Jazz quartet Soulive looks to the future with 'Next'

by Sam Lederer | 3/26/02 6:00am

Musicians have been trying for years to reach the pinnacle of artistic expression: a style of music that cannot be confined to one musical genre. Linkin Park, with their smash rock/metal/rap debut, "Hybrid Theory," have been the closest to attaining this goal in recent history. Soulive, a jazz trio who added a saxophonist on their latest release, "Next," have come one step closer to attaining universal musical classification.

The band's second recording for Blue Note Records is a follow-up to 2001's "Doin' Something" and their first album made specifically for the studio. The original trio consists of Alan and Neal Evans on drums and organ, respectively, and Eric Krasno on guitar. Sam Kininger, a virtual one-man brass section, was added to this already-potent line-up in 2001.

The Evans brothers formed the trio in the late '90s in Vermont. It was clear from the beginning that the group would be a success: the three original members were both very young (all under 25) and had all done solo work for various small jam-bands when they created Soulive. The band toured as an opener for acts like Maceo Parker, John Scofield and Derek Trucks before touring as a headliner in 1999. The following year Soulive released their debut, "Turn It Out."

On "Next," the jazz band keep themselves rooted in the form that has made them one of the best new-age jazz groups (if you can call them that) in music today: organ-driven soul jazz. But the band also experiments with new forms and sounds, making "Next" a very complete and imaginative recording.

The album has some of the band's typical straight jazz numbers such as "Alkime" and "Kalen" that recall some of the great 1960s organ-guitar-sax trios. The tunes are spiced up with Neal's crisp and funky organ as well as beautiful sax work by Kininger. The strong rhythm of "Kalen" allows for many creative and varied solos by all four.

On "Tuesday Night's Squad" and "Flurries," the quartet returns to the funk element that has propelled them to success with a more polished jam-band crowd. Formed around catchy organ hooks and light funky guitar, "Tuesday Night's Squad" contains an interpolation of Kurt Rosenwinkel's "Grant."

The band does not forget to pay homage to its inspirations on tunes like "Flurries," which is Soulive's interpretation of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Can't Hide Love." With a funky beat and Alan's cerebral drumming, the song sounds right out of a Shaft soundtrack. A tribute to pedal steel player Robert Randolph can also be heard on this track.

The Boston/Vermont based group incorporates yet another musical genre on the acid-jazz flavored tunes, "Whatever It Is" and "E.D. Hambone." The influence of groups like The Headhunters and The Brecker Brothers is obvious in the songs' choppy beats and whirling drums. Krasno really shines on "Hambone" with cool and funky guitar solos worthy of comparison to heavyweights of today like John Scofield and Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood.

Soulive also embraces some new influences on the record with guest appearances by Dave Matthews, Black Thought of The Roots, Amel Larrieux and Talib Kweli. Matthews provides light and tender vocals on Ani DiFranco's "Joyful Girl" in front of the band's carefree beats. The members of Soulive show their versatility as they provide strong backing for Larrieux's and Kweli's beautiful voices.

The group crosses the boundary to hip-hop with "Clap!" featuring Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and the DJ Hi-Tek remix of "Bridge to 'Bama" off "Doin' Someting." Trotter's skillful delivery and conscious lyrics about children, drugs and the city life make for an interesting addition to Neal's biting piano rhythm.

But the eight-minute "Ne-Ne" serves as the album's climax following the short "Interlude." The soft and light "Ne-Ne" incorporates a cooler jazz element which harkens all the way back to the 1950s. Kininger's soft yet explosive brass work lends a powerful floating quality to the song that, after the first listen, does not seem close to its actual 10 minutes in length.

Faster songs, though, like "Interlude" and "Whatever It Is," would seem misplaced if the band were not held together by Neal's mellow and full organ. With many break beats and heavy drumming, the percussion on these tracks seems more like hip-hop than jazz. The band even goes so far as to mix in a bit of reggae guitar on "I Don't Know."

After listening to "Next," it is obvious, as it was from its founding, that Soulive is a very talented band. All four members play well both as soloists and as a band. This creates an amazing group dynamic that is very rare in today's music scene. The only question this album leaves me asking is: what's next?