Funk and jazz. Smoothed out but meaty, pungent beats made from an organ, Fender Rhodes piano, bass, and fat back drums. A woman's soulful voice; doin' it like Tina Turner said back in the day when she and Ike took the gentle, country, rock song "Proud Mary" and dowsed it with grease and lit it on fire: nice and easy then nice and rough. Yeah, we've been hearing this sound from Chaka Khan, representing the funky soul side of the sound to Norman Connors and vocalist Jean Carn playing their unique brand of multi-cultural, freedom jazz. For those opening your ears for the first time in the 1990's, there was the Brand New Heavies, whose live action British-born acid jazz (the funk breaks from '60's and '70's artists like Horace Silver, drummer Idris Muhammad, and electric saxophonist Eddie Harris) injected a hip hop flava, which was the main seasoning on the neo funk and soul souffle of that time.
Add to this tradition the band Chewy. Band co-founders Lorrie Ruiz and Joe Doria have created a tight musical unit and a satisfying record. Ms. Ruiz' voice is authentically soulful and Doria's Hammond Organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano captures the sound and feeling of the McCann, Joe Zawinul (yeah, he played in Weather Report but check out his song "Country Preacher" with Cannonball Adderly for the essence of soulful piano) and other keyboardists from back in the day. And when he isn't playing airtight, scratchy, wah wah, rhythm riffs or airy, jazz chord voicing, Chris Spencer adds sizzling rock guitar leads to the mix. Anchored by a rhythm section of bassist Dayna Smith and Larry Bichler on drums, this band creates tasty tracks that lean heavily on jazzy, funk without all sounding the same.
They are true to the music and keep it real. The authenticity of their approach is found in their taste and restraint; particularly in Ruiz' singing. Even Christina Aguilera and Sharon Jones, two of the best soul/R&B vocalists out there, sometimes go too far into the land of vocal gymnastics. Chewy also differentiates itself from most groups with its smart arrangements, melodies and hook-you riffs. Their groove can veer into a swing feel or Latin. This Seattle band nods its head to late '70's Steely Dan's jazz-informed, pop sensibility and Oakland's Tower of Power in their groove. Their obvious knowledge and the way they control the musical elements of their various influences - the harmonies, rhythmic feel, appropriate use of chops - takes them beyond mere homage to a unique sound.
"New Train" is an upbeat song that leans to the easy going, California, soul side of the funk. The intertwining piano, organ and guitar licks are the template for most of the record. Spencer waits to the end of the song to wail a solo, taking the song to another level.
It is on the song "Getting Nowhere," however - the halfway point of the album - where things get interesting. Luiz' lyrics capture, in the timeless, classy manner of soul storytellers like Smokey Robinson, the complexities of keeping relationships alive. The intro to the song is a series of tight unison stop hits by the band, while she sets up the story of the song: "Need help understanding this problem with some friends of mine / ... they wonder if / The other one's still in love." The music switches gears at a key emotional point - "Where? They're gonna get there" - with a blast of electric space jazz, courtesy of Doria's keyboards and Spenser's noise guitar. The funk snaps back in and rides out the song to its bittersweet conclusion. Lyrical content this sophisticated is the biggest surprise.
This creative mix of lyrics and music that supports and enhances the emotions of the songs is evident throughout the record. On the otherwise straightforward smooth-groovin' "Don't Wanna Let You See" the last upbeat line, "Maybe you and I could fall in love / Daydream," the beat switches to a light Brazilian bossa nova, the essence of romance. On "Your Love Changes Me," after a somber intro, the song kicks into an upbeat jazzy soul groove (think Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children") while she sings: "Nothing changes, nothing ever stays the same / Til I met you and the world began to change / ... In each day I see / a brand new thing that your love takes ... Your love changes me." Where upon the music breaks down to a slow, strident groove with gospel style voices and organ. Clearly this is the song's epiphany. Then it kicks into the up tempo groove on the chorus, where Doria plays yet another soulful keyboard solo.
The CD's final song, "Time Lost," written by the bassist Smith, hints at the band's musical potential. The song starts with electronic sounds, then goes to a heavy, disco/slow, hard step rhythm. Stops and starts coincide with the vocals. Suspended guitar and keyboard chords merge into a jazzy, funk beat on the drums while the bass counters with sustained notes. Spencer plays a guitar solo that has echoes of prog rock. Later the piano solos over the disco beat. The overlapping of the rhythmic grooves with parts of the verse and solos hints at the band's reservoir of ideas. Through song craft and subtlety and hot tracks by a hard-working band, Chewy create way more excitement than the average screaming diva and her computer manipulating producers.
About the Author:
Mark Kirby received his B.A. from Oberlin College back in the days when heroin was harder to find than pot and sex didn't kill you. He is a drummer, screenwriter, and fixture in the bars and clubs of N.Y.'s Lower East Side and the current mecca of the New Bohemia, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.