorations, sometimes with a heavy dose of delay effects, and sometimes without. It's a fluid mixture of sounds that's first and foremost about groove, but has the secondary effect of taking the listener on a psychedelic journey, much like Ellis' other works with bands such as Astra or Psicomagia. It's heady stuff, but it's also very easy to like.

If you've made it this far without recoiling at the phrase “jazz fusion” (a phrase that's been slapped on both some of the best and most cheeseball jazz records of all time) then you're in luck. Escondido Sessions leans far closer to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew than GRP Records in the late '80s. A lot of that has to do with the warmth of the album; Ellis' organ lends a nourishing glow to every song here, while David Hurley's congas add a fun, organic sensibility.

Escondido Sessions is a lot more concise than Bitches Brew, but it has a similar effect on the listener. It's the sort of record you can just put on repeat while you melt into your seat as the sound drapes over you. Score one for North County.


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