Two renowned musicians -- both well respected jazz veterans and bandleaders in their own right -- join forces in the aptly-titled Soulbop Band. Co-led by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bill Evans, this superband can easily shift gears from swinging uptempo burners to slamming funk, from soulful r&b to soothing ballads and scintillating rock-tinged jams. Featuring an all-star cast of stellar sidemen in drummer Steve Smith (Vital Information, Steps Ahead, Jean-Luc Ponty), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Madonna, Zawinul Syndicate), pianist Dave Kikoski (Roy Haynes, Mingus Big Band, Randy Brecker Quintet), and the ubiquitous session man and in-demand guitarist Hiram Bullock (David Sanborn, Brecker Brothers, Gil Evans Big Band, Jaco Pastorius, Carla Bley, Marcus Miller), the exhilarating Soul Bop Band “Live” captures the group in full stride during a whirlwind summer tour in 2004.
Combining expanded, jam-oriented renditions of six tunes from past Evans recordings with four Brecker compositions (including the new “Mixed Grill” and the Brecker Brothers’ anthemic “Some Skunk Funk”) and two new offerings from Bullock, this band of killers comes out of the gate charging hard and never lets up on the intensity level throughout this searing two-cd live set. “This project really caught us by surprise,” says Evans, who had only played with Brecker once before at the Playboy Jazz Festival 15 years ago. “We decided to join forces, get some guys together to do some of our music and just go out and hit it,” says Evans. “And once we got started, it turned out to be this really cool thing.” Adds Brecker, “We go in a lot of different directions and everybody really plays their asses off, so there’s no weak links in this band.”
Brecker explains that the Soulbop Band actually came together out of sheer happenstance. “This band was kind of born out of the death of Bob Berg (the great saxophonist who died in a winter traffic accident near his home on Long Island in December of 2002). “Originally, I had this record 34th & Lex slated to come out and I had just called Bob Berg and Ronnie Cuber to try to set up a tour to support the record. And a week later is when Berg was killed. At first I considered just scuttling the tour because Bob is kind of hard to replace...plus, he’s such a close friend of mine. But one night by chance I was talking to Bill Evans, who I hadn’t really thought of as a replacement...we were just kind of commiserating and he was telling me that he had just done a two-month tour of Europe with his regular band but was thinking of changing things up for another European tour the following summer. He had some gigs already booked, so we just kind of joined forces. I was going to call it New York Funk but Bill came up with the name Soul Bop, which really clicked with the promoters. It was short and to the point and gave a pretty good description of what this band was all about.”
The response to that first Soulbop band tour in 2003 was so ecstatic that Brecker and Evans decided to regroup for a second European tour during the summer of 2004, which included festival and club dates in the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Malta, Corsica, Sweden, Monaco, Norway and Wales and culminated in a week-long engagement at The Iridium nightclub in New York City. Soulbop Band The resulting two-cd set documents the energy, both on the bandstand and in the audience, of that triumphant tour. “The thing about this sort of band,” says Evans, “is when you have guys like Hiram Bullock and Dave Kikoski, you’ve got both ends of the spectrum there -- the groove man and the serious jazz cat. And then you’ve got Victor Bailey and Steve Smith, who can do both things, and you mix in Randy’s sort of more intellectualized jazz stuff with my funk things...what you’ve got is a band that can do anything and go anywhere, depending on what kind of mood the band is in that night. We could rock out and tear it up in front of 8,000 people in Rome or just burn and simmer in a more straight ahead, introspective way in a nightclub in France. And that’s the cool thing about the Soulbop Band. We can fit any occasion on any level.”
The two-cd set Soulbop Band “Live” bears that out. Evans’ chops-busting “Rattletrap” (from 1995’s Escape) kicks off CD 1 in exhilarating fashion as Bill and Randy exhibit the uncommonly tight chemistry that they have developed together on the frontline of the Soulbop Band. As Brecker notes, “This band has its own identity in a way, even though we’re doing some of the older tunes from Brecker Brothers. But Bill has a whole different vibe on stage than (Brecker brother) Mike. Mike’s a little more of a jazz persona. He likes to project that kind of personality on stage. Bill is a little more freewheeling and he’s got that deep r&b thing in his playing.” The dynamic opener is further fueled by Victor Bailey’s bubbling 16-note bass pulse, Bullock’s unerring rhythm guitar work and Steve Smith’s ferocious double-bass drum assault on the kit.
The swaggering “Big Fun” (title track of Evans’2003 recording) chugs ahead on the strength of an audaciously funky groove laid down by Smith and Bailey and features a rampaging guitar solo from Hiram, complemented by Evan’s Herculean tenor blowing. On an 11-minute rendition of Brecker’s blistering fusion number “Above And Below” (from 1992’s Return of the Brecker Brothers), the trumpeter unleashes a barrage of bristling, electronically-tinged high notes that instantly heats up the track. Evans follows a tenor sax solo that gradually builds in intensity to a wailing crescendo. The band brings it down for a swinging piano solo by Kikoski, underscored by Bailey’s briskly walking basslines and Smith’s insistent ride cymbal pulse. The great drummer traverses the kit with aplomb in his own dynamic solo here.
Evans’ moody ballad “Let’s Pretend” (from 1989’s Live at the Blue Note, Vol. 1) is a perfect vehicle for his sonorous soprano sax playing while also featuring some beautiful muted trumpet work by Randy and an evocative piano solo from Kikoski. On an updating of Randy’s harmonically complex, rhythmically intricate fusion staple “Some Skunk Funk” (which first appeared in 1975 on both Billy Cobham’s A Funky Thide of Sings and also on the Brecker Brothers’ self-titled debut of that year), Bailey showcases his virtuosic slapping and tapping chops in an extended bass solo here while also dropping in a quote from Weather Report’s anthemic “Birdland.” CD 1 closes out on a provocative note with Bullock’s “Greed,” a vocal number featuring some politically pointed references to America’s war with Iraq.
CD 2 opens with Evans’ funky throwdown “Soul Bop” (from 2003’s Big Fun) and is followed by Bullock’s sly, suggestive vocal feature “Tease Me,” which is also highlighted by some fiery trumpet-tenor exchanges between Brecker and Evans. Hiram (a member of the 1977 Brecker Brothers lineup) offers up a searing guitar solo here that is alternately jazzy and rocking. Evans resurrects his earthy, Eddie Harris tribute “Cool Eddie” (from 2001’s Soul Insider) as an urgent blowing vehicle for his tenor sax and for Brecker’s wah-wah-inflected trumpet. Randy’s new composition, “Mixed Grill,” is an uptempo funk-fusion workout marked by tough, tight unison lines upfront (a Brecker Brothers trademark) and some bristling solos from both Bill and Randy and features some whirlwind drumming by Steve Smith at the tag. Brecker transforms into his colorful alter ego Randroid to deliver his streetwise rap on life in the Big Apple on the funky “Hangin’ in the City” (title track from his 2001 recording) and CD 2 closes with Evans’ groove-conscious “Dixie Hop” (from 1999’s Touch), which opens with a lively call-and-response between soprano sax and trumpet and features another virtuosic bass showcase by Bailey.
While the members of the Soulbop Band continue to gig in a variety of situations throughout the year, including leading their own groups, they all look forward to reuniting for a third tour this summer. “I feel 20 years younger when I play this music in this band,” says Brecker. “The enthusiasm of the crowd seeps into the music and we give back everything they give us. We don’t play down to the audience or anything. We keep that to a high level and they seem to love it. The playing is all first-rate in this band.”
Author: Bill Milkowski
Bill Evans Randy Brecker Soulbop Band
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