Topaz: The Zone

Phil DiPietro By

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The folks over at Velour Records have obviously got some big ears. Their first signatories, Soulive, blew up last year in a big way, a way that I would not be surprised to see their drum'n'bass funkifized labelmates, Kudu actually eclipse very soon. Now come Topaz, whose most recent release, "The Zone" is actually their third for the Brooklyn-based indie label, but will hopefully serve as the unit's introduction to a larger fan base. Topaz have been lumped in with the jamband set, which is cool, but for those into classification, this is jazz funk, coming out of acid jazz, but more specifically an extension of the subsect dubbed late 70's future funk. Think Donald Byrd, Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Smith and Roy Ayers, Don Sebesky's horn charts for the sunshower funk of CTI, Lennie White with his Astral Pirates, Rufus without Chaka but with the Horny Horns, or Gato with Jamiroquai minus the guy with the bigger hat who dances backwards. By the way, all of the above references come sans the era's overblown production values, because in a well-advised strategic move, this one finds the band stripping down their studio sound and honing the live energy that makes them, quite simply, one of America's best bar bands.

"Minha Mente" starts things off with an infectious little drum beat under percolating Wurlitzer jabs, with leader saxman Topaz and 'boneman Squantch entering with one of their now-patented two man horn lines. The funk gets inside your head with the repeating refrain of "In My Mind" and the groove sets up for the first solo by, in my mind, the band's "secret weapon" Ethan White. Ethan, at 25, is the jamband world's newest "Rhodes Scholar"(actually, he uses a vintage Wurly), equally capable of Herbiesque solo excursions, intrepid left-fieldisms, adroit unison runs with the hornmen and new-school atmospherics. For those who balk at the jamband noodle, there's absolutely none here, from Ethan or any of his bandmates. 'Paz proves this on his following turn, which progresses from breathy smoother lines into gently adventurous overblown lines with Squantch providing the duet love with telepathic accents. If anything, and I mean this in a good way, the solos are cut a bit short at the expense of the tight groove.

"I Can See It in You" follows suit a bit with the majority of the vocal line consisting of the repeated chant of the title and a classic chromatic "walking funk" bass line. The wurly again follows the melodic contour, with another saxabone horn line adding depth to the groove. My favorite moment of the disc comes a minute into the tune, when the vocal verse finishes and we transition into the chorus/jam section . White "blesses" the event with a quick sixteenth note segue that sounds like the good witch of funk cheese sprinkling-no tinkling - fairy dust on the proceedings with (as George Duke used to say) his "Magic Wand!" Maybe I find more humor in it than the band did, but it'll make you reach for the pause button, guaranteed! Guitarist Tewar plays the beginnings of a cyclic groove that becomes augmented by White, setting up a the type of swirly electronic vamp popularized by English electro-acid testers the Ozric Tentacles. Squantch brings the 'shroomy funk to the festival table with 16 bars that'll have you picturing a burning bowl in front of the bell of his horn. No jazz gymnastics fall in the way of a perfect take here.

"Walkabout" sets up the middle-of-the-album trend towards Spanish funk. We're not talking latin, we're talking mayheecan bullfighter funk, okay? Sebesky, Gato Barbieri or even the Tijuana Brass are the touchstones here, an extremely nice arrangement wherein Topaz resists the temptation to multitrack himself, utilizing Squantch and White to great effect. White then supplies a bed of wah-Rhodes for Tewar to kick out the Spanish jams over, before Topaz finally allows himself to display his altissimo and sustained note chops a la the previously referenced Gato -"Caliente" indeed! Topaz better trade in that Mexican straw cowboy hat for a full blown sombrero pretty soon.

"4th and D" is a slow-burnin' acid groove with a spin-cycle tag that touches down for a mellow octave-spiced guitar solo, and a straight turn for Topaz that segues seamlessly into an outro vamp when the band grabs onto a repeated note and instead, uses it to reintro the head. Squantch strikes again on "You and Me," which provides session?s coolest doubletime drumbeat and its tightest bass take, too. Turn this gem up real loud of you wanna dig the unison guitar and piano wah-wah funk in the background. "The Zone" is a mellow groove full of stops and starts, revisiting the Spanish theme in its middle, abetted by a fugitive matador trumpet player.

Squantch cleans the resin out of his Didj for the solo intro, as well as the ensemble remainder, of the mind bending , mideastern-spiced, trippy groove of "Naked." Topaz stirs in the squealing sax sumac, thickening the dish, while White supplies lovely piano saffron counterpoint to the opaque, fuzzed -out stew. This one provides the soundtrack to the musical nomad traversing the desert looking for the funk oasis, quickly provided by the following track, "Fat City Strut," which starts off with a JB horn-type funk line that morphs into a bouncy dead-like jam for the trombone to get Spanish over and then pulls back into the unison funk again- somehow nicely schizoid.

Like I said, these guys have 3 discs worth of stuff hanging out there already. A freshman A and R guy would do well to sign 'em, pick 80 minutes of stuff that?s already been released , and remarket it as the band's "major label" debut. In the meantime, you now know better, and can play "The Zone" through www.velourmusic.com or the major internet vendors. Remember, it serves as the perfect business card for what Topaz does best. Yes, my friends, when these fellas show up in your town, get the group together, pay the cheap cover, grab a pint and start dancing from beginning to end , and remember to rest at the break, 'cause they're comin? back for more!

Track Listing: 1) Minha Mente 2) I Can See It in You 3) Walkabout 4) 4th and D 5) You and Me 6) The Zone 7) Naked 8) Fat City Strut

Personnel: Topaz ? Tenor Sax , Squantch ? Trombone , Mark ?Tewar? Tewarson ? Guitar, Ethan White ? Keys, Jason Kriveloff ? Bass, Christian Ulrich ? Drums

Title: The Zone | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Velour Music


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