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(ESL Records 176 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/17/2011)
The current proliferation of retro music in various styles could be construed as a protest against the artifice of contemporary commercial music with its electronically pitch-corrected vocals, sampled and sequenced backing tracks and heavily compressed, totally lifeless sound. It's music that has become almost completely divorced from people playing real instruments and actually singing. So in the context of that, ever growing numbers of younger musicians are latching onto some older style or another and serving up new original music that often has considerable authenticity in those old styles.
An interesting offshoot is music that starts with a retro premise, but then adds some eclecticism, sometimes mashing together previously disparate styles from a earlier era, and sometimes adding some original elements.
This week, we have good example. The group is called The Funk Ark, and their new CD is titled From the Rooftops. As the name would suggest, the instrumental band the Funk Ark starts with a funk beat and that sometimes shows its James Brown influence, and adds bits and pieces from all over. I guess that's the "Ark" part. The band pulls in the big Afro-beat horn-driven textures of Fela Kuti, some jazz-rock fusion, Latin, and bits of Motown soul. The result is a very danceable recording that's also fairly interesting and shows imagination as well as solid musicianship.
The Funk Ark are from Washington DC, and are associated with the Eighteenth Street Lounge scene that has given us Thievery Corporation. Some of The Funk Ark's members have played on projects by other artists on the label. This rather large group includes founder and keyboard man and principal composer Will Rast, guitarists Greg Loman, who was born in France and Rodney Richardson who has a jazz background, bassist Marc Blackwood, drummer Jeff Franca, percussionist John Kay, plus four horn players: trumpeter Joe Herrera, tenor sax man Matt Rippetoe; Morgan Price on baritone sax, who gets several solo slots, and Greg Boyer on trombone. They are a tight, coherent group who seem to enjoy each other's presence, do some improvising, and play their music on the CD in a manner that could be performed live. The band's retro quality extends to its instrumentation. No apparent synthesizers, samplers, or hip-hop turntable scratching, and the instrumentation is otherwise vintage. There's also a kind of retro audio quality which we'll talk about later.
While the music is quite danceable, the beat is often more subtle and complex than typical for funk. The African influence sees to that. And while one would expect a group like this to break into lengthy jams, the longest track on the CD is just over five minutes, so the music never overstays its welcome.
The CD opens with one of its less-melodious tracks, A Blade Won't Cut Another Blade. It has a kind of vaguely sinister sound, but it's typical of the group's interesting approach. <<>>
The Fela Kuti/AfroBeat influence is front and center on a piece called Diaspora. It's got a lot of the elements of that style, including the big horn sound and the distinctive keyboard. But the group includes a lot of American funk and soul. <<>>
The one track with any significant vocals is titled Funky DC. Some added vocalists are brought in for some spacey comments. <<>> Then there's a rap with a geographical litany of Washington area locales. <<>>
Another twist comes on El Beasto, which has a kind of gimpy 6-beat rhythm. Its vaguely unsettling sound is not what would be expected from a funky dance group. <<>>
The Latin side of the The Funk Ark comes out on Horchata, complete with percussion. It's one of the standout tracks. <<>>
More of the Afro-beat sound is highlighted on Katipo (The Spider). This group is at their best when they mix in influences like this. <<>> Baritone sax player Morgan Price is again featured. <<>>
A track called Pavement is more laid back, and hints of the Motown sound, with some interesting world music influences. <<>>
The title tune, From the Rooftops, is a bit more conventionally funky hinting at a James Brown sound at times <<>> while mixing in more of the Afro Beat textures in the keyboard solo. It has a great groove and is probably one of the CD's most danceable tracks. <<>>
From the Rooftops the debut CD from the Washington DC area group The Funk Ark is an impressive release that combines a kind of retro funk sound with African influences, Latin and a bunch of other more eclectic musical ingredients. The combination of the big horn section, the vintage instrumentation and the wide viewpoint of the group and its principle composer Will Raft makes for music that is both thoroughly danceable and frequently quite interesting. The musicianship is first-rate, and the live quality of the CD is a nice antidote to the digitally fabricated sound of most contemporary commercial dance-oriented or hip-hop music.
Our grade for audio quality is about a "B." Perhaps it was an attempt to emulate older recordings, but the mix is a bit dull-sounding and there is very little stereo separation. The four-member horn section and a lot of the percussion are in mono. But on the other hand, the dynamic range of this recording is much better than most such CDs. There was not a lot of volume compression used, and so the percussion can have a nice impact.
The Funk Ark are a worthy combination of an outwardly retro sound, eclecticism, imagination and good playing, proving again that dance music does not have to be dumb.
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