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Soul Survivors

Back in Black: Christopher Thomas and John Bigham are the Soul of John Black.

In my neighborhood, in the early '70s, there was always talk of uprising," John Bigham recalls. "I grew up in the era of the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers in Chicago. And they weren't gangs in the sense of destroying property and terrorizing people. They were gangs in the sense of 'Let's uplift our people. Be black and be proud.'"

Speaking by phone from his adopted city of Hollywood, Bigham exudes cool confidence rather than militancy. The 45-year-old frontman/guitarist is one half of the talented songwriting team behind the Soul of John Black; bassist Christopher Thomas co-anchors the R&B-based outfit. Bigham also possesses a highly acute bullshit detector. Whether he's discussing survival as a session musician, something the union vet refers to as "fuckin' extinct" and being on "a conveyer belt," or the current state of hip-hop ("being exploited to the max"), Bigham doesn't mince words. So it's a bit surprising when he defends America's era of blaxploitation films. The genre was mostly scripted, directed and distributed by whites during the dark days of the Nixon administration, with stories featuring one-dimensional black stereotypes such as hit men, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes.

"When you're a black kid, you're like, 'Well, shit, are there any movies with people like me in 'em?'" Bigham says. "Yeah, there's Blacula -- the craziest movie ever made. And it scared the shit out of me, so it did its job. And the guy [William Marshall] who actually did the role is a Shakespearean actor. It took a lot of people to make those movies: the film crew, the script, the costumes, a lot of shit. You don't just have the actors acting out those over-exaggerated characters. But I don't think any black person is offended by Blacula -- as stupid as it may be -- or Superfly. The bottom line is, people who aren't black assume that's how we are. As in any other culture, that's where the problems are.

"But I think black people enjoyed seeing that craziness," he adds. "They're not living those lifestyles. The thing people miss is, the shit was comedy. It wasn't Amos and Andy. It wasn't nobody goin' around shufflin' their feet. It was just total fun."

Four years after the bloodsucking, baritone-voiced African Prince Mamuwalde entered cinematic folklore in the hood, 1976's J.D.'s Revenge also burned its way into Bigham's memory. A supernatural thriller shot in New Orleans with a soundtrack by a then-unknown Prince, Revenge tells the story of a dedicated law student possessed by the spirit of a 1940s-era gangster, one with a taste for fedoras, straight razors and bitch-slappin' the ladies. Two decades after its release, when it came time for Bigham to give his new musical project with Thomas an identity, he recalled the dueling Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of J.D.'s protagonist and how it paralleled his own sudden, unexpected transformation into a soul crooner.

"I didn't create the alter ego," Bigham points out. "It was just there, and I basically named it. I wasn't a singer before, trying to sing all these heartfelt songs. And all of a sudden, I could sing! I just thought it was a miracle."

Miracle or not, don't call Bigham's engaging music "neo-soul" -- hot buttered, re-buttered or otherwise.

"We're not trying to bring shit back," Bigham declares. "The soul that I refer to is the spirit within. If a total soul purist comes to a show and sees me play a solo -- then smash my guitar -- I don't know if they would consider it soul. Especially if my amp is on ten -- which I might do.

"The music is pretty straightforward if you're into jazz, blues, rock or hip-hop," Thomas adds. "But we're trying to come across as songwriters, because the music is that personal."

Thomas, 34, has an impressive jazz dossier to his name and hails from St. Louis, where he cut his teeth on violin and cello. The bass player cites Duke Ellington's low-end ace, Jimmy Blanton, as a primary influence. Thomas studied under Ellis Marsalis (Wynton Marsalis's father) at the University of New Orleans in 1989. Three years later, the late, great jazz singer Betty Carter -- best known, perhaps, for her duets with the late Ray Charles -- recruited the young musician for an eleven-month stint, providing him with his most significant career break.

"She's high on my list," Thomas notes. "She respected me as a musician and took me on my own, rather than because I had friends who played with her. I was living in New Orleans at the time, and she said, 'I'm gonna pay you enough to live in New York City.'"

More doors opened for Thomas in the Big Apple. During the '90s, he supported Joshua Redman, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, the Brian Blade Fellowship and the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

"They're all gigs," Thomas says. "Playing Carnegie Hall is about as great as playing a free show at the park. To tell you the truth, the people at the park are gonna be so into you, 'cause it's free. In Carnegie Hall, with the hundred-dollar tickets, they're not even gonna give it up to you. I know if I paid a hundred dollars, nobody could tell me to sit down and be prissy."

After recording and touring with Marianne Faithfull in support of 1999's Vagabond Ways, Thomas spent another two years backing eccentric pop-soul diva Macy Gray.

Meanwhile, on his own blessed musical trajectory in Los Angeles, Bigham went from parking cars one day in 1989 to playing percussion with Miles Davis.

He also impressed Davis enough to earn two songwriting credits on Amandla, the trumpet maestro's last studio album with a full band. After touring internationally with Sir Miles, Bigham spent eight years playing guitar with ska-funk outfit Fishbone and appeared on its 1991 psychedelic masterpiece, The Reality of My Surroundings. Collaborations with Dr. Dre led to studio sessions on Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP.

After finally crossing paths in the City of Angels, Bigham and Thomas fired up the first version of the Soul of John Black; the duo played in coffeehouses and eventually landed a regular gig at Goldfinger's with drummer Davey Chegwidden. But it wasn't long before hardcore ex-House of Pain frontman Everlast lured Bigham and Thomas into the studio to record 2000's Eat at Whitey's. A subsequent tour gave the pair enough hard coin to hole up for three months and concentrate fully on their own project.

"It took me a long time to realize that I should do it on my own," Bigham admits. "I came out here with the ultimate dream of being a session musician, you know. Then you realize, 'Damn, why do I want to work for somebody else?' The whole dream that I always saw is the part where we all have lunch and sit around and shoot the shit, you know, with some of the greatest talent in the world. And that's it. I had a realistic idea about it. It's not glamorous. The glamorous part is whatever you do with your money when you leave."

If John Black's self-titled debut, released in 2003, is any indication, the act is off to a terrific start. Lean, focused and precise, the album is a melting pot of choice ingredients, from roots-style ballads with wah-wah grooves ("Supa Killa"), to scorching slide-guitar-driven blues ("No Mo"), to a loose, gospel-inflected near-horror soundtrack ("The Odyssey"). With the support of keyboard wizard Keith Ciancia, turntablist DJ Kiilu and backup singer Jonell Kennedy (Marc Anthony), John Black bares its soul on topics of sex, love, betrayal, heartache and paranoia.

For Thomas's maiden voyage as a lyricist, however, the bassist envisioned a sweet song dedicated to his mom. But for "Carolyn," the disc's most radio-friendly cut, Bigham kept the title but gave the lyrics a steamy twist: "Here's another story about the past/She liked to take X, have sex/She had a nice ass..../Inseparable is how we used to be/I'd do her, she'd do me/Play some Fela on the stereo/Shake that thing and do it some mo'."

"We played it for C.T.'s mom and got the thumbs-up," Bigham says, laughing. "But it's not just about her. That's a total songwriter move. It's to all the Carolyns. Fuckin' North Carolina could use that as their theme song! It's just a popular name, you know."

Taking manlier inspiration from the likes of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Bighorn and Thomas primarily see John Black as a recording project.

"Steely Dan is one of my favorite groups ever," Thomas enthuses. "They presented themselves as songwriters and didn't necessarily put themselves in the machine as far as having to go out with a band and support a record. We did this album unconventionally, with little to no money, in our apartment in Hollywood. People don't know that. Our friends donated their time and spirit and energy and love when we weren't able to pay them properly. We went to a great studio with a great mixer who mixed Eminem's album. But he's a friend, so he didn't give us the Eminem price. And that's a donation in itself."

Stripped down, but with its nucleus intact, the currently touring John Black power trio also features timekeeper Deon Harriston. But during what Bigham calls "hermit time" in the home studio, the Soul spends every available free moment laying down Pro Tool tracks in anticipation of a follow-up release next year.

"The first album we recorded with a sense of urgency," Bigham explains. "This next one we're not gonna rush or be intimidated by how anybody's gonna feel about it at the end of the day. It's simple, but it's based on twenty years of practicing. One time I'll use my brain. One time I'll use my heart. The next time I'll do a combo of heart and brain, you know? And the next time, I'll Zen it out. But once you find what works, it's like with your girl. If she tells you she likes something, are you gonna stop doing that and do something else? Hell, no."

Even Blacula couldn't argue with that.


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