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In a career that dates back nearly 35 years, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Ron Levy has carried the banner for blues and soul-drenched jazz. He got his feet wet as a more straightforward blues player in B.B. King's band in the '70s, recording half a dozen albums and touring incessantly, as well as playing with other seminal artists including Lowell Fulson, Earl King and Luther "Guitar Jr. Johnson. But beginning in '85, Levy started a series of recordings with his ever-shifting group Wild Kingdom, releasing nearly a dozen records since that time that represent his own engaging blend of jazz, blues, funk, Latin and soul music. Levy's up-tempo, groove-laden music has always been great party music, and his latest release, Voodoo Boogaloo is no exception.
Levy may overlay all manner of keyboards, acoustic and otherwise, but it's the Hammond B-3 organ that's his main axe, and he takes the lineage of players like Jimmy Smith and Booker T., into the 21st Century with the help of friends including woodwind multi-instrumentalist Karl Denson and, on a couple of tracks, acid jazz progenitor Melvin Sparks on guitar.
While the classic R&B sound of the '60s and '70s is the precedent, it's also mixed with a liberal dose of jazz vernacular. The title track alternates between an Afro-Cuban vibe, with Levy contributing some Cal Tjader-like vibes, and a light swing. Denson's flute and "Sax Gordon's baritone make for a distinctive-sounding front-line, with Yahuba Garcia's congas and timbales providing the back-end glue. Both Denson and Sparks get the chance to strut, with Sparks delivering a quote-filled solo before Levy takes the lead, showing just how it's possible to combine clever ideas with a more in-the-gut visceral approach.
What's remarkable about the record is how it never strays from infectious grooves "Better Save Yo'seff combines New Orleans strut with a certain hip hop vibe, and one could easily hear some turntables being added to the funk of "SPANK! and yet almost insidiously introduces ideas that are a little off the beaten path. "Wes Side West grooves no less insistently than the rest of the disc, but manages to blend in something that recalls the classic soul-jazz sound of '60s Blue Note recordings.
Between Levy's multiple keyboards, two saxophonists, two guitarists, three percussionists and, on "Memphis Mem'ries, a guest spot by harmonicist Jerry Portnoy, there are plenty of textures to keep things interesting. But, at the end of the day, it's Levy's remarkable intuition for creating a rhythm-happy sound while knowing just how far to take the jazzier aesthetic that gives Voodoo Boogaloo its broad appeal.
For a get-down, get-happy album that manages to be engaging on so many levels, it's unlikely that there'll be another jazz record this year that's plainly this much fun. And if Levy's this happening on disc, one can only imagine how great his band must be live.
Track Listing: Organ Colossus; Voodoo Boogaloo; Love Retoined; Better Save YoSeff; Spy on the Fly; Spank!; Wes Side West; Memphis Memries
Personnel: Ron Levy (composer, producer, organ, piano, electric pianos, vibes, strings, basses, clavinet, Korg MS-20, arranging and programming), Melvin Sparks (guitar on Voodoo Boogaloo, Wes Side West), Karl Denson (alto and tenor sax, flute on Voodoo Boogaloo, SPANK!, Wes Wide West, Memphis Memries), Jeff Lockhart (guitar on Love Retoined, Save Yourself), Russ Lawton (percussion, drums, tambourine), Yahuba Garcia (congas, timbales), Adrome Acidman MacHine (drums, percussion), Sax Gordon (baritone sax on Voodoo Boogaloo, SPANK!, tenor sax on Organ Colossus, Better Save Yoseff, Spy on the Fly) Special Guest: Jerry Portnoy (harmonica on Memphis Memries)