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For the past decade, the New York City-based Groove Collective has mapped the unlikely musical spaces between jazz, house, funk, hip-hop and the Beatles. To traverse this terrain as a listener, you won't need a compass -- nor will you get lost -- if you accept that the mind and the body don't have to be mutually exclusive in jazz-oriented music. In Groove Collective's world (to paraphrase a popular Frank Zappa quote), "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funky."
The Collective's new album, It's All in Your Mind, builds on its ability to fuse introspective bop-with-a-beat, up-tempo dance cuts and Latin and African influences. In a lot of ways, the music reflects the diversity of the group's members.
"I think we're always trying to express all these different types of things that we've grown up with, whether it was Latin music [or whatever]," says saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist and charter member Jay Rodriguez. "We're always seeming to get parts of all of it in there."
Although the players bring many different flavors to the table, it's their ability to surprise each other that has contributed largely to their perseverance and their appeal over the years. "It seems like we all learn from each other," Rodriguez says. "Sometimes they're expecting me to come up with some sort of indigenous Afro-Cuban thing, and then I'll come in with a funk thing."
Such stylistic diversity has helped the group realize the vibrant potential of real fusion music. The Groove's sound is not the type of muzakal wallpaper that sucked the life out of the jazz-fusion era of the late '70s. It's the kind that can blend native sounds with psychedelic ones and move from ambient noise to disco in the space of one record.
"We switch back and forth, so it's been an ongoing process between all of us," says Rodriguez. "Sometimes I'm surprised. Like, Richard [Worth] will bring in something indigenous-sounding, like kind of Celtic. But somewhere in there, there is a strong relation to all that other indigenous stuff we do."
Groove Collective's method is perhaps best illustrated in "Skye," a track from Mind that Worth, a flutist, co-wrote with bassist Jonathan Maron and keyboardist Barney McCall. The composition reflects some of Worth's favorite influences. "'Skye' is kind of Chinese Celtic music," says Worth. "But the break in the music is totally influenced by the rock part in Zeppelin's 'Kashmir,' and I also realized that it sounded like Pharoah Sanders."
Worth says he sees the ability of each Groove Collective member to play a variety of different styles as a plus within the jazz tradition. "So many people nowadays make only one kind of music. When the band breaks up, they don't even play again," he says. "That is unusual in the history of music, because if you go back before minstrels, jazz players had to be a lot more varied in what they could play. You go back to New Orleans -- people could play jazz and classical and polite society music and then raunchy music for later in the night. Jazz musicians have always had to play different kinds of music. Groove Collective did a wedding in our early days, and we did Jewish music."
On the new record, Rodriguez helped educate and also expand the band's sound by bringing flutes -- an almost essential instrument in the music of his native Colombia -- to his composition "Earth to Earth." The track's intro sounds like some mid-'70s Earth Wind and Fire-type African instrumental, the kind you might have heard on that band's classic live LP, Gratitude. "I played some miscellaneous flutes from the country that I was born in," says Rodriguez. "You don't really hear these flutes -- the flauta de millo -- anywhere else. They are the original instruments used in cumbia music from Colombia, from the Caribbean coast. The Afro/indigenous mix created these sounds in this song."
On this trance-inducing cut, Rodriguez interweaves the flutes at the diasporic crossroads at which African and Latin influences meet. "The first one [in the song] kind of sounds like a saxophone, kind of whiney. That's the indigenous one. The other flute is a mixture of indigenous and African. It's called gaitas. It's this long tube with beeswax for a mouthpiece, with a turkey feather. It's very interesting."
The thrill for Rodriguez was to be able to realize the connections he began to see at an early age between these flutes, the cumbia, and the otherworldly sounds of John Coltrane's free-jazz period.
"I was listening to Coltrane's Ascension when I was like eleven or twelve, and my dad came up to me and said something very interesting: 'Man, that sounds like the flauta de millo. It sounds like cumbia.' And I was like, 'Wow.' Ever since then, I made a connection between that actual sound and Trane, which makes sense to me. If you listen to it, it is an instrument that people don't use a lot. So I said, 'Let's try it.'"
This experiment is in line with the Groove Collective's vision of stimulating the mind as well as the body and soul. "We also want to educate and bring to the forefront our backgrounds in Groove Collective," says Rodriguez. "Because of the way band is -- we've been together for a long time -- we're very open to doing new things."