A funky Wurlitzer and a sparse drumbeat herald the first track from Topazs second release on Velour Recordings, simply entitled The Zone. Quick additions of rhythm guitar and heavy, throbbing bass precede horns riffs, and the groove is off, slinking its way through a confident strut. There is a pseudo-dub quality to the tune, "Minha Mente", a quality that ties together all the songs on the disc to create a rarity in modern music: a finely crafted, entirely cohesive album. "Our new album The Zone has been really great," says bandleader, namesake and tenor sax cat Topaz, relaxing in New Yorks East Village. "With [the previous Velour release] Listen, the band hadnt gelled yet and there were more special guests. It was more experimental, but its not what we do live. It was more about me doing what I wanted to do in the studio. With The Zone, we were trying represent what we do live. Obviously you never can, but there was a great energy."
But the fall 2001 release of the new CD is just one in a string of important events for the band, the members of which also include Ethan White on Wurlitzer, Tewar on guitar, Squantch on trombone and didgeridoo, Christian Urich on the kit and Jason Kriveloff on bass. Coolly entering the admittedly overcrowded stream of new groovers, Topaz has set itself apart with shear muscle- a graceful strength that massages both body and mind. The interplay of steady rhythms and bouncing beats, solos and broadly textured passages keeps the dance floor packed and forges the perfect late night soundtrack. "As an instrumental band, were real high energy [The music] is not very noodly. Its very precise and to the point. I think it has a New York edge, solidly based in modern dance music, as well as stuff from the seventies." But dont mistake precision for rigidity; Topazs music is just as firmly based in improvisation that draws on the Citys buzz. "You cant ever get a big head [in NYC]," reflects Topaz, "because there are so many bad mother-fuckers, and thats helpful. At the same time, it makes you work really hard because youre never satisfied. Youre always seeing great shows that blow your mind. Youre like Whoa, gotta keep at it. At the same time, youre exposed to everything, even on the street, from Latin music to hip-hop to the sounds you hear just walking around. The energy from all the commotion being here is different. The vibrations are just different because there is so much crazy stuff going on. When you improvise, all that comes out." Indeed, there is also something stylish, something urbane in the bands sound. The harmonization of Topaz and Squantch is superbly balanced and blended, creating warm but dynamic bleats. Likewise, the interaction between Ethan White and Tewar is super-smooth, a true collaboration. "Their comping and interplay is like a solo in itself."
Part of Topazs sophistication also comes from its fairly unique vocal arrangements that have band members essentially singing just choruses with no verses. "A lot of bands closer to our genre might be afraid to bust out and sing a little bit. We like to do it and have fun and incorporate it as another instrument." Whether the stark line "In my mind," from "Minha Mente" or the chorus from "World is a Ghetto", the vocals add another layer to the overall sheen, not to mention a nice point of return from long, silky keyboard passages, or wild blowing sessions from Squanch.
Its this combination of strength and style, precision and improvisation that has allowed Topaz to hit the national touring scene and gain exposure to some larger audiences. For instance, Topaz had the opening set at the 2001 Gathering of the Vibes. "We were one of the few bands that actually got to play our whole set. And it was amazing to me that people just didnt care about the rain; the vibes were still there man. Berkfest was good too. We just played with String Cheese [on their New Years Eve run in San Francisco] and we did a late night show at the Boom-Boom Room that was totally off the hook. That was totally sold out, with a line around the block. We did a late night at Jazz Fest too, and that kind of put us on the map in a big way." As the band continues to make forays into new areas, with February dates in Colorado and a series of four shows in the South East with Soulive, it always brings its bad ass "4th & D" special with it. "Its always a party and theres always a lot of love in the air and people are always getting down."
True enough. At a recent gig at NYCs Knitting Factory the band shook the balcony with song after song of sweaty sweet funk, powering straight past a set break because the beat just would not break. By the end of the show, the crowd was howling and whistling and stomping its collective feet. The band answered back with a raging version of "Fat City Strut" that had everyone on the floor and on the stage and even behind the bar jumping as high as possible, bursting with renewed vitality.
Topaz is definitely carving out its own spot in the musical world, but Topaz himself also sees the band as part of a larger musical movement. "The excitement for me of whats going on in the scene, and I think we embody this, is that these kids are going out, older people too, to hear what is basically just jazz over dance beats, which is what jazz was originally. I think its an incredible thing. Some people arent quite as blown away as they should be that these kids are going out and going crazy over improvisational instrumental music. Even five years ago, the jamband scene might have been happening, but the instrumental side of it, the more jazz influenced side of it wasnt happening. I think its just getting bigger and bigger; I think were on the edge of something." For more information on Topaz check the bands website www.topazmusic.com and the Velour Recordings website www.velourmusic.com.