SPACE COWBOYS VS. THE PLACEBO SYNDROME

Like Homer Simpson, many of us who once rock ‘n’ rolled all night and partied every day now find ourselves lucky to have an hour every week in which to get funky. I take these concerns for our precious booty shakin’ time seriously. So, I’ve decided to embark on an exploration that’s more than just knee deep into the indigenous & extraterrestrial soul being spread around the greater San Francisco area in 2003.

After bearing witness to the holy vibeathon at the SF Funk Fest Allstars extravaganza last year, I decided that I needed to rededicate myself to asking the question, “What is soul?” It’s not just a hamhock in your corn flakes and I’m determined to find out whose making it so funky you can smell it.

We begin at the beer soaked neighborhood hang, the Starry Plough, on a sleepy night Thursday in Berkeley…

Matt Berkeley Group, Brown Baggin' and U.F.M. 1-16-03
When I walk in Matt Berkeley is already behind his Fender Rhodes leading his jazz unit through some cookin’ territory. They’ve been on a few minutes the doorman tells me and his grin lets me know he’s feeling it. That’s good. After all, funk is about feel far more than cerebral intricacy. It is the freeing of asses and minds will hopefully follow. I catch a spot near the dartboard so I can watch the band without them watching me. I’m on a groove safari and I want to hide in the bluff, let the music come to me.

These are jazz musicians playing funk not the other way around. Mister Berkeley’s Group likes all the clever changes & compositional dynamics of jazz even as it’s used in service of soul. Just a few tunes make it clear they spend a LOT of time with their instruments. The live setting brings out a wild hair in them that makes them bust out of the straight jacket of composition to crank out spastically inspired free flights. And afterall, that’s the heart of this stripe of funk, the solos. Most of the tunes, both originals and works from Wayne Shorter and other 60’s giants, work the traditional formula of statement of theme followed by a series of solos and then a restatement of theme. The quality of the individual spotlight sections makes or breaks the music.

While Matt has said that their touchstone is Horace Silver, and clearly Wayne Shorter is in there holding up a corner of their holy ghost building, I think they come across like Lee Morgan’s own sidewinder; same cocky sureness, same gnarly technique, same boogaloo energy. Wherever it comes from it’s got a good beat and your mind can dance along. This is bop on the downstroke, fragrantly funk filled. It’s in the epileptic abandon of their leader, his left hand hanging in the air conjuring music from the right. It’s in the James Blood Ulmer on Thai stick right-the-hell on-ness of guitarist Mike Abraham (a real find, children, keep those ears wide open for this one). It’s in the careful following and crackling fills of Adam Goodhue (drums) and Eugene Warren (bass). Only alto sax player Noah Enelow failed to throw off the same kind of sparks. He’s technically proficient but has the kind of lightness I associate with David Sanborn after he left Gil Evans Orchestra.

Still, they continue the tradition of electricity running headlong into jazz and they do so with their own stamp. Even the agit-prop bent of people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Pharoah Sanders emerges in compositions like “Democracy Blues” and “9 Pulses of Peace” reminding us that protest music need not always be a folk song. The bell-like tones of the Rhodes were a welcome chime in a country constantly under the din of war drums. It was a performance that made me curious about them, curious enough to see them again and curious enough to check out Reorchestra, the other guise of Berkeley, Goodhue, Enelow and Abraham where they delve into modern deep grooves.

Unfortunately, the other two acts on the bill did not manage to put their own stamp on the funk. Both Brown Baggin’ and U.F.M. (Urban Funk Machine) come across as recreations of other, better bands. From the wah-wah laden guitar of Brown Baggin’ to the tightly sculpted horn section of U.F.M. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was listening to a recording instead of a live band during their sets. The music is clean and precise and very much like artists like Funk Inc. (who Brown Baggin’ covered) and Tower of Power (clearly the model for U.F.M.). But being like these acts only makes me ask what new do you bring to this, what was it you wanted to say that is unique and not just a swoony homage to by-gone times?

Neither U.F.M. nor Brown Baggin’ is a bad band. Far from it. They play solidly enough and seemed to move the bar crowd effectively. For me, the dilemma is with so much amazing music being made on stages every night of the year why pour one’s energy into something that’s merely okay? That may sound overly harsh but it isn’t intended that way. If my thing was the scene, the swilling of brew and the low light intensity of club life then both acts would foot the bill nicely. I put up with the noise and the chatter of clubs for the music. That’s my mission, always and forever, and tonight the Matt Berkeley Group took the match by a decision.

Digression No. 1
It’s time to leave James Brown alone. Papa has taken his brand new bag and moved on. With all the tribute bands that fill the nightlife where is the Donny Hathaway Street Band? The Curtis Mayfield Memorial Orchestra? How about a group solely focused on the early Funkadelic catalog, the pre-horns grinders like “Qualify & Satisfy” or “Funky Dollar Bill”? The frustration for me as a funkateer has long been that most bands don’t dig deep enough. It’s as if Funk stops with James Brown, Sly Stone, The Meters and a handful of others. Even if musicians don’t want to devote their whole schtick to another person’s songs it would be nice to see a war-horse like “Sex Machine” retired. Instead try new takes on uber-gems like the Ntu Troop’s “Celestial Blues” or Al Green’s “Love Ritual” or the Brothers Johnson’s “The Devil” or even the jazz-rock freakout of Gary Burton’s “Vibrafinger.” Dig deeper, dig as deep as your audience does, and then don’t be surprised if folks don’t start diggin’ YOU deeper.

Bizar Bazaar 1-17-03, Boom Boom Room, San Francisco, CA
Michael Bizar attacks his guitar with a bite that revels in the joy of repetition. It’s only the first number and he’s already throwing his head back and easing into his “O” face. His tone is clean and fresh as a breeze and the band lock it down tight as Dick Cheney’s hidden fortress inside of Mount Rushmore. Guests Jason Concepcion (guitar, Netwerk:Electric and Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars) and Joe Cohen (sax, Cannonball and Brass Monkey) watch the music, tossing in a pinch here and there, waiting for an opening, just a sliver to slide into. To merely call this engaged would miss the feral delight happening up there. This is where instrumental gunslingers come to draw leather. And there is no doubt this will be a Friday night showdown to reckon with.

Very quietly, without silver trumpets & town criers, Bizar Bazaar has developed into a band confidant enough to play with just about anyone. In a live music scene that takes guests as de rigour it is still no small thing to perform week after week with an ever changing cast of partners in crime. Tuesdays have become something special at the Boom Boom since whoever sits in will be playing with four terrific musicians. The few times I’ve been lucky enough to make it out on a weeknight to hear them have always hugely rewarded me. All four men have the casual mastery I associate with the behind-the-scenes wizards who played with Steely Dan or even the gritty fusion of early Return To Forever; players who are good enough to set aside the ego tripping and just lay into the music with both fists.

They’ve also managed to figure out how to play to a bar crowd without losing their intensity or complexity. Sweeter Latin jaunts alternate with watermelon men and other familiar territory but they do so with an ear for twisting standards that brings to mind Coltrane’s Ballads where he brought in sheet music of popular ballads and let the classic quartet have their way with it. Instead of adhering to the formula I mentioned above of theme-solos-theme they blur the transitions by letting everyone wail when the mood strikes them. The logic of this music is made in the moment, fired up and maybe a bit sloppy at times but always in a good way. That they can be tight enough to bounce a quarter off them AND still maintain the blood & sex of rock ‘n’ roll with their jamming has continually impressed me.

Tonight they have two veterans of their residency laying in the cut and the smiles are all around. Without the first night jitters to contend with they can play it loose. Freed from the usual routine, they dive into a Friday night with gusto. Simon Rochester coaxes a busy Cecil Taylor like note cluster from his electric piano and a guy standing by the bar screams. Not a polite “yahoo” or even a boozy “woo” but a real bellow. What they play has that kind of primal viscosity, a thickness that oozes under the skin and makes nerve endings wake up.

Throughout the night Jason is a Zen archer, choosing his shots with care and silent wisdom. When he lets it go he brings the funk hard with all the sucker punch glory of Melvin Sparks with a technical proficiency that truly does seem impossible for his youthful self to possess. Cohen rides along taking care not to overpower the rest of the band as so many horn players are want to do. His knack for knowing when to barrel ahead and when to hang back is impeccable and really adds to the overall together vibe.

The shaolin monk rhythm section, Murph on bass and Lucas Carlton on drums, move as one mind except for the few well-chosen breakouts they indulge in. All their movement goes into their instruments, nothing is wasted or showy or staged. It is the lean three-bowl meal of the Taoist acolyte, the essence of beat & breath distilled. For me they unlock the door to Bizar Bazaar’s true identity, the one that resides the below the chameleon nature of their musical chairs. It is a passionate dedication to the almighty Groove that encompasses the many faces of funk. Carlton and Murph create the pulse that beats strong and true in this body. This is how they can play like the Butterfield Blues Band with Mark Karan one week and then bang out a Tuvan trance funk with John Whooley the next. All finds its place in the 10,000 Things in some supercalifragisexy way.

Two sets, two pockets of creation brimming over with fun and frenzy, another fine night in the Bazaar. If that seems like less than ample praise it comes with the understanding that the consistency and invention of this group and their collaborators is nearly always a guarantee of such a night. The patina of so much gigging, with all the discipline & dedication inherent in it, gives them a warm glow that does not soon fade.

Digression No. 2
Where have all the sweet soul sistahs gone? There’s top-drawer jazz singers like Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones sure but I’m talking about the Detroit City belters, the Tina to all these Ikes, the new Janis to try just a little bit harder. Where’s the calming female Ying to balance out the raging male Yang? Or for that matter, where’s the Yang rich women who could inject real life into the more Ying oriented smoothness exemplified by water treaders like Soulive? I want a mama who makes me “Think (About It)” like grand old Lyn Collins. None of the chartbusters like Macy Gray or Mary J. Blige do it for me. There’s no grit and their sexuality is just another commodity to be pandered instead of fuel for a fire thick enough to make you choke from the smoke. Where’s the new millennium’s Parlet? Where are the Pointer Sisters in their Allen Toussaint period, the kind of trio that could really make your sap rise? Give me just one lady who sings like Marva Whitney and I will surely pass the peas…

Ten Ton Chicken (TTC) 1-22-03 Recording Session at iMusicast
I sneak in through the door that’s been left ajar for me. For the first few minutes I lean against a wall in the lobby and listen to the Chicken play. They’re tighter than Scrooge McDuck’s coin purse. They move as a soulful Voltran where every part does what it should for the greater good. Guitarist Gary Morrell slices off a wafer thin solo and lays it on top of what everyone else is playing. One of his gifts is being able to say something on his instrument without having to take away from what his bandmates are doing. The sonics of it are prickly and sharp, a shot of cactus juice that cools the heat around him.

Stepping into the main room it’s strange to be in a performance space with only a few other people. All the lights are on and everyone is in jeans & t-shirts. It’s a work party with a killer soundtrack. I smile watching Jamison Smeltz add perfect sax accents. He currently holds the spot as my favorite reed player around these parts. He uses such care in everything he has to say with his instrument. I am powerless to not focus on his playing when he’s blowing the soul out of his horn. He’s the only saxophonist who’s ever reminded me of Gary Bartz, my model for funk sax work ever since I heard him on Miles Davis’ Live Evil. One of the marks of really tremendous players is intelligent restraint and Smeltz has that in spades. When he does jump in it shows he’s thought about his contribution and he makes it count.

When I find out later in the evening that he put together a Yes tribute band last year for a fan event called Yescapade I like him all the more. Anyone with that much capacity to be a fan as well as a musician is fine by me. It takes heart to love music to that degree and it makes me feel a kinship with any player who also gushes for other artists. It lets me know we speak the same language.

Up in the recording booth I watch all Ten Tons of them bang away at several more songs. They are laying down tracks for their second album. After 3 nights of this they’re relaxed, obviously having a ball playing music for the sheer joy of playing it rather than for audience approval. What I hear tonight is THEIR sound coalescing. Where before I heard echoes of Little Feat or the Average White Band now I hear what is unique to them – a heady blend of spicy psychedelics, proggy expansion and seamless jams. To borrow a line from Deee-Lite’s Lady Kier, they can show you the endurance of a tantric yogi but they do so without ever sounding remotely like electronica. There’s hands and hearts to this soul flow and not for an instant would you mistake the sound for a machine.

At one point Tom Fejes, bassist, works on a lead vocal. He’s singing a little hard because he’s right there on a stage with everyone playing the song live. They are making an album the old fashioned way and I couldn’t be happier. No one is walled off in a booth, there’s no slew of disparate bits waiting to be assembled into a track, just five guys performing for a ghost audience. There’s no studio manipulation that can replace what happens when musicians can catch each other’s eye while recording, borrow that unspoken energy and put it back into notes being captured. At one point they express worry over a part one of them played on an otherwise terrific take. I remind them that’s the whole reason the Good Lord gave us Pro-Tools. I’m confidant what will remain after any post-production will still retain the aura of liveness. It sounds good enough in its raw state that I know I will be checking often to find out how it’s progressing.

They’re hopeful more people will check them out in 2003. Their publicist Bill observes that a lot of people have heard of TTC but not actually heard them. Think that’s a fair assessment. It’s the struggle of any live act dedicated to getting up on the good foot. Funk has a tendency to seem one-dimensional to the casual listener and if you’ve already got a Galactic or other established funk act filling that hole in your listening then why look elsewhere? Because a band like this might just be waiting to blow yo’ mind and open up your definition of what is soul in the nicest ways.

Further field trips in February will include Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Granola Funk Express and more. Stay up, people. Remember there ain’t no such thing as Superman so you gotta be your own superhero…

Dennis Cook
JamBase | East Bay
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[Published on: 1/31/03]

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