NMS/Trombone Shorty | 03.13

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J Weiand

The New Mastersounds/Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave/Salvador Santana
03.13.10 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA

The New Mastersounds :: 03.13 :: San Francisco
Once music is stuffed under the "funk/soul" umbrella there's often little wiggle room. A certain tempo, energy, style, etc. is expected by the people putting cash on the barrelhead. This frequently leads to a homogeneous sound that's predictable, down to the frenetic, wide-open soloing and sanctioned sources covered (James Brown, The Meters, Prince, Sly, Al Green, Dr. John, Motown, Stax). Even regional differences blur in the sameness not just expected but tacitly demanded of "funk/soul" purveyors, whose core audiences come to dance and savor flavors already dear to them. So, it's a narrow tightrope to traverse if bands want to serve groove music's basic instincts AND push the boundaries a bit. At The Fillmore we got three bands located at fairly divergent spots on this spectrum, with the evening's headliner showing how one pirouettes on the high wire without missing a beat.

Salvador Santana and his tight, polished band kicked off the evening, and like his recent, quite winning solo album Keyboard City (JamBase review), their short set was summer afternoon warm and easy to like. However, the crispness and immediacy of the album wasn't quite matched by Santana's live presentation. His current mood recalls the crossover soul-rock of War, Donny Hathaway and even the bumpin' side of early Doobie Brothers – like I said, easy to like stuff. What gelled in the studio hasn't quite made its way to the stage, and things weren't helped much, outside of a little residual star power, by a forgettable guest appearance by Salvador's pop Carlos Santana, who just strummed along with one tune without setting off any fireworks.

One thing about Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. is they put on a reliably exciting, musically robust show. In the half dozen sets I've caught they've never been less than satisfying, but the dance floor igniters were especially on and particularly charismatic this night. There's an awful lot of talent stuffed into this band, and while Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews - just 24 and looking likely to conquer any mountain he sets his strong mind to – is the name upfront, he's gracious in sharing the spotlight and exudes real enthusiasm for this band's gifts. However, when the focus swings back his way his chops, talent and naked personal appeal is gripping. He kills on his brass instruments and he's got a strong, flexible voice, but this gig also featured some tasty Hammond organ action, which surprised some folks coming from a dude whose trombone skills suggest we're looking at this generation's Fred Wesley. The other standout onstage, as per usual, was guitarist Pete Murano, whose feel and tone instincts mark him as an emerging great. Plenty of assholes can shred their way into Guitar Player transcription notoriety, but Murano works it in a way you can feel in your limbs.

Trombone Shorty :: 03.13 :: San Francisco
However, the one wrinkle in an otherwise pretty amazing bit of musical entertainment is a similarity in setlist construction from show to show, which bubbled up again at The Fillmore despite the exceeding pleasure their performance engendered. Hearing them switchback between a spot-on cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and a mélange that married '50s Miles Davis-like bop to an oversized marching beat AND a strong dose of quality new jack swing and Cab Calloway, I felt sure that there's music outside the hometown New Orleans comfort zone that shapes the boundaries of their set. This is largely a young band and there's some very cool, original music lurking on the edges. Their newer originals, which will get a full airing on Shorty's new album Backatown (arriving April 20), suggest they're beginning to explore their own sound beyond the second line, James Brown and Meters moves they've gotten down very well already. Don't get me wrong, I was still wiggling like I got happily tasered during their set, and there's not many working the rich New Orleans traditions quite like Shorty and his boys. I'd just like to see where they'd go if they really took the brakes off and got as fearless as their music and potent drive suggests they might be.

I simply can't rave enough about The New Mastersounds, who have steadily risen to my top spot for a largely instrumental soul/funk band over the past few years. It would be SO easy for a quartet with such traditional instrumentation for this genre – Eddie Roberts (guitar, tambourine), Pete Shand (electric bass), Joe Tatton (Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes) and Simon Allen (drums) – to sound like a straight Meters knockoff or some derivative of any horn-less James Brown configuration – despite the fact they're from England. But they don't; they sound both classically grounded in the deepest roots of their chosen field – extending out to the most fiery, positive examples from '70s electric jazz, '90s acid jazz and contemporary dance music – and utterly their own men. From the opener onward, there was an inescapable sense of distinct personality to The New Mastersounds' music, rising both from their individual touches and their absolutely dead solid compositions – the latter aspect being one of the chief ways NMS differentiate themselves from the competition.

The New Mastersounds with Trombone Shorty :: 03.13
"We're at the bloody Fillmore!" whooped Eddie Roberts, who always looks a touch cooler than I'll ever be on my best day and seemed ridiculously at ease on the fabled stage. "Ease" is an appropriate word for this group, who rarely whomp one over the head with obvious moves or overly showy soloing. Like this show, they just seem to divine the sweet spot of each number and stroke it until it purrs. There's an unrushed charm to them, too, as if they'd all sipped of whatever nectar has fueled Charlie Watts endlessly unruffled demeanor all these years in the Rolling Stones. Taken together, they come across as a class act that's always playing precisely what they want to and has real empathy for what will swerve an audience in the right ways at the right times. Shuffling contentedly in front of the soundboard, it took mere minutes before I'd caught their current, which took me with a sureness I genuinely appreciate when trying to get my funk on.

Another way they move away from their peers is in being satisfying on a cerebral as well as, shall we say, a tactile level. Moving and feeling are swell, but for a giant sized music nerd like myself there's a great deal to parse and explore in their sound – the way each instrument is speaking and interacting with the others and the melody, all the texture and intelligent nuances they inject. Eyes closed below the lavender hued chandeliers, I felt a zing in my brain akin to the first time I encountered Miles Davis' post-Hendrix, post-Sly work, and particularly his many '70s live recordings. There's something irrepressibly alive about the Mastersounds' music, and though there's greater discipline and less of a wild hair than Miles' last great outpouring, this band stokes some of the same fires as the master.

It's as if they've spent the last 10-plus years together pondering and then executing ALL the possibilities of their configuration they can figure out. While they do well incorporating guest vocalists and other high-end musicians, they're usually at their best with the four of them, playing hot potato with their solos or gliding collectively into the curves of their songs. As this Fillmore show testified, NMS is always fun, never less than highly stimulating and living proof that, despite the perceived limitations of the genre, there are some artists capable of teaching old dogs new tricks.

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[Published on: 3/25/10]

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