New Orleans jazz drummer Stanton Moore is ready to take you to school.
Stanton Moore has time and again proven himself to be one funky drummer. He is something of a touchstone in jazz-funk these days, thanks to his skin work with Charlie Hunter, John Scofield, John Medeski, Dr. John, Galactic, and the list just goes on from there. He has spent at least a decade working his way into the big leagues, so now what? Well, here's one way to take it a step further: Approach your funky grooves academically. Moore's latest album, Groove Alchemy, simultaneously drops with an instructional DVD and book, dissecting his percussive approach for aspiring drummers.
It’s strange to think of funk music actually being "studied", since it's supposed to just be loose and fun, but things aren't that simple if you are a drummer. As a drummer, everyone relies on you to keep the tempo going, to not allow your confidence or concentration slip. This is important in rock bands, where the drummer is the backbone. But when it comes to the funky jazz coming out of New Orleans, the drummer is in the driver's seat. And I'm pretty sure they call shotgun too. Everyone else is in the back.
If you can't tell by this point, Groove Alchemy is all about the beats and rhythms, which is pretty obvious since it's meant to be a teaching tool. Bandmates Robert Walter (Hammond B3 organ, piano) and Will Bernard (guitar) are more than competent in their roles, and can certainly give an outfit like Medeski, Martin & Wood a run for their money. No one really busts out of these assignments either, making the trio sound like a Booker T. cover band that decided to write its own tunes.
There's still some cool things going on, though. The tracks "Pot Licker" and "Shiftless" are tense balls of energy that sound like they can’t be played any tighter, but somehow manage to give Moore some elbow room to flex his newfound meters. "Keep on Gwine", one of the album's covers, is nothing but straight-up, good old fashioned New Orleans tonk that can make the hardest of music cynics want to tap their toes (though it houses one of Moore's least imaginative drum solos).
Since most of Groove Alchemy finds itself in danger of wearing out its own grooves, it's worth mentioning that Moore and his trio change things up just slightly on the last two tracks. "Aletta" is a ballad of Turkish origin, written by Moore's father-in-law for Moore's wife. Not only is it different, since the guitar's melody is based on a non-Western scale, but the trio plays so softly in the last 20 seconds that you may think the song is over before it actually is. This stands in direct contrast to the first ten songs, where there was pretty much one dynamic throughout. Right after that is "He Stopped Loving Her Today", which made a lasting impression on Moore's childhood because his parents were such fans of the George Jones recording. The trio gives it a South Delta funeral feel, while maintaining the tune's country identity. Adding up to a mere five minutes, the final two tracks make for an odd yet delightful conclusion for an album meant to educate jazz drummers.
Aside from that though, Stanton Moore's trio doesn't attempt to cover any ground it hasn't before. The purpose of Groove Alchemy is to hone the skills and deepen the pocket of Moore's time-keeping. And if you are a percussionist yourself, you may learn something valuable in the process. If you want to just sit back and listen, this one's a head-bobber.