It was my first semester at New York University. I had been to the city many times as a kid, but I had never lived there before. I remember the purple dusk sky and the twinkling lights of the towering skyscrapers as I sped over the welcoming span of the George Washington Bridge. As I stepped out onto the shimmering pavement, the scents of cigarettes and warm pretzels and even a hint of cotton candy danced in my nose, and I heard waves of bustling footsteps and speeding cab honks and the bleating saxophone of a distant street musician, playing softly a warm, enthusiastic rendition of “Summertime.”
I remember my roommate, white tank top and lightweight yellow pants, his back up against the cool blue concrete dorm room wall, trading stories with me about life and our roots and high school love. After hours of getting to know you schmoozing, our stomachs rumbled like the 18-wheeler that passed through the jam-packed streets of Greenwich Village, right past our new home in Hayden Hall, as we realized how hungry we had suddenly become. Riding the elevator down past the new abodes of current fashion models and future metaphysicians, we stepped out into the hectic hippie-era glamor of Washington Square Park and pushed our way down the street, lured by the seductive siren song of Ben’s pizzeria. Awaiting us was hot fresh dough and melting mozzarella and simmering tomato sauce, like a long-separated love beckoning us into her arms.
Later, our bellies full, with the last swigs of our sodas we threw our change down on the greasy table and started for our new home, when suddenly we were intercepted. A cool character, pressed purple suit and a shiny white smile, all smooth but with an undercurrent of nighttime energy, he ushered us, “Do you want to hear some live music, come right in and feel the groove.” Suddenly finding ourselves in a dimly lit, vaguely smokey bar and r&b club, we were suddenly enveloped by the dancing, swirling sounds of funk-bass and spirited drums, also a jazz guitarist playing a vibrant and nostalgic groove. As we let our young souls be overpowered by the entrancing rhythms of the band playing deep into that Gotham night, we knew that we were home indeed.
Joe Bonamassa says Rock Candy Funk Party is a thoroughly New York City band, and I know exactly what he means. With each beat of Tal Bergman’s hard hitting drums and every funky pop of Mike Merritt’s bass, I’m taken back to those warm, young idyllic New York City nights of music, r&b, jazz, blues, and not least of all funk. It’s a certain style, a definite attitude, and no other city on Earth can capture it. Bonamassa’s understated but assertive playing recalls the local funk bands that I used to listen to so deep into the music-filled Manhattan night. He talks about his younger days, of New York grooves,the now ex-pat musicians that once roamed the city streets and packed the sweltering, vibrant clubs, playing the music that would inspire these young men to future musical greatness. And greatness it is. Rock Candy Funk Party is an amazing, virtuosic throwback to the jazz funk days of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, with Ron DeJesus’s soulful guitar, Renato Neto’s space-age keys, and Daniel Sadownick’s subtle and smart percussion all interlacing for a simultaneously hypnotizing but invigorating effect. The grooves are heavy and the playing is in the stratosphere.
Jazz funk is a genre that grew out of the jazz fusion and soul jazz of the late 1960’s and 70’s and, of course, was heavily influenced by the funk lineage of James Brown down through Sly Stone and then George Clinton. Funk rhythm differs from both traditional rock and jazz, switching the accent from 2 and 4 to 1, and eschewing the swing beat of prior jazz idioms. The feel is so different that longtime James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker had trouble adapting to the style. But while the change in the nature of the drumming is crucial, that’s only one half of the rhythm section. In a phenomenal article for JazzTimes, Gerald Veasley writes, “While the straight-ahead bass line dances around the ride cymbal and grounds the airy groove of the jazz drummer, the jazz-funk bass groove is typically locked in with a drummer who is firmly earthbound.” (Seriously, go read the rest of that article, it’s fantastic). Another important component of the jazz funk legacy is the prevalence of electric instruments constituting the setup, including the Fender Rhodes piano and the Moog synthesizer (incidentally, I used to name my Christmas Tree “Moog” every year, I guess because she was always a funky tree getting down and being groovy). All this to say, this ain’t your mama’s jazz (actually, depending on your age, it very well might be).
But aside from the compelling changes in the structure and the medium of the music, there’s a sort of unbridled joy in this music that wasn’t present in more traditional forms of jazz music, and the feeling that everyone, musicians included, is just cutting loose and having the time of their lives. That spirit of the joy of just playing and hearing music is so much a part of the Rock Candy Funk Party project. As Bergman notes, “This band is fueled by pure fun.” But don’t mistake that for a lack of serious musicianship – there’s chops for days here.
I no longer live in New York City, but I leave it to the Rock Candy Funk Party to bring me back, to take me home to those youthful, glorious nights of deep New York City funk.
– Brian R.