Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
The Drug Bunny Holiday Party
Featuring: G. Calvin Weston, Billy Martin, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Jeff Lee Johnson
12.16.09 :: The Trocadero :: Philadelphia, PA
Hidden away on a cold December night sat a small room in the back of the second floor of Philadelphia's Trocadero. This cozy, dilapidated nook was the perfect place for local promoter The Drug Bunny to throw down some dirty funk at their annual holiday party. The jazzy soiree was wrapped up with tinsel and bass and an all star one-night-only band whose sole purpose was ruling one's face. All the heavy cats were out to play, including four of the slyest jazz funk pioneers alive today. Billy Martin was there and so were G. Calvin Weston, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Jeff Lee Johnson. As the children lay tucked in bed dreaming of St. Nick, the tapers, dancers, prancers and vixens all jumped down the rabbit hole in search of funky musical fixings.
| Johnson & Martin :: 12.16 :: Philly|
A neighborly, cross-cultural vibe grew as onlookers sat on any surface they could find. The floor was transformed into a haphazard living room, with puffy winter coats becoming makeshift cushions. Various elixirs from the bar and some tempting aromas lulled us into a state of relaxed euphoria as several warm-up acts tossed us treats, including an early searing cover of Parliament Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain." NYC's Whatever exemplified a Miles Davis state of mind as M.J., their expressive guitarist, played back and forth across the stage in a chicken walk and knee-bending display of funky melodious communication.
There was more than just an electrical buzz and hum to the air as the headliners plugged in and loosened up. Host Jay Michael Harrison, of WRTI fame, introduced the main act as if he was welcoming James Brown to the stage for a final performance. I lost track of how many times he made the crowd applaud for each artist. They each deserved the accolades and perhaps more as their collective resumes would be as long and impressive as Santa's List. These were gods among men who pushed us directly into the deep end, offering no sympathy for those who could not tread their heavy waters. Unlike other combinations of jazz and funk, this session was delightfully easy to ingest. It was a testament to each of their individual talents. No matter where their free form jams went there was always a danceable groove waiting around the next turn. Fans of all degrees were lit up like proverbial kids on Christmas morning. The gifts were hidden within the intricately built music that spanned the globe of funk and jazz.
It's no secret that G. Calvin Weston is a legend in Philadelphia. His list of friends is almost as long as his list of achievements. So, when Weston and Martin teamed up for this holiday spectacular folks should have taken notice. But when The Drug Bunny tossed in all stars Tacuma and Johnson, one's blood should have boiled and nothing should have stopped them from seeing this quadruple threat. Tacuma and Johnson, the two elder statesmen from the jazz-funk scene, were so hip and dangerous with their instruments that an air of respect and jaw dropping adoration was required in their presence. They eased in with a funky three-part number that began with a light but engaging sprinkle of notes. Each was gaining a feel for the other men onstage. Quickly, Tacoma and Johnson hooked up as they transitioned the simple jam into a battle of bass and shredding guitar. It was as if they had been sizing each other up for years and this was the schoolyard fight that would settle it all. Tacoma attacked as his eight-chord progression increased in speed and depth as he worked notes deeper into the pocket. Johnson retaliated with high-pitched whines and cries brought on with a heavy dose of whammy bar. In the rear of the ornate stage, Martin and Weston sat content as they laid down a steady drizzle of flourishes and beats. Their splendid backdrop of rhythm allowed for an exploratory depth seldom achieved with such listener appeal. Our numbers shouted out appreciation to the radically diverse acrobatic twists and turns that Johnson was playing.
| Johnson, Weston & Tacoma :: 12.16 :: Philly|
It's no wonder Martin and Weston complemented each other so well; they had sparked their brotherly bond over two decades ago in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards. The two have created magic together since as the duel percussionists and drummers on a handful of albums including Live at Houston Hall and For No One In Particular with DJ Logic. But, it wasn't their recorded work that had us excited as they filled the air with different beats that miraculously fit together in a complex jigsaw puzzle of synchronicity between four sticks and four feet. The pair explored ethnic percussion and free jazz, with Weston adding poignancy as he employed a trumpet several times throughout the performance. In our tight quarters their explosive twin bass drums maintained a pulsing beacon from which Tacoma and Johnson could easily steer the complex jams back as they packed each moment with funky thoughts and searing expressions.
Chances are you've never seen guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson or bass player Jamaaladeen Tacoma, but I'd bet you've heard some of their playing. Johnson is well known as a session musician, playing with everyone from pop stars like Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel to Paul Shaffer's house band for David Letterman. His guitar work is something you don't normally get treated to because he rarely plays away from the studio. His plaid pants and green axe were alive with motion, and his constant key changes were like watching an experiment in sound that recalled everyone from Vernon Reid to Sonny Sharrock. During certain sections he would roam deeply into the jam and just when you thought he would be lost forever in a sea of his own notes, he would pull the reins by holding one hand on the neck of his guitar as his fingers subtly tapped out the rhythm of the song and pulled him back in line with the groove being laid down by the others. The night's music was so hot that he had to take a seat just to finish the last few songs.
| Billy Martin :: 12.16 :: Philly|
Tacoma was all business as his bolo hat bounced in time to his menacing thumps. His connection to Weston is from three decades ago during the Ornette Coleman days of Prime Time. Each time I see him he has seemingly gotten more vibrant and more vicious in the pocket. He whipped his bass around as he wrapped up each jam with a funky bow. Tacoma's slogging marches turned to solos as he demonstrated his diverse repertoire by adding in classical sounding, finger plucked runs that could have been danced to by sugar plum fairies one moment and screwed to by an aging porn queen the next. Unlike Johnson, as the show wore down Tacoma only gained steam as he bounced along with a little extra holiday cheer in his dance.
The hour and a half romp finished with a massive flowing jam that brought the house down as Weston's classic screams of delight bubbled over because of the spirited interplay. The Drug Bunny had cometh and it brought together the legends of jazz and funk past and present. G. Calvin Weston, Billy Martin, Jamaaladeen Tacoma and Jeff Lee Johnson. Remember those names, because they are both naughty and nice. And to all you freaky people, a funky good night.
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