The Zone, which appears to have slipped out some time ago, is one of those unheralded affairs that puts many far more hyped-up projects to shame. It may even be the best jazz-funk set for a decade and those pundits who have claimed Topaz as New York’s finest live act can no longer be dismissed as cranks or relatives of the band. On the evidence here, Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz in their prime would have struggled to match, for energy and panache, the musicians known by their saxophonist leader’s single and singular name.
Actually it’s not really jazz-funk in the usual Liston Smith-Ayers sense. It’s all a bit more sweaty and freebooting than that. It’s also more jazzy. “Jazzy funk” or “funky soul-jazz” get a little closer to this particular groove. And what a groove. The nearest we have heard to this recently was the early Greyboy Allstars and even that fine West Coast outfit lacked the muscle and musicianship of the New York crew. It is jazz for the dancefloor certainly, but don’t expect anything either digital or solo-free—these guys play and have serious “chops” as we pensioners used to say.
Who are they? Topaz himself is Texan and this is his third release. The drummer is Christian Ulrich from the remarkably fine Cooly’s Hot Box, who with singer Angela Johnson have been making some of the best soul music around but nobody in the States seems to have noticed. Guitarist Mark Tewarson plays with the well thought-of folk-soul act, Maroon. I don’t know the others, but bassist Jason Kriveloff is what a funk bass-player should be, meaty and mobile. Nor have I come across trombonist Squantch (?) and keyboard player Ethan Evans,which has obviously been my loss. The latter pair are my discoveries of the year, for Evans plays Fender Rhodes as you remember it should be played while the oddly named trombonist has as dirty and dramatic a couple of solos as you will hear outside a Rosewell Rudd recording. All in all, this is a superior band who see no contradiction between good times and good music.
Nine tracks make up the package, all of them fairly lengthy work-outs and not a dud in earshot. “Minha Mente” is the first of these and features a wicked two-man horn riff, exquisite keyboard work and an infectious vocal hook. If that is not enough Topaz executes a flighty but breathy solo over some chopped guitar chords that highlights a perfect balance of melody and rhythm that, happily, continues throughout the set.
Another chanted chorus holds “I Can See It in You” together. This one is the Blackbyrds plus Fender Rhodes and would have been an Acid Jazz anthem if it had been discovered on some obscure Strata East album. Compelling and with a trombone solo as tough and torrid as they come. Already this is an album worth owning.
A definite Tex-Mex and general Latin flavour hovers around “Walkabout”. Think War playing Mingus’ “Tijuana Moods” with a touch of Jerry Garcia guitar thrown in. Topaz tops it all off with a somewhat Barbieri-like solo.Back to New York for the very urban “4th and D” which cruises along steadily while Topaz gets increasingly intense around a mean and moody hook. Again, late ‘50s Mingus comes to mind. Amplified “Ah Um”, if you can picture that. More straightforward funk arrives in the shape of “You and Me”, which is all popping bass and wah-wah pedals although the horn solos are post-bop orthodoxy itself.
The band makes a final trip south of the border for the title track and then travels further afield for the almost Egyptian-sounding “Naked”. After that it’s back to the States with the self-explanatory “Fat City Strut”. All these tunes are drum-skin tight and organised around standard funk riffs, but all allow the soloists to leap off into excursions of considerable freedom and complexity. This tension between the demands of both the dancefloor and individual expression is the crux of the session and it is always creatively resolved rather than awkward or even schizophrenic, as in lesser hands it could easily have been.
The icing on this very rich cake comes in the form of UK soulstress Caron Wheeler, who sings “The World Is a Ghetto” over a typically inventive arrangement of that war-horse (sorry). I’m not the biggest fan of the ex-Soul to Soul star but her appearance may tempt a few jazz-wary soul fans towards this joyful and always engaging set. I hope so, as I hope similarly that the more straitlaced modernists don’t turn their noses up at such robust and down-to-earth fare. The standard of performance and the sheer drive of this genuinely funky and genuinely jazzy outfit should appeal to the unblinkered across a number of genres.
I read that Topaz do a lot of warm-ups for some bigger “names”. I really pity any act that has to follow this bunch. They would blow all but the most forceful band out of the city, never mind off the stage.