Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine Find the Groove

Potently intelligent, pensively psychedelic, soul/funk band Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine’s new album The Only Way Out Is In sneaks up on you. Taken as a whole, it’s a mood piece, but it’s also a slinky dance album. What’s most impressive is how aware Rooker is. With her brooding, sometimes sultry, sometimes wounded contralto voice, her lyrics draw just as deeply from conscious hip-hop as from classic soul and funk. The band behind her plays with jazz chops, but with restraint: her collaborator Ben Tyree on guitar, Mamiko Watanabe on electric piano, Lawrence Qualls on drums, Jahmal Nichols handling most of the bass work, V. Jeffrey Smith on tenor and soprano saxes plus a number of guests including John Medeski on organ on several tracks along with Will Martina (of Burnt Sugar) on cello. The album kicks off auspiciously with What If, an existentialist’s dilemma:

What if there’s no rules
What if there’s no truth
What if all we’re believing is a story that we choose
What if what they told you
Don’t ever come true
Better come up with your own script
To live your life through

It sets the tone for the rest of the album, guitar and organ shifting over a slow, fluid, hip-tugging organic groove, with an aptly apprehensive trombone solo from Roland Barber.

The bouncy third-wave soul of Sellin Ya Soul brings back memories of acts like Sandra St. Victor back in the 90s. “I could be a pretty good plenty o’thangs but none of which could touch just being me and I’m good with that, thank you very much,” Rooker asserts. They follow that with the hypnotic I Feel Like and its dark, goth-tinged bassline: “Lord help me remember what I’m fighting for.” The next track, Play is wickedly catchy indie funk – did these guys used to go see Noxes Pond play shows around town about ten years ago? Weather offers blippy, rainy-day ambience; the big ballad Thank You is a trip back in time to Memphis, contrasting with the minimalist bass pulse of Rise and the lush balminess of the title track.

Rooker goes ballistic and straight to the target with the cinematic cautionary tale When We Gon Care, a furiously potent rant against a laundry list of evils: disinformation by the corporate media, the destruction of the environment by multinational corporations, drug companies inventing phony diseases to sell worthless “cures,” and most of all, apathy. It’s Jello Biafra updated for the teens, with better vocals. They wrap up the album with an instrumental, a James Brown-inspired number and the gospel-infused Wait in Line. Count this as one of the most kick-ass albums to come over the transom here recently. Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine play the big room at the Rockwood on Jan 23 at 8.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Secretary – Secret Life of Secretary

This is the solo project by Moist Paula Henderson, frontwoman and baritone sax player from New York’s terrific all-instrumental trio Moisturizer (Moist Paula from Moisturizer: get it?). On the album, she plays all the instruments, meaning lots of bari sax, sometimes played through Garageband patches so they sound like other instruments. This could be the soundtrack to a really cool indie film. Let’s make some pizza bagels and watch the movie. Are you down?

The movie’s first scene is South Carolina Holiday. It’s a balmy, beachy day, not a cloud in the sky and not even hungover, listening to some dreamy, ambient sax lines. Suddenly it’s almost 5 in the morning and the scene shifts to a Dominican restaurant: you can almost smell the spices rising in the steam from the rice and beans and fresh chuletas. Mofongo Raincheck, which sounds like a song from Paula’s band, is playing: a catchy, sexy vamp set to a Latin beat with bongos and surprisingly authentic-sounding upright bass patches. It builds to a wild little interlude as a couple of scary-looking, drunk dudes enter the joint but ultimately nothing bad happens.

After the restaurant, suddenly it’s a crowded mini-mall somewhere in the Midwest except that it’s way after it should be closed and the sketchy dudes from the Dominican place are back and suddenly they’re running after somebody. It’s Instant Messenger Dream, bari sax grating through a distortion pedal, disquieting and weird, pairing what’s essentially a classical melody with a heavy metal feel against layers of ambient sax washes.

Just outside the mall at the edge of the parking lot, a girl is looking at her reflection under the lights in a shop window and rehearsing what she’s going to have to say to get Daddy’s Approval. Tastily doubletracked saxes play over weird, out-of-time electronic blips and bleeps.

Suddenly a Mouse appears and moves its mouth. It sounds like low bass synth with someone having fun with the portamento lever, holding down the low notes as attractively thoughtful, upbeat sax flies overhead. It’s Moist Paula the jazzcat. This a long scene, it gives the mouse a chance to go for an Oscar and the sax player to show off her great chops and sense of melody.

Then the New Age Ladies enter. This part of the soundtrack could also be a Moisturizer song if it had a real rhythm section behind it, layers of ambience over a percussion loop, what sounds like string synth and then a cimbalom. Where did that come from. And why are those women on the yoga mats wearing Hungarian capes and have all those rings on their fingers?

Jump cut to the inside of some tourist trap in Chelsea, a mob scene packed with fat old Wall Street guys in fancy suits smoking cigars and hitting on high school girls from central Jersey with big hair and way too much foundation. I guess they call this 10 Sex. One of those obnoxious drum machines is going whoomp whoomp whoomp whoomp. Ugh. Time for a bathroom break. Fast forward to the next scene, would you please?

OK, we’re back. This is where Moisturizer can be seen in the background if you look closely: I’ll bet the girls would love to play this one live. This must be Risk Failure, which starts with a snapping funk bass line, then a super catchy sax melody. When the camera pans to the Vietnamese Restaurant at the corner, the waitresses have all gathered around an older Arab gentleman who’s playing backgammon by himself while the waitresses sway in time and yet more sax hooks kick in over what sounds like gamelan percussion. Then an oud begins to play, the Arab gent gets up and opens his suit coat. Inside there is a leather holster with a spatula inside.

All this is Not It Vain (as opposed to Not In Vain). Right about here the movie gets very 80s. Is that Scott Bakula? He looks exactly like he’s always looked (just like every annoying boss I ever had). Didn’t know he was still acting. There’s a synthesizer, the images speed up early MTV-style, then suddenly slow down. There’s a gorgeously melodic bluesy sax way in the background. Something is going on here, you have to look very closely and suddenly it’s very different, very bleak. Someone has a Decrepit Heart. A dancer enters the frame, swaying sadly to a trip-hop beat, layers of synth chorus singing a sad refrain as she moves all by herself to an imaginary band.

And then the movie is over. The credits roll against a montage of of mountain and riverbank images. A tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman is messing with her cellphone and not hearing anything. Must be No Service in the Poconos. Layers of saxes play against each other, rubato. It’s completely random yet melodic at the same time.

So there you have it, a delightful, utterly surreal sound movie. Sundance, are you listening? This further solidifies Paula Henderson’s reputation not only as a rocker and a frontwoman but also as a bonafide, serious composer with jazz chops and a completely unique sense of humor. It will lift your mood and make you see a lot of things you probably never imagined before. Great album.

May 17, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments