New Orleans native Stanton Moore has built his career as the founding drummer for popular party band Galactic. While the band is known for their commitment to the good-time groove and their buoyancy in delivering it, they're not a particularly tasty or challenging ensemble -- they prefer to carry a message rather than write one. But Moore has a lot to say, and has delivered a satisfying variation on the theme of funk and soul jazz on his second record, Flyin' the Koop.
Good rhythm-built albums, whether hip-hop, funk, jazz, or electronica, dress up the beats in layers of texture. What occurs less often is the well-textured beat disc that's got melody and fresh arrangements. Add to that an original voice or style, and you're approaching the area of greatness. But even with those roughly-mapped elements in place, there's no guarantee of transcendence; great music is ultimately too magical to so neatly tie up in a bundle of words, and what makes a great album classic is a wonderful subjective mystery. Flyin' the Koop doesn't reach any rarified planes; it tops off with strong melody and arrangement; and if it has faults, they lie in what heightened states the record fails to achieve. The record gets over on the multiple strengths of the leader; Moore has a good imagination for arrangement, sound combination, and dynamics; pushes a hard groove; spins a good melody; and has a very active ear for detail and variation: he's never lazy. It comes up short because, aside from any lack of unutterable magic, the uniformly excellent sidemen don't project enough distinctive personality to make you feel that you're quite in the best hands.
On Flyin' the Koop Moore draws equally from Blue Note '60s soul/jazz originators Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, John Patton, Reuben Wilson, George Braith, and Don Wilkerson (the last two lesser known of these had their entire output for Blue Note released on limited edition two-disc sets about a year ago: get them while they're still in print!), James Brown, New Orleans' rich drum tradition, and more far-out and aggressive groove rock trends. And then there are the discernible influences of Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn in the tone of the melodies and arrangements, Wayne Shorter's romantic harmonic sense in the horn and woodwind harmonies, and Sonny Sharrock in the all-out intensity of some of the heavier numbers. It's a great mix of styles and influences that falls together nicely under the leader's judicious hand. To flesh out the music, Moore makes the most of the musicians at his disposal: fellow jam band scenesters Karl Denson (Karl Denson's Tiny Universe) and Chris Wood (Medeski Martin & Wood), funk jazz fringe saxophonist Skerik (Critters Buggin'), and Grant Green-influenced New Orleans guitarist Brian Seeger. They turn in performances ranging from the workmanlike (Seeger) to the inspired (Skerik's harrowing saxophonic solos).
To Moore's credit, each track offers something unique to the program. In its variety, "Tang the Hump" offers a microcosm of things to come: it opens with pure uptempo boogaloo beat, inventively adds a bowed bass outline of the tonal regions to come, and some baritone saxophone pops in with some low lip-smacking funk riffing before the Ornette/New Orleans/George Braith singsong melody makes its first impression. At 2:12 there's a moody jazz breakdown which calls to mind Wayne Shorter's Soothsayer and The All Seeing Eye records -- his best expanded-group work for the Blue Note label in the '60s -- and then we're abruptly back into the groove by 2:42, and it all feels right. But Moore does something different now. The groove becomes a pad for a harmonized small group saxophone section solo, and a breakdown introduces Karl Denson's tenor saxophone at 3:36 -- and he winds a fine solo into the eye of another harmonized saxophone riff at 4:46. The pretty song-like theme returns at 5:12 and fades.
Across the rest of the album there are exotic hand drum rituals, the sampled singing Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians, flute that sounds like a very early instrument, round electric bass and sharp bowed double bass, screaming "saxophonics" solos, slick modern funk (with a twist), noise and electronic loops. It's rarely played fully safe, and often veers from the expected. The fact that Moore rounds these divergent elements into a harmonious whole is a testament to the scope of his talent and his taste in music.