Soulive: Up Here (2009)
In a very real sense, Up Here is the perfectly appropriate way for Soulive to celebrate a decade together. These jazz funkers have restlessly experimented and modified their three-piece approach in their ten years together, and this debut on their own label is a good summation of what they've done.
Soulive doesn't wait long to get into a groove here and do so via the gritty bounce of Neal Evans' piano dancing in sync with a stately horn section. Brother Alan, who produced the album, smashes his drum kit all along as the organ alternates with keyboards before a somewhat abrupt finish.
If it seems "Upright" ends before guitarist Eric Krasno has a chance to strut his stuff, that's correct, but he appears immediately in "The Swamp," scrupulously picking the melodic foundation upon which the horns and keyboards rest as the track progresses. Meanwhile, his tone thickens as a means of embellishment, while his two comrades dig ever deeper into the rhythm. This is Soulive at its best: retaining the beat as it swings throughout.
Up Here is not, obviously, a stripped-down return to basics. Horn charts are a natural progression and laudable addition to the core trio and while the vocals of Nigel Hall, on the buoyant "Too Much," are soulful enough, his presence reduces the drama of the all-instrumental interaction as documented on the previous tracks. Even given the shades of Earth Wind & Fire influence in the harmony singing there, Ryan Zoidis' sax solo is more memorable and in line with preceding cuts and "Backwards Jack."
The dream-like "PJ's" appears just in time to rescue Up Here from homogeneity. Krasno flicks off sleepy blues-inflected guitar as the metronomic echoes of drums float back and forth in time with electronic keyboards and restrained horns. Smooth and succinct, this cut is simultaneously traditional and perfectly contemporary.
Which also happens to be the best means of describing "Tonight," whose tightly-wound horns and guitar continue the emphasis on R&B rather than jazz elements, which have characterized Soulive's last two studio works. Meanwhile, "Hatrick," "For Granted" and "Prototype" constitute an appropriate finish to this album, a self-referential triad of titles that illustrate the equally firm reach and grasp of the group.
Track Listing: Up Right; The Swamp; Too Much; Backwards Jack; PJ's; Tonight; Hat Trick; For Granted; Prototype.
Personnel: Alan Evans: drums; Eric Krasno: guitar; Neal Evans: keyboards; Nigel Hall: vocals; The Shady Horns: Sam Kininger: alto saxophone; Ryan Zoidis: tenor saxophone, alto saxophone.