Groove Collective: Delivering The Worlds Music
It’s a quiet Saturday night at Sweet Rhythm, a restaurant-style music spot located in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village. From the front of its marquee, the dimly lit club looks like the type of elegant eatery best suited for easy listening or light jazz, crammed with tablecloths and couple-specific candles. But, in sharp contrast, the evening’s menu actually includes Groove Collective’s unique mix of world-music, funk and jazz; an up-tempo blend of improvisational sounds mostly simply described as a dance music. Yet, the mood feels strangely right. Indeed, Groove Collective has always balanced jazz elegance and jam-rock grooves with ying-and-yang efficiency.
Since forming in 1990, Groove Collective has been a visible force on the live music circuit, collaborating with everyone from Chucho Valdto Tupac Shakur, as well as RatDog, Widespread Panic and Medeski, Martin and Wood. In the past few years, however, the horn-heavy group has focused its attention abroad, concentrating on the European jazz-circuit and, in the case of percussionist Christopher Theberge, Nigeria. But, a few years after releasing its high-energy concert souvenir, Brooklyn, NY 04.20.02, Groove Collective returned to the studio, releasing its highly-acclaimed comeback, 2006’s People People Music Music. Below, Theberge discusses Groove Collective’s evolution, his band’s multiple personas and why hip-hop and hippie-rock don’t have to be strange bedfellows.
MG- At this stage in your career, do you find that your studio albums accurately capture your live sound?
CT- We are totally skitso! We have two sides: a recording side and a live side. So, if you listen to the new record and then go to one of our shows, you really feel us stretching out live and all the craziness. Our studio albums are blueprints, really. We can’t capture the exact feeling of what we do live in the studio, but we try to capture the essence. Our thought is that we always need to support the record and play material from the record, but we can still play around with the arrangements and go off and explore.
MG- People People Music Music has a very different feel than your live show. What was the compositional process for that album like?
CT- We tend to get really focused on a record and write for that project. When someone says, “go make a record,” we usually do. That being said, it took us about a year-and-a-half to make this record, so we fleshed some of these songs out on the road—-in public. We are plugged into the taping community, so we listen back to all our shows and in rehearsal we will learn an idea that took place at one of our shows. For instance, on our new record we combined a few songs and ideas to create some new songs specifically from the disc. “Tito” was actually a remake of a few Tito Puente songs. We took half of a few songs we know and created a really cool medley.
MG- You recently returned from a trip to Nigeria where you studied the art of African drumming. Musically, what did you take from this journey?
CT- I have been there a few times. I am very involved with the Yorba traditionalists of Nigeria. Their style has hugely impacted Western culture—-everything from blue jeans to indigo to drumming. It has really impacted America, especially where slavery went. I kind of followed the path backwards, traveling through Cuba, following the drumming. When I went to Nigeria, I fell in love with the place. I’ve made a lot of friends there and have traveled back a few times.
MG- When did you begin studying African drumming?
CT- My musical education started pretty early, actually, with Grateful Dead music. I’d always try to sit behind the drums and pay attention during drums-and-space. At the time, I was based in Washington, DC and didn’t have access to that many cultures. The Dead’s music really opened me up. Then I started traveling a lot because my dad was a diplomat and realized that music was coming from everywhere. When I came to New York, I had been playing the congas—-the hand drum—-my entire life and I met the Latin and Puerto Rican communities. That eventually led to Cuba, which led me to Nigeria, which is kind of the motherland where it all began.
MG- Recently, Groove Collective has focused much of its attention on Europe. How has your experience playing aboard differed from your time in the states?
CT- It’s kind of interesting. When things change in the world, we tend to go where we are most welcome. And, over the past few years, we have been most welcome in Europe. Over there, we fall more into the jazz category. Our country is only 200-plus years old, but Europe has a long, long tradition of supporting the arts. They seem to support artists on a much more profound level. The promoters are really interested in preserving music and culture. They pick you up at the airport, they take you out for dinner and they provide you with these amazing spreads—-and that isn’t even a festival, that is a club gig. I’ve kind of chalked it up to Europeans having been around for so many more years and us having come from another land. We have good promoters here too, but they don’t get money from the state and government like in Europe. The poor guys are just trying to keep their doors open over here.
MG- What specific styles did you try to capture on People People Music Music?
CT- In general there are two: Latin and afro beat. At this point, afro beat is pretty much synonymous with Fela Kuti who, for lack of a better word, was the Bob Marley of afro beat—-a poet and revolutionary. He created a whole new style which has been embraced by the whole world. He really connected world music and funk. Those guys were listening to James Brown and recreating what they heard. Now, you can’t listen to James Brown for your entire life and not have heard of Fela Kuti. As for our Latin influences, they actually mostly from living in New York and being around the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities. The Latin music scene has really expanded because of those communities. So, I think all of those influences have sort of been wrapped-up into our sound.
MG- How has the jam/groove scene changed over the past fifteen years?
CT- Its odd—-people in the jam scene say we are jazz and people in the jazz scene say we are jam, just as people in the Latin scene say we are funk and people in the funk scene say we are Latin [laughs]. If you plug away at the same genre for your whole life, you end up limiting yourself. It’s only recently that the jam-scene has become so open. Being a jamband used to mean having a guitar in the band. Now bands like Rebirth are successful in this space. We have collaborated with everyone from Widespread to the Medeksi guys. Playing with Widespread has been especially great. Dave Schools really was a strong link. He has always been a fan of Groove Collective and he said, “I want those guys to open for us.” Jay and I recently played with Schools at the Cosmic Love Ball. Those side-projects are great because we can all bring different sounds back into the band. One of the things I hope we bring to the jamband scene is just strong musicianship.
MG- Speaking of collaborations, some members of your band actually played with Tupac Shakur shortly before his death.
CT- A bunch of the guys in the band actually were in his backing band for an MTV function on TV. There is actually a video of it floating around on YouTube. Our drummer, bass player and our then percussion got to play with him. Our rhythm section has always captured the sound of New York’s street music: a mix of dance, hip-hop and Latin. It’s really club music and funk and soul. Everyone in the band brings different cultural sounds and the rhythm section really brings that dance beat. With the exception of the Roots, I don’t know anyone who can bring that live hip-hop sound to the stage as well as them.
MG- Personally, which artist are you most proud to have collaborated with?
CT- I think working with Chucho Valdwas huge. He is great legend—-the Weather Report of his space. I sometimes think that we can be a modern day Weather Report , taking jazz, word and funk and trying to bring them together on a higher level. Playing with Chucho was like being on a freight train and, of course, working with Fred Wesley has been really exciting. We used him as a featured soloist on some of our European tours. Also, working with Bernie Worrell has been great. We went played Moscow with him. He was a featured soloist and we featured him in a classical section of a tune. Many people don’t realize it, but be was a classical prodigy when he was a kid.
MG- Do you view songwriting as a collaborative process?
CT- We are a democracy—-four core partners who do all the work outside the band. It’s a collaborative group, however if someone is feeling inspired we will give them free rain. On this album, Barney McCall, our keyboardist wrote a bunch of tunes. We are all composers. He was feeling inspired and he contributed a few more tunes this time around. There is no rhyme or reason. We all share our publishing credits, so even if you write only one song you get an even split. However, we all bring ideas to a table. Our tribute to Fred Wesley actually my tune. But, some of our favorite songs just happen when we press record and see what happens.
_Mike Greenhaus has not slept since 1997. Catch up with his nocturnal reflections and podcast banter at www.greenhauseffect.com