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Get Into the Groove

One nation under a groove: New York City jazz-fusion ensemble Groove Collective.

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."

For Rodriguez, one of the highlights of making the new album was the chance to collaborate with legendary Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Valdés is probably best known in the states for founding the excellent Cuban group Irakere (Yoruban for "jungle"), which has featured such prominent players as Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera. Like the Collective, Irakere moves seamlessly between jazz and dance music.

This is not the first time Rodriguez has worked with Valdés; The saxophonist has played in Valdés's quartet and performed with Irakere at the Cuban Jazz Festival. This time around, however, Rodriguez felt that his band, and his listeners, had an excellent opportunity to gain exposure to the brilliance of Valdés's musicianship. Initially, Rodriguez says, the other members of Groove Collective didn't exactly warm to the idea.

"I remember writing a piece when we were starting to talk about recording a new album," he says. "We were talking about having a featured soloist, and I brought it up to the guys. They weren't too keen on it. They were kind of intimidated. I think they were like, 'Chucho Valdés? Why would he want to do this?'" Eventually, though, the players rose above their reservations.

The day they recorded with him happened to be Valdés's birthday. Rodriguez says that he was in awe of the artist during the studio session. "I thought, 'What a giving human being.' Not only is he a great musician, but he actually got up in the morning, showed up to the studio on time and rocked it." The resulting track, "Stargazer," penned by Rodriguez, is an instrumental tour de force. The cut begins with a percussive Latin-inflected keyboard figure, which Valdés escalates into a tasteful, blazing solo.

The mutual admiration and friendship among Rodriguez, the group and Valdés helped the band gain more confidence and credibility with those jazzbos who might not take groove-oriented jazz seriously. "It brought us all closer; it helped all of us. Musically, we're up there. Chucho would not say yes to something if he did not think it was cool," says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez's friendship with Valdés has also led to some interesting cross-cultural exchanges with some of the younger Cuban members of Valdés's rhythm section. At one time, a group of the musicians were in New York for a gig at the Village Vanguard and invited Rodriguez to sit in. "When they came over to my house, all they wanted to watch and hear was rap music," says Rodriguez. "They were about my age. It just shows we're on the same page. They didn't want to watch anything but BET. I had to get them all CDs of rap artists. I thought that was so interesting."

Although Groove Collective can be credited as one of the first live jazz groups to incorporate rappers in its performances and on its records, hip-hop is noticeably absent on the new disc. The charismatic MC/vocalist/percussionist Nappy G, who appears on only one track, is no longer a full-time member, which has the effect of moving the disc in a less rap-oriented direction. The sound also relies less on horn-driven arrangements than it did in the past.

"It is not as heavy brass-wise, because that's not real to the sound that we [have] now," says Rodriguez. From the Portishead-sounding opener, "Time Pilot," to the psychedelic excursions of "Skye," the Collective takes a more subtle and mellow approach.

Also, the group recorded this album on the cheap, laying down most of the tracks in drummer Genji Siraasi's apartment studio without sacrificing any quality in sound. "Every record we have made, we have probably made for less money than the one before," says Worth. "Genji's apartment is pretty well equipped; we even hung up blankets all over the walls. We got a pretty good quality record. Honestly, if you're into older music, a lot of your favorite records were made in studios that don't technologically match up to anything that is around today, and they actually sound better."

The costs involved with this record were far below what was spent on the group's self-titled release, which was put out by Reprise Records and produced by Gary Katz (of Steely Dan fame) in 1994. Since then, Groove Collective has learned a lot about the business and how to market its product. The difference now is that the players have taken more control and direction of their career, which has meant constantly defying those who feel the need to always box their music into neat little categories.

 

At the time of Groove Collective's first release, one of the big industry buzzes was "acid jazz," a genre with which the band, for better or worse, became associated. The Reprise deal was the first in a long list of complications the group has had with labels and the ways in which they have attempted -- and often failed -- to market the band's music. Although the Collective enjoyed working with a consummate professional like Katz, the label wanted to pigeonhole the group's genre-crossing music. At the time, the label had heightened expectations for the group.

"US3 [whose crossover hit 'Cantaloop' interpolated Herbie Hancock's 'Cantaloupe Island'] was real popular at the time. I think maybe the label thought we were going to be like US3, which, of course, we were not. We were never acid jazz, if that's what acid jazz was."

The group found similar constraints with GRP Records, which put out its moderately successful second album, We the People, in 1996 on the new Giant Step Records label, an imprint that arose out of the Giant Step club scene in New York and London. The record had a Billboard R&B-charting single in "Lift Off," which featured Native Tongues vet Vinia Mojica (a compatriot of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul) and the club cut "Fly." (According to Worth, the song "is the group's 'Stairway to Heaven.' Everywhere we go, people want to hear it.") But the success didn't quite reach the expectations of the label or the group. At the time, GRP had more success with light jazz, and it struggled to market Groove Collective's varied styles.

Around this time, the label also began delving into different areas of jazz. It started putting out all of the classic Impulse recordings of heavyweights such as John Coltrane, and by inking a deal with Giant Step Records, it hoped to corner the burgeoning urban-sophisticate market. "They got excited while we were doing Red Hot and Cool," says Worth. "Also, this so-called jazz/hip-hop thing -- which never was; it was either bad hip-hop or bad jazz or bad both -- all that stuff was going on, and they got excited."

Reflecting back on the experience and on the label's shortcomings, Worth says, "They knew how to market light jazz, but you couldn't put us there. Our music is literally not allowed on those stations. They have strict rules on what works on those stations. Anything noisy or weird is not allowed, because it is for elevators and hotel lobbies. So obviously, we couldn't go through those routes. They just didn't know how to do street marketing. But I think the album was reasonably successful, and it seems a lot of people bought it."

Even though sales of We the People didn't tear off the roof, the group began to get more recognition when it became associated with the Giant Step scene in the early '90s. Giant Step was an ongoing dance-party series put on by promoters Maurice Bernstein and Jonathan Rudnick that had its start in London and made its way to New York City. The scene was characterized by a mix of DJs, live musicians and MCs, and Groove Collective became the de facto house band. Well-known MCs like Guru, along with stunning sets by Groove Collective, helped put Giant Step on the map.

"The Giant Step scene was a really great thing, because it taught people that they could dance," says Rodriguez. "It brought the bridge between DJ and live music back again. Because before, people were just going out dancing to DJs. For me, it was the first time that I saw kids dancing to a kind of live thing. It was a great platform for people to hear Groove Collective."

Currently, Groove Collective records for Shanachie, a label best known for putting out folk, worldbeat and reggae recordings and whose hands-off approach is more to the band's liking. "They spend a lot less money on the record," says Worth, "which is fine with us. We have learned a lot more about how to make records. We don't need big studios and big budgets to make them, and consequently, the sales are more interesting to them, because they can recoup it a lot faster."

In a time when the music industry has consolidated into a few major conglomerates -- a trend with great impact on the jazz market, especially -- it's made sense for Groove Collective to go the independent route. "It wasn't until 1999 that the [Reprise] label recouped its original investment [in Groove Collective's debut]," says Worth. "I mean, that album has sold over 100,000 copies. The length of time it takes an artist to recoup a label's initial investment has led the majors to drop the guillotine on many of their acts who don't generate the sales but who might have been considered successful in the '70s." The current state of the industry -- and its lack of artist development -- has caused Worth to wonder "if people like Aretha Franklin, if she was just coming up, would be able to get a record deal."

 

One thing that's helped breathe new life into the band is its loose affiliation with the jam-band scene. And while the group tips more toward Medeski Martin & Wood than it does Phish, it has found inspiration in bands like Widespread Panic, which gets its music heard without relying on traditional record-industry methods. "You've got people like Widespread, who don't even have a label," says Worth, "and they make their own records and get a distribution deal. People in the industry don't notice them because they only sell -- I'm guessing -- 500,000 copies. But you've got to remember that they are getting $8 off of [each of] those, so they're making more than a young band who has sold two million but is in debt to the record company for about the same."

According to Rodriguez, the Collective put on one of its best shows last year, in the wee hours in the morning in Boulder, after the Widespread Panic Red Rocks gig. It was there that Worth began to notice the similarities between the groups' devoted audiences. "That's why we probably ended up on the end of the jam-band scene," Worth says. "Even though I don't like all of the bands in it, I kind of respect them. There are a lot of kids who don't watch TV and who don't listen to the radio. They just don't wanna know, and they've found Widespread and Phish, who aren't on MTV or the radio for the most part, and they love them because it is all about the live shows."

For Groove Collective, the emphasis has always been on the live shows, because, as Rodriguez puts it, "It's always nice to see the music looking back at you." Like the jam bands, the group has built a substantial fan base by relentlessly touring and by the word-of-mouth support of many fans who also tape the shows. The group is at its best when giving the music directly to the people. All of which fits in well with Worth's summation of the band: "If there is anything that really defines us, it's that it is universal folk music. And when I say folk music, I'm including dance music in New York, because it's music by the people and for the people, without being low-brow."

Maybe what jazz needs is to loosen up, get down, and not be overly concerned with what is and what is not jazz according to the gospel of Wynton. Now, that would be funky.


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