Since the mid-1950s, the organ trio has been the grits and gravy of the modern jazz tradition. While it has been critically ignored (and defiled), for years it was the one style of jazz performance that packed the house and kept jazz connected to the black vernacular cultures in which the genre’s organic roots resided. Figures like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Baby Face Willette, Big John Patton, and Larry Young, represented a wide range of Hammond B-3 players, some deeply imbedded in the blues and in the case of Patton and Young, a desire to bring the old sound into the world of free jazz. Even hip-hop heads in the 1990s reached back to the tradition sampling artists like saxophonist Lou Donaldson (Donaldson’s “Pot Belly” was a favorite). Though the organ trio and organ/sax combo have long been relegated to the world of a pre-postmodern “old school” blackness (the world of chitlin’ circuits, smokey rooms, and bad food), since their 1999 debut, the group Soulive has been serious about updating the tradition for the post-millennial masses. With their latest release Next Soulive fine tunes their vision drawing on the talents of Black Thought (The Roots), Amel Larrieux, Dave Matthews and Talib Kweli.
Unlike their previous two releases Turn It Out (1999) and their Blue Note debut Doin’ Something (2001), which were essentially live-in-studio recordings, Next was conceived as a traditional “studio” project. For the new project the trio of Neal Evans (keys), Eric Krasno (guitar), and Alan Evans (drums) are joined by oft-time collaborator Sam Kininger (saxophone), now an “official” fourth member of the group.
Throughout the project, Soulive drops tributes to the folks who paved the funk before them. The slippery “Liquid” is a nod to the mellow grooves of the late Grover Washington, who is singularly responsible for popularizing the smooth jazz sound with classics like “Mr. Magic” and “Winelight” (1980). Kininger’s smooth alto flow is given a gentle nudge by the angular lines of keyboardist Neal Evans, taking the “Grover groove” in a direction not normally associated with smooth jazz. Soulive works hard throughout Next to distance themselves from so much of the redundant pabulum that’s come to define mainstream commercial (Smooove) Jazz. In many ways they achieve this distance by circumventing jazz influences and “citing” the classic groove keepers of the 1960s and 1970s. “Kalen”, for instance, begins with Krasno playing a guitar lick drawn from James Brown’s “Jungle Groove” (1970) era. On the dramatic “Flurries” Soulive drops flurries of the Meters (“Cissy Strut”) via Alan Evans’s Creole gumbo struts, harking back to the master of backbeat, Earl Palmer and his star pupils Idris Muhammad (Leo Morris) and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste of the Meters. At the end of the song, Kininger et al pay tribute to the late Don Myrick with an interpolation of his lines from the Earth, Wind and Fire classic “Can’t Hide Love” (a studio track from EWF’s live Gratitude, 1975).
What ultimately helps distinguish Soulive from the hard-bop-turned-fusion same-same are their choices in collaborators. Philly soul chanteuse Amel Larrieux, whose 2000 disc Infinite Possibilities has been seriously slept on, joins the quartet on the chunk-funky mid-tempo “I Don’t Know”. With lyrics written by Larriuex, her crackly (and oh so sexy) vocals are a perfect foil to Soulive’s deep-jeep groove. The group is joined Roots’ front man Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) on the bangin’ “Clap”. Given the whole “Roots” thing — progenitors of the alternative hip-hop universe — it is perhaps easy to forget that Black Thought’s flow is as classic as any of the east coast griots that emerged in the 1990s including Nas and Mos Def. Yeah, it’s a hip-hop/jazz collaboration, but that don’t keep Black Thought from getting into his flow. With lyrics like “I’m from the city of sin / The state of the art / Using notebook and a pen for making the mark / The rap ‘Clubber Lane’ hit ’em with the gutter slang / I know you insane, we another thang / The track bang My name Black Thought the one person on me / All the intellectuals and the thugs adore me”, Black Thought lays claim to the legacy of Philly’s favorite son’s first defeater — Clubber Lane (Mr. T) dropped Rocky (Sly Stallone) on his ass with ghetto-underclass precision in Rocky III — while also embracing the “thug-niggas” and being embraced by the black intelligentsia.
Soulive pushes convention further to the margins, on the project’s most powerful track “Joyful Girl”. Joined by Dave Matthews on vocals, the track in a remake of Ani DiFranco’s “Joyful Girl” (Dilate, 1996). It is a particularly thoughtful rendition of the song that is notable because it is one of the few moments in pop music where male artists embrace distinctly feminist music, like the kind that DiFranco’s has consistently recorded over the last decade for her indie label, Gorgeous Babe. The cross-gendered performance of Difranco’s “Joyful Girl” is every bit the equal of Maxwell’s “feminist” rendition of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and will likely garner the Buffalo native a wider audience.
Other standouts on Next include the smoothed-out “Alkime”, which at times recalls the Off Ramp era work of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. The crack-high fast paced “E.D. Hambone” is one of the few track where the quartet simply lets go as both Kininger and Krasno (on vocorder) in particular get loosed like a Saturday night sinner. Talib Kweli makes an appearance on the Hi-Tek remixed “Bridge to ‘Bama” which first appeared on Soulive’s previous release Doin’ Something. The track is a fitting close to an out-of-the-box attempt to bring the “grits ‘n’ gravy” groove into the world of cell phones and Palm Pilots.