The first moment of The Queen’s Carnival when listeners might feel convinced they are in the presence of greatness comes with the stunning cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”. Most famously covered by California hard rockers Van Halen, Project Grand Slam once again demonstrates the same penchant for reinvention defining their earlier covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” and Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove”. The true meaning of fusion for bassist Robert Miller’s outfit doesn’t have much to do with virtuosity. Instead, fusion for this collection of musicians and writers means nothing, per se, falls outside their wheelhouse. Whatever is good and compelling to their ear can find its way into a song. Project Grand Slam scores huge with the release of this album and their growing clarity and confidence is impressive to hear.
The album’s title song has all of the expected Caribbean reference points, but Project Grand Slam carries them off with aplomb of gifted musicians rather than shallow imitators. It isn’t about merely hitting your marks. Instead, invoking the imaginative potential of these forms asks musicians to bring something of themselves to the table rather than just regurgitating formula. Project Grand Slam laces a number of brief stylistic variations throughout the song’s fabric that never call too much attention to themselves, but help elevate this to the level of something signature. “Gorilla” comes off, initially, as a light-footed stomper augmented with intermittent, searing sheets of lead guitar. The horns play an enormous role here, however, as they do on all of the album’s songs. The band’s configuration and how it’s deployed gives them a double counterpoint of sorts – the stringed instruments are locked in duets with the percussion and each other while simultaneously carrying on a dialogue with the brass. Project Grand Slam’s emphasis on melody is unusually constant for any unit and “Gorilla”, despite its assertiveness, is no exception.
“New Folk Song” gives listeners another hint of the band’s tasteful, yet very real ambitions. The dramatic opening soon gives way to brass propelled primary melodies while keyboards lay down understated secondary melodies. The guitar is subsumed into the mix, but nevertheless adds valuable splashes of color. Project Grand Slam turns the heat back up again with the slinky jazzy funk groove of “Slap Shot”. Once again, novices to instrumental music shouldn’t feel deterred by the focus on this album. Project Grand Slam manifests a clear vocal quality in virtually every passage and the melodies are top notch enough that you’ll hum them long after the song ends. The album’s conclusion, “Lullaby for Julesy”, ties things up in a distinctly different fashion than what you might expect. It’s a brief instrumental, intensely elegiac, and lights down low key. It is difficult to conceive of a better ending for such a release. Project Grand Slam brings The Queen’s Carnival to a conclusion with a steady hand and the good sense to give listeners a form of closure not often heard on popular music releases. There’s an unique sense of unity pervading this album and it surely comes from the fact that, unlike many bands and musical projects, Robert Miller’s vision for Project Grand Slam’s possibilities are startlingly clear and he’s surrounded himself with likeminded equals up for the same voyage.