Although the drum kit has been a vital part of jazz since, well, the birth of jazz, it took the advent of rock and funk to unleash the power of modern percussion. This should in no way be taken to mean that there weren’t any good drummers in the first six decades of jazz — I’d be a fool to deny the mastery of Gene Krupa. But while Krupa could certainly swing with the best of them, he lived in an era before the advent of the groove.
Just as the blues, R&B and rock all took their cues from jazz (and each other), so to did jazz eventually absorb the accomplishments of its bastard offspring. And although purists may still bewail the advent of Bitches Brew, this meant that jazz had to learn to lay down a groove. Now, laying down a groove really isn’t complicated, but it is an amazingly supple and versatile business. Simplifying and emphasizing the 4/4 rhythm enabled early rock and roll to tap a vein of primal passion that carried it across the world. When R&B took the beat and spit at back, it became the funk. In a very real way, the history of modern pop, from the invention of Elvis Presley at Sun Records to Run DMC to Dig Your Own Hole, has been the history of the beat.
Soulive may look like a jazz trio, but they lay down the groove like they just stepped off the Mothership. The word “jam” has come to have such unfortunate connotations, but they are a jam band in the very best possible way. Steady Groovin’ is a compilation of the best jams in the group’s very short history — dating back only to the 2001 release of Doin’ Something. That they have achieved such a sophisticated fusion of funk mores with jazz attitudes in such a short amount of time is a testament to the power of their groove.
The album starts with “One in Seven”, one of their best tracks and one of three taken from the domestic pressing of their 2001 debut. The hard backbeat that introduces the song could have easily found a home on any number of house or disco records, and it provides an ample introduction to the group’s ethos: the beat is the backbone, the timekeeper and the philosophy. Soulive is a trio, with Alan Evans on drums, Neal Evans on organ and Eric Krasno on guitar. Neal Evans and Krasno are both fluent soloists, but Alan Evans holds the reins.
Just as in the best funk bands, the melodic flourishes that elaborate the beat are themselves percussive in nature. You won’t see Neal Evans hitting the sustain on his organ very often, and when he does it’ll be during a solo. When the band is laying down the basic groove, as on the recurring melodic refrain from 2002’s “Flurries”, the guitar and organ are tight and focused, staying on top of the drums in much the same way that James Brown’s horn section is careful to hit their notes with precision, allowing for little in the way of elaboration. (Brown’s horns show up on 2001’s “Doin’ Something”, and the collaboration is as seamless as you might expect.)
The problem — such that it is — comes when Soulive hews too closely to the funk, at the expense of the jazz. They’ve certainly got the chops, but their arrangements are occasionally unoriginal. Very rarely do they venture away from the conventional refrain-solo-refrain format. This comes in handy on occasion, allowing them to slip right in behind the Roots’ Black Thought on 2002’s “Clap!” — you could slip “Clap!” onto the next Roots disc and I’d bet few fans would be able to tell the difference. But considering how good they are, their uninspiring arrangements leave much to be desired. There’s very little interplay between Evan’s organ and Krasno’s guitar — both soloists are adept at adapting the melodies to improvisation, but there is very little harmonic improvisation. What little there is comes on the live tracks included from 2003’s self-titled live disc, and these tracks offer the hope that Soulive’s arrangements may yet grow to reflect the muscularity with which they approach their solos.
Of course, this division is very much an artifact of the rock & funk cultures, where the complicated harmonic contrasts that you would expect to hear from Gil Evans and Miles Davis are deemphasized in favor of a rhythmic unity in all layers of the composition. Not for nothing do rock bands divide the labor between “rhythm” and “lead” guitars. But this division is essentially negligible in jazz, and most jazz arrangements reflect this complexity. Rock and jazz are separate beasts, and just as jazz is hard pressed to evoke the immediacy and poetic potential of rock, rock makes an imperfect fit for the elaboration and emotional tonality of jazz. By placing themselves firmly in the middle, stuck between these conflicting idioms, they sacrifice the rigor of one for the impact of the other. If there’s one thing that jazz can learn from electronic music, it’s that there is a third way, a path between the head and the heart that can, when so inspired, evoke the best of both worlds.
Steady Groovin’ is an excellent primer for anyone unfamiliar with Soulive’s imperfectly-conceived yet satisfying career. It includes two tracks which may have fallen under the radar of many jazz fans, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” from the Japanese printing of their debut, and “All Up in It”, a collaboration between the group and DJ Spinna from his Here to There disc. Both tracks are interesting but inessential, even if they will provide sufficient bait for established fans to take the plunge.