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[Off The Record]
Stars graphics
Topaz, Ulu
(Velour), (Phoenix Presents)
3 stars, 2 ˝ stars

The world of funk can be divided into two camps: the rough (the Meters, James Brown) and the smooth (Earth Wind & Fire, Roy Ayers). Listen!, the second album by the New York–based jazz-funk octet Topaz, falls squarely on the polished side of the divide. Topaz boast a sound that’s plush and almost languorous in its use of pillow-soft keyboards, watery wah-wah wiggles, and airbrushed horn lines. It’s backed by muscular grooves, but this is headphone funk in the vein of Miles’s In a Silent Way, Donald Byrd’s Kofi, and Bill Laswell’s modern dub — big beats buried underneath long modal vamps, ethnic flourishes, and spacy ambiance. At their most indulgent, Topaz stretch an idea past the 11-minute mark, turning the title track and “Dharma” into marathon exercises of lung control and staying power. As the horn players exhaust their hard-bop licks, they dig deeper, reaching for discordant burn and fiery squawk. It’s like Pharoah Sanders’s pop-wise free jazz, with the black rage turned down. And in the spirit of that psychedelic era, Listen! includes a couple of wide-eyed vocal numbers — “Let Go” and “Peyote Eyes” — that embrace new-age wordplay at its most cloying and ridiculous. But the setting is so supple and soothing that it’s almost excusable. Almost.

Ulu are another New York-based jazz-funk act who’ve built up a following on the groove-obsessed jam-band scene. And like Topaz, they have their smooth side — they’re fond of vague ambient intros, and tenor-saxist/flutist Scott Chasolen digs smearing his sound with echo. But for the most part, Ulu play a stickier brand of music. On “The Grape” and “Dilly Dally,” the quintet achieve a sort of pointillist funk — short melodic fragments, chewy clavinet stabs, and spiky drum syncopations combine into a groove that sounds complete only from a distance. Single-horn bands can be a pain to endure, with Coltrane-style shredding all night long. But frontman Chasolen shows restraint, mixing the directness of R&B honker King Curtis with some bebop slipperiness. And like a lot of the groove-jazz acts, Ulu have absorbed elements of free jazz’s collective improv — slow-burn solos build up to a climax of rumbling tom-tom flurries, feedback freakout, and raucous saxophone. But drummer David Hoffman always pulls the band back just as they reach the edge of the cliff. They should take a chance and fall into the abyss.

(Topaz and Ulu perform downstairs at the Middle East this Saturday, February 3. Call 864-EAST.)