It’s almost ironic that Marc Norgaard looks so gracious and contented in the photographs that adorn this album. The Baltimore-based drummer, whose accolades include session work within San Francisco’s fusion community and a short stint at Berklee College of Music, has opted to expand his repertoire by releasing an album that merges his jazz background with a strong nod toward progressive rock. The result is an album that will delight some, confuse many, and alienate whoever is left. Herein lies the aforementioned irony: playing music of the type presented on Tolerance is often a thankless endeavor. Regardless, Norgaard’s enthusiasm comes through unhindered.
Starting off with the album’s title track, guitarist Brett Garsed and bassist Dave Demarco immediately begin dueling in a manner reminiscent of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, circa Discipline. The track progresses as Norgaard lays down a series of complex rhythms and fills behind a distorted main riff that hearkens back to early ’80s Rush (particularly Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures). A more laid back side to Norgaard’s writing comes through on “Goes To Reason,” which features a stellar performance by pianist Steve Hunt. Beginning the piece as more of an accessory to Garsed and DeMarco, Hunt steps forward at about 2:20 with some stunning keyboard runs and odd phrasing that elevate this track to a higher level.
“Last Leg Home” is where things take a decidedly more “fusion” approach, and with good reason: it is the first of two songs that feature jazz great Frank Gambale on guitar. Gambale’s riffs and solos are rather consistent with his efforts over the past two decades, which melds rather nicely with the song’s more subdued atmosphere. “Papaya Dream” serves as another masterful melding of Crimson-esque phrasing with melodies and rhythmic play that pay homage to Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, respectively.
Tolerance takes a slight turn with “Summer Storm,” the second song that employs the talents of Gambale. This track is considerably more blues-based and looser in structure, with Gambale emulating soulful cries and moans as Norgaard, DeMarco, and Hunt provide a solid back-line. “Seventh Mile Fog” features the unhinged guitar acrobatics of Tobias Hurwitz, who combines Middle Eastern melodies with more traditional rock fare to simultaneously amaze and befuddle the listener with his odd transitions and impressive speed. The album ends with a solo piece entitled “Retrospective,” where Norgaard takes turns on guitar, bass, and drums to create a ballad that hints slightly at Steve Morse or Joe Satriani. While the performance is comparatively restrained, Norgaard still impresses with the range and diversity of his musical skill.
The cover art for this disc is strangely revealing, as it portrays a very scientific analysis of a lone tree on a desert landscape. The illustration becomes quite appropriate when considering Norgaard’s approach to composition and performance. By nature, jazz fusion or progressive rock are very precise art forms. The complex structures and precise execution are well depicted by the cover’s angular shapes and measurements. But there is always an organic element, and the tree on a barren plane seems to serve as a metaphor for something distinctly human. Given that meaningful (rather than simply provocative) cover art is becoming a thing of the past, it is refreshing to see that Norgaard won’t settle for less.
In examining his own artistic vision, Norgaard describes the music on Tolerance as an “exploratory, intense and modern blend of organic prog-rock and jazz fusion.” In other words, few people outside of musician’s circles will ever take the time to appreciate its depth and complexity. This state of affairs is especially frustrating, because there is plenty here that would appeal to folks brave enough to turn off the radio for fifteen minutes and take in something different for awhile. Nonetheless, I have hope that the enthusiasm of a few will inspire him to even higher levels of composition and performance.