Melbourne-based funksters The Bamboos have garnered quite a following since their debut in 2001. Their 2005 release Step It Up was used on the US television show Grey’s Anatomy and was, according to one Amazon.com reviewer, included as a theme for last year’s Girl Scout cookie drive. Another of their singles has been picked up by Kenny Dope of Masters at Work. And in 2006, the band played London’s infamous The Jazz Cafe while on a European tour and have since supported many international artists, including Jazzanova, Matthew Herbert, and Alice Russell.
It’s a wonder with all that recognition that band member Lance Ferguson, aka Lanu, has any time left for other projects. But this year, the DJ-guitarist-producer released his solo debut, a jazzy 14-track departure from the heavy funk sounds of The Bamboos. Two of the songs, “Dis-Information” and “Mother Earth” have already been released on vinyl in the UK to strong reviews.
Lanu shows his experience as a global DJ with these two tracks — both eclectic, Moog-and vocal-heavy uptempo sounds reminiscent of his musical influences Jazzanova and Jeff Mills. He also draws from the soul styles of James Brown and Marvin Gaye by layering these dance tracks with hard-hitting lyrics that get to the heart of his social consciousness. “Dis-information” rails against the state of modern media: “Don’t you listen to those things they tell ya…” repeats over Rhodes chords and an insistent break, driving the point home. “Mother Earth”, which teams the vocalist of Aloe Blacc from Stones Throw with the UK-based Quantic, combines an Afro-beat tempo with a chorus warning to respect the planet: “This is my home, Mother Earth/ Don’t you disrespect my mother.” This intertwining of informed lyrics with forward-thinking production lends new meaning to the phrase intuitive jazz.
Though these early releases may be getting the most attention now, much of this album is worth careful attention. The opener, “Conversations”, sounds as if it belongs on a Mark Farina Mushroom Jazz compilation, with snappy programmed beats and a hard-to-decipher voiceover that complements a keyboard-driven funk rhythm. A hybrid of sounds, the introduction sets listeners up well for the electicism to come by sampling various styles, from uptempo funk to Afro beats to breaks, and foretells the impending digital fluctuations.
As the album progresses to the lengthier “Don’t Sleep, Pts 1 & 2”, the songs begin to sound even more global, switching between heavier Detroit techno basslines and the ragga rhythm of West London without losing the jazz undertones — never sounding too raw or so breakbeat that the dance tracks become undanceable. The interludes are a rare fusion of electronica and the human emotion that many dance producers neglect. New Zealand vocalist, Cherie Mathieson, makes a guest appearance on “Runaway” that draws listerners in well without employing the heavy-handed gospel stylings of fellow Ubiquity musician and jazz-house extraordinaire, Roy Davis, Jr.
Lanu’s messages combine well with his musical diversity to show that as the world gets smaller, art becomes a vital but beautiful protest tool. The message goes a bit overboard, however, with the later track, “Shine” — a jazz bit that sounded ideal for the old PBS show The Electric Company. With lyrics like “open your heart and you’ll shine”, the song sounded too Prozac happy, especially in contrast to previous songs.
Thankfully, the album is eclectic and each song differs, with influences from several guest artists who contribute to the diversity of sound. No Comply, a project Ferguson shares with Bennson (his Equatorial Records partner, Ben Grayson) earns credit for the broken sounds on “Runaway”. Keyboardist Simon Grey assists on “Rise”, a simple, mellow tribute to the American soul music of the ’70s. The lyrics to that song are even reminiscent of that decade’s protest music: “We’ll rise up together/ Standing tall forever”, making the tune more vocally than musically catchy.
The musical style switch-up continues with “It’s Time”, which draws on the influence of the late -80s hip-hop stylings of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, bringing Kero One to the microphone while releasing the bassline and speeding the tempo. “It’s Time” makes clear what Ferguson says he’s most interested in doing with this album: twisting the sounds he grew up with into something soulful for the 21st century.
For fans of the Thievery Corporation jazz-lounge sound or for those interested in the jazz-funk-soul fusion, Lanu’s debut is an ideal addition to their collection for its mixability and adaptability.