Funk Is As Funk Does
I couldn’t be more ecstatic over the infiltration of the funk. For the past few years the funk has been slowly absorbed into our everyday musical necessity, its free-spirited ethos and nasty, on-the-one swing taking over cars, bars, and dancefloors. From Coast to Coast, the nutty gritty funky formula has slowly seeped into the spirit and style of almost every one of the touring bands we love. It’s hard to find a band that hasn’t been touched by the funk’s fat chocolate finger — even whitebread noodlers like the former Phish eventually embraced the funk and rode its bootyshaking wave all the way to hiatus. There is little doubt that the funk, in all its forms, has left its indelible imprint on the scene, and we’re way better off for it.
Now that we’ve given all props to the funk, lets get back to its roots. I’m talking James Brown and Sly Stone, P-Funk and the Meters — I assume we all know our history. The roots of funk in the jamband scene began in the early nineties, at a time when a lot of young players were realizing that over-shredded, self-indulgent cockrocking just wasn’t interesting anymore. They began turning away from their classic rock lineage to find a sound more dynamic, soulful, and fun.
It was 1992 at the Berklee School of Music, and a few high school summer session kids exploded onto the Boston jazz scene with killer chops and bottomless energy. Drawn together at the altar of funky soul, Eric Krasno, Sam Kininger, Adam Deitch, Erick Coomes, Jeff Bhasker, and Ryan Zoidis began taking over local clubs and jam nights on borrowed sound equipment. Brash and precocious, the guys always got what they needed: “Let us borrow your gear.” “Let us play one more tune.” “Let us crash on your couch.” Thus Lettuce (“Let us…”) was born, and the funky gospel found another apostle.
Fortified and funkified by their Berklee experience, the fellas inevitably went their separate ways. A pool of talent this deep was bound to spill over into other projects, thankfully, and current funk forbearers Soulive, Kudu, The Squad, and the John Scofield Band each feature Lettuce alumni. So the timing is perfect—10 years and countless downstrokes later, Lettuce has regrouped and given us the blueprint of the new sound funky. Lettuce's Outta Here reflects the purest essence of the group’s musical tastes. It’s a reminiscence, an update, a tribute, and a damn good time. With the pedigree these guys carry, the album is a guaranteed barnburner, so if you’re looking for a nonstop upbeat gutbucket funkathon, you came to the right place.
Checking out the first couple tracks, the clearest influence at work is Parliament/Funkadelic. With Coomes’ jazzy bass lines and Smirnoff’s smooth, polished production, these tunes roll with a bright, clean feel that’s closer to Dr. Funkenstein’s gleaming mothership connection than the Godfather’s raw syncopated sex machine. The opening tune, “Outta Here,” sports a Clinton-esque bounce, further elasticized by guest Fred Wesley’s rubbery trombone. Bhasker’s wailing keyboards add a deep R&B vibe to “Squadlive,” which winds up with blazing brass and a laid-back refrain. John Scofield shows up for a swirling six-string duel with Krazno on “Back in Effect,” and the sultry vox of Tonni Smith create a Chaka Khan kinda vibe on “Twisted.” Things really heat up with Wesley’s second guest appearance on the aptly titled “Superfred,” a number that leans heavily towards the JB’s side of the court. Wesley and Kininger build an intense swell of horny horn riffs over Kraz’s quickfingered guitar to anthemic results. The infectious “Reunion” features some tight in-the-pocket drumming by Deitch, counterbalanced by Coome’s swollen low end and Kraz’s light, buttery licks.
“The Flu,” with Scofield revisiting on lead guitar, finds these all-stars stretching out with a hard-driving bass line and guitar wizardry that almost brings to mind the aforementioned Phish accompanied by the Giant Country Horns. The flanged-out drums and perplexing breaks make this the album’s most innovative tune. Presented in both studio and live formats, “Nyack” is red-hot JB’s flavor spiced with a couple jazzy horn/guitar solos that will spin your head. The disc’s only cover tune is an electrified rave up of Herbie Hancock’s classic “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” and naturally the band rips into this one with relish to turn out a heady, deep space vibe that would make the master Headhunter proud.
No, the funk is nothing new—it’s been around since the 4/4 rhythm of life began. But here in this package Lettuce lets us know it’s as fresh as fun as when Bootsy first donned the platform shoes and star glasses. Wherever the groove may take us, at some point we all fiend for the funk. Go ahead, take a bite of Lettuce, and get your RDA of funk straight from the source.
JamBase San Francisco Correspondent
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