Formed in the mid-1970s in England, iconic jazz/fusion group Brand X became one of the sub-genre’s prominent acts of the decade after its members initially met to record solo albums for multi-instrumentalist/producer Brian Eno.
Dormant afterward through the 1980s and again between 1999 and 2016, its current four-year-old lineup hasn’t yet recorded in a studio, but has developed its own identity through festival appearances and tour stops.
Still featuring original members in 67-year-old American guitarist John Goodsall and 72-year-old British fretless bassist Percy Jones, Brand X carries on with newer members Chris Clark (keyboards) and Tobias Ralph (drums/percussion) at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on March 25.
It will be the first show ever by the critically acclaimed, 45-year-old band to take place in the state of Florida.
Brand X’s electric brand of largely instrumental jazz, rock, funk, classical and Middle Eastern styles on Unorthodox Behaviour (1976), Moroccan Roll (1977) and Masques (1978), not surprisingly, proved too complex for the Top 40 charts, a trend that’s continued. But it was also proof that gifted studio players could gather to perform to their strengths — not just play below their capabilities to gain pop fame and fortune, like American acts Journey and Toto and British group Asia.
Most of the group’s early recordings featured drummer Phil Collins sounding like a British version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s thunderous Billy Cobham. Though he was still with popular progressive rock act Genesis, Collins found in Brand X a way to even further nurture his estimable jazz/fusion chops and technique on the side.
“Genesis was like my wife, but Brand X was like this hot mistress,” said the 69-year-old Collins, now living in Miami and planning a 2020 Genesis reunion tour of the U.K.
Collins became vocalist for Genesis after singer Peter Gabriel departed in 1975, leading to greater sales for the band, and thoughts of going in a more commercial direction caused dissent within Brand X by the late ’70s. The group’s fourth album, Product (1979), even featured separate lineups of Goodsall, Jones, keyboardist Peter Robinson, drummer Mike Clark and percussionist Morris Pert, plus one with the guitarist, Collins (on drums and vocals), keyboardist Robin Lumley, and bassist John Giblin.
“Our record and management companies were both complaining about poor record sales,” Jones said, “and telling us we had to make the music more accessible. Some of the guys agreed to go along with this, but I felt that to do this would not generate a new audience, but would probably just alienate the one that we already had. The only solution was to have two bands, one being more accessible and the other being more experimental.”
That accessibility only worked to a point, and Collins’ additional successful solo pop career hastened his permanent departure and the group’s initial demise. Goodsall and Jones reformed Brand X with limited success through the 1990s, mostly with drummer Frank Katz and a variety of other musicians, before throwing in the towel again in favor of studio work and other projects.
The current incarnation of Brand X started when Goodsall and Jones recruited former drummer Kenwood Dennard, who’d appeared on its 1977 live album Livestock, in 2016. Clark and percussionist Scott Weinberger completed the lineup, but before year’s end, Dennard’s job as head of the percussion department at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston proved too much for continued roadwork. His main replacement since has been Kenny Grohowski, though he and Weinberger are unavailable for the Funky Biscuit show and being subbed for by Tobias Ralph (Adrian Belew, Screaming Headless Torsos).
For Clark, like the other newer members, listening to Brand X was part of his musical education.
“Scott Weinberger and I had a mutual friend who told me there was a keyboard vacancy in a new lineup of Brand X,” he says. “When I was asked if I wanted to audition, they didn’t have to twist my arm! I had listened to their material, so even though I didn’t know it all on a micro level yet, and there was a learning curve, I wasn’t caught flat-footed. In college, I had been annihilated by their first few albums.”
A graduate of Queens College in New York, the 57-year-old Clark’s versatile career also includes 25 years of working on multiple Broadway shows such as, currently, the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked. The keyboardist still sounds like he has to occasionally pinch himself because of the dream job with Brand X, especially when talking about playing with Goodsall (whose session credits include Eric Clapton, Bill Bruford, Jan Hammer, and Toni Basil), and Jones (whose singular sound and ideas on fretless bass ran parallel to those of Jaco Pastorius through the ’70s while sounding completely different from them).
“I don’t think Percy completely gets his due,” Clark says. “He’s first on a very short list of worthy fretless bass players who haven’t been disciples of Jaco. I think any bassist who plays a sliding harmonic phrase should pay a royalty to Percy. He may not have invented that, but he perfected it. Legendary.”
The 21st-century version of Brand X has only released a couple live recordings thus far, but Clark says it may make time to create a studio bookend document to replace its last such effort, Manifest Destiny (1997).
“We’ve all talked about it for awhile,” he says, “and submitted song fragments and ideas. A lot of the reason why we haven’t gone into the studio is the blessing and curse of touring. Because in-between tours, we’re all variously trying to make ends meet otherwise. But I think it’ll happen sooner rather than later. Because we’d all love to have a studio recording of the current lineup, since we’ve found such a comfortable pocket together and everything has gotten so cohesive.”
See Brand X, with opening act the Aaron Lebos Reality, at 8 p.m. March 25 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton ($35-$55, 561-395-2929).