Soulive is nothing if not a young jazz band of the people, playing on the road constantly, interacting with audiences graciously and regularly hosting musicians on stage and on tour. Yet this trio adamantly refuses to release albums that merely reflect its live act, which is a generously funky mix of pure improvisation over deep grooves seasoned with old-school soul, R&B, and contemporary beats.
A short instrumental fade, one of three such "Interludes on the disc, introduces one of the primary influences on Soulive: the funk orientation of Hendrix in his Band of Gypsys phase. Later on, Alan Evans, Neal Evans, and Eric Krasno lead a pumping turn on "Crosstown Traffic that makes it sound like Jimi wrote the tune for a horn section. A fusion of such contemporary source material with old-school R&B and soul comes in the form of "Reverb, where the band floats melodic textures over a groove as deep as it gets, the percussion accenting the rhythm no more (or less) than the horns.
"Got Soul illustrates how handily Soulive maneuvers through syncopation. These players' own surety enables them to host more than a few guests on Breakout; some, like Ivan Neville, who sings here, have actually performed with the group onstage, while vocalist Reggie Watts is the lead singer of Maktub, who's co-billed tours with Soulive. On their second album, Next, the Evans brothers and Krasno were still in the process of formulating their identity. In contrast, on this, the group's Concord debut, Soulive's collective personality is so firmly established that the incorporation of flamenco strains on "Cachacha sounds perfectly natural, an enhancement of the group's style, not an experimentation with someone else's (though it'd be hard to believe the members of Soulive don't love Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain).
Chaka Khan's appearance on "Back Again recalls the shortfalls of the aforementioned Blue Note album: it's not earthy enough or airy enough to be truly memorable. Surprisingly, Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover fails to distinguish himself either on "Freedom, while pedal steel wunderkind Robert Randolph gets the short shrift, appearing only on the less-than-thirty seconds of "Interlude II and becomes buried in the arrangement of the otherwise scintillating "Crosstown Traffic.
Guitarist Eric Krasno may be the most gifted instrumentalist in Soulive: his dexterity is always in proportion to his imagination. But his gifts would not stand out in such sharp relief were it not for the bottomless drumming of Alan Evans or the spice of contrast supplied by Neal Evans; hear the short piano break on "Back Again for instance, an offering on an instrument the young keyboardist rarely uses, but plays as adroitly as the organ, clavinet, and Roland axes at his disposal.
You never miss hearing and feeling a bassist with Soulive, thanks to the abandoned manner with which Evans wields the Roland. Similarly, it's dangerous to take for granted the sophisticated production savvy these musicians have taught themselves, in such a relatively short time (their debut album came out in 1999 and was reissued with a bonus track three years later).
Hard core jazz listeners may find the vocals on alternating tracks intrusive, and extending the interludes into full-length tracks would not make the album overly long. Yet when you find yourself immersed in the well road-tested title song, such thoughts disappear, replaced by the realization that a good piece of material will accommodate a variety of arrangements.
"Breakout" sounds as tantalizing with the brassy horns as it so often has in stripped-down form parlayed by the core trio. It's just one of the most obvious reminders that the name of this recording, Breakout, is a verb, not a noun.
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Tracks: Interlude; Reverb; Got Soul; Cachaca; Back Again; Break Out; She's Hooked; Crosstown Traffic; Take It Easy; Vapor; What Can You Do; Interlude II; Freedom; Glad To Know Ya; Interlude III.
Personnel: Alan Evans; drums, fuzz and rhythm guitars, bass keys and vocals; Neal Evans: Hammond organ, bass keys, clavinet, piano, Fender Rhodes: Eric Krasno: electric and acoustic guitars, programming; Rashawn Ross: trumpet; Ryan Zoidis: tenor and alto saxophone; Robin Eubanks: trumpet; Lasim Richards: trombone; Cochemea Gastlum: alto sax; Danny Sandownick: percussion; Jordan Battiste: backing vocals; Chaka Khan: vocals; Reggie Watts: vocals; Corey Glover: vocals; Ivan Neville: vocals; Robert Randolph: pedal steel guitar.