FUNK FANTASY | MASTERS OF GROOVE

Masters of Groove | February 1-2, 2002 | House of Blues | Cambridge, MA
Photos by Dino Perrucci | 03.31.01 | Mercury Lounge | NYC

Reuben Wilson's feet. I don't think there ever was a finer centerpiece to a living composition. They held magnetic sway: bathed in warm light of front stage, framed under the walnut shell of the B-3, all slippin' and trippin' over a wooden floor stained deep with the sweat of legends. In the background periphery you could feel the Leslie treble rotors pumping shattered notes of funk like a prayer over the crowd. On the other side of the stage, half-seated on a stool and cradling a stunning D'Angelico hollow body, Grant Green Jr. showered melodic balance and fiery riffs into the rich palette. And in the middle, the rat-a-tat fulcrum of Bernard Purdie laid down a mean rhythm and maintained the equilibrium. Joined by guest horn player 'Sax' Gordon, a Boston local and talented Rounder recording artist, the Masters of Groove stormed the House of Blues in Cambridge on Friday and Saturday night and kept the funk flowing.

"Masters" is no hyperbole. Reuben Wilson has had two careers, of sorts. Back in the sixties he graduated from a boxing career into music, when he recorded such classic sessions as Love Bug and On Broadway and played with the likes of Grant Green, Donald Byrd, and Lee Morgan among others. After fading into the soul-stultifying noise of the 80's, his career experienced a resurgence (in England first, of course, where they seem to catch on a little quicker) that paralleled a renewed interest in all things acid and jazzy, landing him well-deserved respect as one of the Godfathers of jazz funk organ. Now he's on fire with a new album on the Jazzateria label, and is a favorite sample in hip-hop realms.

With over 3,000 albums under his belt, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is the world's most recorded drummer. Best known as an essential ingredient in Aretha Franklin's band, he has played with everyone from King Curtis to Cat Stevens, and although known for his unique mastery of the soul and funk beat he has also driven rhythms for the Stones, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan, Tom Jones and Paul Butterfield. According to Grant Jr., "if it wasn't for him, rappers wouldn't have a groove!" Hmmm...the phrase "the man" comes to mind.

While he doesn't yet enjoy labels such as "world's most" or "Godfather of," Grant Green Jr. is becoming recognized as a supreme talent in his own right (and it don't hurt to have daddy's genes running all through his veins). While comparisons can become a crutch, they are inevitable, and I must say that Grant Jr. has carried on the family tradition well. Like his father, he extracts that wonderful fusion of jazz and funk: now heady and coarse, now smooth and soulful. Except you get the distinct impression that his riffs hit a little harder, a little longer, and a little deeper into the dirt. Good dirt. As far as fluidity and speed, some may argue that the younger Green still has a few tricks to learn, but I'll leave that judgment to you, brothers and sisters. One thing's for sure though: the cat can play.

Onstage the combined experience and chemistry is explosive. Minus bassist Tarus Mateen, who appears on the album, Friday night got kicking with the "Masters of Groove Beat," a little warm-up to shake out the cold. Up next was the "Dr. No Shuffle." Huh?! James Bond grooves? That's right kids, the familiar super-spy melodies are cuts from the latest Master's release "Meet Dr. No.," and they struck a note of familiarity that got all primed for the long meltdown into "Rodney's Bonnet," a driving tune rife with bubbling fast licks layered over deep organ and plaintive sax that eventually bled back into the bona fide "James Bond Theme." The first set closer was a silky rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" that got all the ladies swaying with extra abandon. Grant covered the vocals, his voice part smoke, part scratchy smooth soul, and the good vibes abounded.

Between sets upstairs the band members traded anecdotes from the past, their easy banter tantamount to a religious experience for the odd handful of listeners. When asked whether his father groomed him to play guitar, Grant Jr. responds "Well, I'll tell you about my dad. I would say to him, 'hey man, listen to this,' and I would play something for him. And he'd look at me and say, 'that ain't shit.' (laughter) That was his grooming."

While the memories elicit belly-laughs now, they reveal the often unforgiving atmosphere in which the younger Green cultivated his skills. He says, "Those guys from the old school, they were different. I mean, you could have a jam session, back in the day, and if they didn't like the way you played they would tell you to get off the stage. If you didn't play the right changes or something, they would just say, 'Get off the stage!' Sometimes they would play a tune you'd never heard before in your life. Those cats were ruthless! But that's the way you learn. If you get booted, you go home and practice."

"Did you ever get booted?"
"I have!"

Purdie adds his own recollections of yore: "[King] Curtis did it to me. I had been six months asking to sit in, to sit in. Now I had already been working with him in the studio, so he knows that I can play, but he kept telling me that I wasn't ready for the band. And I kept telling him that I was. So after six months, there was this one night that I came in, and I was just waiting for him to say no, and he said, 'O.K.' Oh...oh, uh, alright. So I go walkin' round to get on the drums, and I put my leg over 'cause there was a rope there, and I go to put my leg down, and I got the stick in my hand, and suddenly he goes, "one, two, one two three four five!" (much laughter) Now I've got my leg over here (points in one direction), and I'm doing this (drumming motions with his arms in the other direction) and when I finally got a chance to sit down, well, he looks over and says, 'you got it?' I fell on my face! It was ridiculous. I did a quick hit on melody, and then I had to get up." It's hard to imagine Bernard Purdie falling on his face; nonetheless, the experience for these musicians - playing live with the greats of the day - was priceless.

The second set opened with a monstrous rip. Green bore down on the strings with particular fury, Wilson conjured magic from the Hammond/Leslie with hands, fingers, and feet, and Pretty Purdie finished off the first tune with a blazing drum solo that left smiles on the faces of all- both onstage and in the crowd. Things were rolling. Then the Masters dug into the past. The groove shifted next into "Ease Back," a medium-bodied Nocentelli/A. Neville/G. Porter composition blissfully covered on Grant Sr.'s magnificent 1969 release Carryin' On, which was followed by a raucous, crowd-assisted climactic rendition of "Everything I do I do Funky" that wound down into a super-cool syncopated voice/guitar jam. The whole spectacle was wrapped up with an "Oye Como Va" encore for dramatic flourish.

Afterwards, the band mingled briefly with the lingering crowd, the lights dimmed onstage, and a rare musical experience slipped into memory. Three masters, one guitar, drums, sax...and Reuben's feet.

JR Richards
JamBase Boston Correspondent
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[Published on: 2/6/02]

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