Straddling the line between funk and jazz, Soulbop was conceived by veteran trumpeter Randy Brecker and ex-Miles Davis saxophonist Bill Evans in response to Bob Berg's untimely death, which scuttled Brecker's touring plans for 34th N Lex
(ESC, 2003). Brecker and Evans' 2003 tour with their newly formed Soulbop Band turned out to be one of those unexpected positives that sometimes emerge out of tragedyso successful, in fact, that a 2004 European tour was booked, finishing up with a triumphant week-long run at New York's Iridium club.
Soulbop Band Live captures the energy of that 2004 tour. There are bound to be comparisons to vintage Brecker Brothers, if only because of the similarity of the lineup, but Evans' mix of groove and bebop sensibilities lends the band its own identity. Even when the group is covering Brecker Brothers tunes like the classic burner "Some Skunk Funk (from their 1975 self-titled Arista debut) and the even more intense "Above & Below (from Return of the Brecker Brothers, GRP, 1992), Evans' strong R&B base contrasts significantly with Michael Brecker's more overt jazz-centricity.
The band's name really does say it all. Some songs are pure soul, like Evans' homage to Eddie Harris, "Cool Eddie, and the staggered funk of "Dixie Hop. But while bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Steve Smith are completely comfortable laying down visceral grooves, they're equally capable of swinging hard, as they do during Evans' powerful soprano solo on "Soul Bop.
Bailey and Smith's inherent flexibility aside, guitarist Hiram Bullock and keyboardist Dave Kikoski would appear, on the surface, to be polar opposites. Kikoski, typically found in more straight-ahead settings, delivers a strong post bop solo on "Soul Bop, and his modal accompaniment keeps Evans' barnstorming "Rattletrap firmly in the jazz camp, despite the rhythm section's irrepressible energy. But he's also a credible organ player on "Skunk Funk and Bullock's funky "Greed.
Bullock, on the other hand, comes more from the rock and soul side of the equation. He shares much in common with his musical peer Mike Stern, although Stern's complex lines lean towards the bebop side of the "heavy metal bebop epithet Miles Davis gave him, while Bullock's phrasing is more straightforward. Bullock is also a fine singer on "Greed and the down-and-dirty "Tease Me, but lines like "If you mess around with my Johnson, I got to get into the bush suggest that he should find a lyrical collaborator.
Ultimately what makes Soulbop so successful is its ability to effortlessly shift gears, often in the same song. Brecker has always been able to take funk to an outer zone, and Evans is just as able to rein things in, though he has an equally broad vernacular. Purists on both sides may have a problem with Soulbop's integrated aesthetic, but for those who like their jazz with a heavy dose of funk and fusion energy, Soulbop Band Live is just what the doctor ordered.
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Personnel: Randy Brecker: trumpet, vocals; Bill Evans: tenor and soprano saxophones; Hiram Bullock: guitar, vocals; David Kikoski: keyboards; Victor Bailey: bass; Steve Smith: drums.