Formed in 2002 in Ottawa, Canada, the Souljazz Orchestra have been releasing a series of genre-defying albums and touring throughout the world ever since. The band may mention soul and jazz in its name, but on their new album, Chaos Theories, the Souljazz Orchestra reveal themselves to be well-versed in the sounds of reggae, ska, disco, and punk, along with a little bit of both jazz and soul. The band also continue their tradition of outspoken political commentary throughout the album.
Led by keyboardist/percussion/singer Pierre Chrétien, the Souljazz Orchestra includes Philippe Lafrenière (drums, percussion, vocals); Marielle Rivard (percussion, vocals); Ray Murray (baritone saxophone, percussion, vocals); Steve Patterson (tenor saxophone, percussion, vocals); and Zakari Frantz (alto saxophone, percussion, vocals).
Following an opening instrumental, “Charlie Foxtrot”, the Souljazz Orchestra gets down to lyrical business with the topical “Police the Police”, inspired by the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian. While the lyrics might be considered heavy-handed by some, the band’s conviction can’t be denied. “House of Cards”, the next track, is even better. Lyrically, the song is an oblique commentary on the Trump administration. Musically, “House of Cards” is a tasty fusion of Chic and Sandinista-era Clash.
“Sky High”, with even more disco inclinations than “House of Cards”, returns the band to the dance floor, while “War Games” channels Style Council and the Police with a catchy tune that is ultimately employed to list those countries that currently possess nuclear weapons. The band concludes that when you’re playing war games, everyone is a loser, but of course, Matthew Broderick’s computer told us this back in 1983. The more things change…
The Souljazz Orchestra ponder and protest current economic realities with the reggae-inflected “General Strike” and “Slumlord”. After immersing themselves in current events and issues, the Souljazz Orchestra bring Chaos Theories to a contemplative close with “Well Runs Dry”, a lovely and expansive ballad that gives them one more chance to stretch out musically. Opening lyrics, “Never miss / Miss the water / ’til the well / It runs dry”, reference American soul singer/songwriter William Bell’s often-covered Stax Records classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”.
While many of the upbeat songs on Chaos Theories are fun, “Well Runs Dry” emerges as the best song on the record. Clocking in at over eight minutes, “Well Runs Dry” is by far the longest song on Chaos Theories. Still, it never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome, as the various solos invite the listener into the song’s lyrical meditation on the present versus the past.
“Well Runs Dry” questions where we are as a modern society, and notes that the past seemed simpler, though maybe that’s just how our minds perceive it. In any event, the questions posed by the rest of Chaos Theories aren’t answered in “Well Runs Dry”, bringing the album to a peaceful but ambivalent conclusion.