The Boston Phoenix November 30 - December 7, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Blue Notes

Medeski Martin & Wood and Soulive

by Michael Endelman

Soulive On a Friday night in late October, around 2000 folks pack Avalon for an evening of hip twitching and booty shaking. Calling out for their favorite tunes, egging the soloists on, and grinding their way through a 90-minute set, the young crowd -- equally divided among young granola-rock twirlers, buttoned-up khaki types, and collegiate white caps -- aren't getting down to hip-hop or house. They're grooving to an idiom that dates back 50 years -- organ-driven jazz. The band on stage are Soulive, and though they might look like Village Vanguard regulars, with their natty charcoal-gray suits and restrained late-night cool, their music is everything that contemporary jazz typically isn't: accessible, danceable, and celebratory.

Soulive are a perfect example of the type of funky jazz (or is it jazzy funk?) that's stealing "America's classical music" back from academe, hotel bars, and Lincoln Center and returning it to smoky nightclubs and sweaty dance halls. In the early '90s, acid-jazz groups like Groove Collective and the Greyboy Allstars (both still active) tried something similar by reviving the funky hard bop, soul jazz, and Latin boogaloo of the '60s and '70s. But this time, the jazz establishment isn't just taking notice, it's lending support: Downbeat focused an entire issue on Phish and their jam-band brethren earlier this year; former Miles Davis guitarist John Scofield has become a fixture on the jam-band circuit; and Blue Note, the granddaddy of jazz labels, has expanded its roster to include improv-rock regulars like eight-string-guitar whiz Charlie Hunter, the bluegrassy Jazz Mandolin Project, avant-organ trio Medeski Martin & Wood, and, most recently, the Boston-based jazz-jam outfit Soulive.

Jazz record companies have actually been keeping their eye on the groove-jazz movement for a few years, ever since MMW's grassroots marketing strategy and road-warrior attitude made them one of the most popular instrumental jazz acts in the country. More than just a hard-touring work ethic, MMW, who play the Orpheum tonight (November 30), have a wide and wild conception of contemporary jazz; drawing equally from Sun Ra star searching, the Meters' N'awlins shuffle, reggae's heartbeat skank, and minimalist trip-hop cool, they've proved to Phish fans, funk junkies, and the NPR nation that contemporary jazz can be as mind-stretching as psychedelic rock, and as groove-centric as a Buena Vista spinoff.

With this type of open-eared and established fan base, MMW can afford to take chances, and they do -- at the 1999 Boston Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival they opened with a full hour of free improvisation that skipped from dissonant blasts of noise to off-kilter rhythmic vamps. And their new full-length, The Dropper (Blue Note), follows that train of thought even farther out into the stratosphere. Eschewing crowd-pleasing funk and ear-catching hooks, it takes a quantum leap into the out-there with spooky sound sculpting, grubby trip-hop, and skronky, corrosive jam sessions. More ominous and moodier than anything MMW have recorded in the past, The Dropper is their most challenging release since their cantankerous 1992 debut, Notes from the Underground, came out on the Boston-based indie jazz label Accurate.

Medeski, Martin & Wood Snagging hip-hop/electronica producer Scotty Hard (Wu-Tang Clan, Gravediggaz), MMW finally create the electro-jazz hybrid that they aimed for on 1998's DJ Logic-laced Combustication (Blue Note). The Dropper's sonic stamp -- gritty amp buzz and sputter, lo-fi dub fluctuations, clamorous and claustrophobic beat science -- takes jazz's audiophile tendencies to the aural junkyard, dressing everything up in heavy layers of grime. Leading MMW into the landfill is schizoid keyboardist John Medeski, who sets aside his virtuoso keyboard chops for knob-twisting experiments of analog pulse and stompbox blast. "We Are Rolling" begins the album with seven minutes of caustic feedback blurts over a Billy Martin drum groove that flip-flops between drunken stumble and hip-hop head nod. The title track sounds like a mud-caked dubplate dug up from Lee "Scratch" Perry's backyard; "Norah 6" is slow-drip trip-hop that rivals anything in Tricky's catalogue for pure gothic terror. Only "Note Bleu," a noir-blues shuffle featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, feels like the MMW of old. Overall The Dropper replaces melody with mood, and hip shake with head spin.

Combustication sold more than 100,000 copies -- small change in the pop marketplace but blockbuster numbers in the jazz world. Eager to repeat this success, Blue Note has been searching through the improv-rock underground to find the next funky-jazz superstars. Eli Wolf, manager of A&R at Blue Note, didn't have to look very hard to find Soulive: their two-song live demo fell into his hands in November of last year.

"It was one of the many discs that float across my desk," Wolf recalls over the phone from New York, "but I was immediately grabbed by their sound. The press photo showed three really young musicians, but the music was so deep that they almost sounded like old souls. They had the sound and feel of older jazz musicians, but it was mixed with this more contemporary æsthetic and energy."

My first encounter with Soulive was equally as unexpected: I saw them open up for local jazz-fusionoids the Miracle Orchestra during a keg-fueled party at Jamaica Plain's Bad Grrrl Studios last winter. At the time, they seemed like a gimmick destined for frat-party status: three guys in dapper suits laying down beefed-up versions of jazz-funk chestnuts. Since then, though, Soulive have honed and improved their sound with relentless touring. They've also released an independent CD, Turn It Out (Velour Recordings), and it's sold around 20,000 copies -- sales figures that rival those of top-notch modern jazz artists like Greg Osby and Joe Lovano.

Next to such heady sax cats, of course, Soulive still sound pretty green. They lack the highly developed melodic language, the harmonic complexity, and the compositional rigor that characterizes jazz of the post-bop era. But Wolf argues that they have something different to offer. "My personal view is that jazz has always been very conservative and elitist in a kind of way. I feel like Soulive is not very elitist, it's not as cerebral. Essentially it's dance music -- but not in the disco sense of the word -- and it has a potential to reach a new, young audience that finds straight-ahead jazz inaccessible.

"There are a lot of talented young musicians out there who aren't totally content playing straight-ahead jazz. They think of it as something from the past, or they get caught in that historical quagmire of just learning Coltrane licks and then never moving past that. Soulive succeeds by fusing the soul jazz of the past with what's going on today."

That's an accurate description of Soulive's sound. The group's starting point is the funky jazz played by artists like Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, and Jimmy Smith in the '60s and '70s, musicians who merged an improvisational vocabulary rooted in blues and bebop with rhythmic concepts learned from the black pop of the time -- James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone. And like those '60s soul-jazz artists, Soulive are working to incorporate elements of contemporary music -- hip-hop, R&B, electronica, and rock -- into their sound.

Backstage before their gig at Avalon, the trio -- organist Neal Evans, his brother Alan Evans on drums, and guitarist Eric Krasno -- emphasize the hip-hop, electronica, and dub flavor of their upcoming Blue Note debut, which is scheduled for March, while downplaying the retro organ-jazz label that follows them around. "I've never heard us tagged as that, so that'd be a first," is Neal Evans's incredulous response. And that's too bad, because in many ways Soulive's tasteful recycling job is what makes them so appealing. Eschewing vocals, elaborate signal processing, and labored compositional twists, the trio's stripped-down æsthetic is a welcome relief from the stompbox overload, prog-influenced songwriting, and turntablist wankery that's infected the jam-band scene like a virus. Soulive's sonic foundation -- throaty Hammond B-3 swells, spidery guitar lines, and cymbal-driven drum cycles -- is a warm, organic sound that dates back to the 1950s, and their compositional style is equally familiar, balancing earthy blues with tangy chromatic touches. The chord changes aren't exactly "Giant Steps" caliber, but they have enough twists and turns to destroy basic I-IV-V expectations.

Soulive's real audience appeal has less to do with jazz than with their expert manipulation of basic funk elements into multi-climaxing trips for both brain and booty. Instead of imitating the ultra-syncopated style of the Meters or the mid-tempo bump of P-Funk, they've developed a brand of funk that blends Art Blakey, James Brown, and DJ Premier. Alan Evans rides the cymbals like a jazz man but pounds the snare with a crackling 808 snap; Eric Krasno pushes the beat forward with Jimmy Nolen chicken scratch, and his effusive soloing tears through the top end with a mixture of Grant Green-style directness, unhinged wah-wah tears, and yearning B.B. King bends.

Some straight-jazz fans may feel that Blue Note's signing of a jam band like Soulive is a sign of falling standards. But such criticism would suggest an idealized view of the 61-year-old label and a case of selective memory. Although Blue Note's history might look like a continuous series of serious mind-blowing triumphs (Miles Davis! Thelonious Monk! Herbie Hancock!), the label has tempered its high-minded jazz explorations with often blatant attempts at rock-pop crossover. Poring over the label's '60s discography, one finds a Grant Green interpretation of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," a Lou Donaldson version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and Stanley Turrentine's rerub of "Blowin' in the Wind." In many ways, the popularity of Soulive and other hard-touring funk-jazz acts like Karl Denson and the Greyboy Allstars is reminiscent of a much earlier era. As Blue Note's Wolf points out, "The '20s and '30s were the last time jazz musicians played dancehalls. So this is like a return to the Swing Era, when jazz was also danceable pop."

Medeski, Martin & Wood headline the Orpheum tonight, November 30. Call 423-NEXT.

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