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New Groove

Published: 2003/12/29
by Brian Gearing

Modern Groove Syndicate

Most bands have a tendency to cram as many adjectives as possible into their press packets in hopes of attracting fans that might not normally be drawn to what the band actually is. Richmond’s Modern Groove Syndicate is as guilty of this sin as anyone. They drop catch-alls like groove, soul, hip-hop, and rock in an attempt to distinguish their sound from that of the multitude of bands that currently reside in one of the two boxes in which critics are most likely to categorize them: funk and jazz. That’s not to say their aren’t other flavors in their stew. Their attempts at self-differentiation are sometimes admirable; but more often than not, one has the feeling that again, just like most bands, Modern Groove Syndicate is just way too concerned with their image.
That’s not to say that some bands shouldn’t be concerned with their image. After all, where would the Strokes be if they weren’t so undeniably cool? But here’s the difference between a band like the Strokes and a band like Modern Groove Syndicate (besides the cool-ness): the Strokes are rock stars first and musicians second; but "musician" is a word and a concept that oozes from every bead of sweat the members of this Richmond quartet leave on the stage.
They practice relentlessly, working out arrangements until they’ve almost worn them ragged. Like an old pair of jeans, though, they somehow get more comfortable every time you put em through the wash. Keyboardist Daniel Clarke, bassist Todd Herrington and saxophonist JC Kuhl are all career musicians, supplementing their incomes from MGS with session and for-hire work, and all four members have been playing since childhood. And while drummer Joel DeNunzio, who currently moonlights as a transportation engineer, isn’t quite as busy behind his instrument as his bandmates, he appreciates the dedication and experience that they bring to the table. "This is the most challenging thing I’ve done," he says. "It’s been a really good growing experience, musically."
As the founding member of the band, DeNunzio has had plenty of time to grow. He and Herrington started playing together in 1998 with guitarist Frank Jackson. Herrington later got Clarke’s number from a mutual friend, and the four started gigging around Richmond. In July of 2001, the band took over Richmond’s Sound of Music Recording Studios and invited a slew of horn-playing friends to help fill out the sound. The result was the foursome’s debut album on local label Courthouse Records. The record impressed enough people to gain the band a spot on the 45th Annual Grammy Awards Entry List for "Best Instrumental Pop Performance" and "Best Contemporary Jazz Album."
While they appreciate the attention though, the bandHarrington in particularare wary of the title of "contemporary jazz":
Herrington: I guess we’re gonna appeal to a jazz crowd, and these guys have a jazz background, but I’d be scared to be billed as a jazz act. I think [the word] can be misleading.
Kuhl: Well, the word itself does scare people away.
Herrington: And it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t at all. I think there’s just this preconceived notion that you’re gonna get dressed up and sit and drink and watch them do their thing.
DeNunzio: Well, and the other thing we’ve gotten is contemporary jazz, and you don’t even know what to think about that. I mean contemporary jazzwhat is that? I don’t know. It’s like jazz, but it’s worse.
Herrington: Yeah, and I’m not saying that that’s what I think. I’m just worrying about a mass audience reading that andjust think about all the people that went to see Charlie Hunter when they read jazz and then left, you know. Because it’s not ["jazz"].
But if they’re worried about the notion that "you’re gonna get dressed up and sit. . . and watch them do their thing," they don’t have much to worry about. Some of those expecting a quiet evening of classic jazz might actually get up and leave, but Modern Groove Syndicate’s infectious party music should appeal to just about anyone without a year’s worth of Spin magazines shoved up their cornhole. Their razor sharp hooks can make even the most lethargic sea bass stand up and boogie, and seeing Daniel Clarke dance around his keyboards with a "got-dayum-das-funky!" grimace on his face is an experience that would warm the soul of even the stodgiest of jazz snobs. That very same stodgy jazz crowd might just find that it is actually possible to sit down and enjoy listening to Modern Groove Syndicate’s sound. It’s not just great dance music. It’s just great music.
Their various subtle undertones will appeal to different palates, and this universality is what will ultimately separate them from the current flood of frat-house funk poseurs and Stevie-Wonder-ganking frat bands. More than anything else, Modern Groove Syndicate is a funk band, just as capable of rocking a frat party as a back alley bar, but they shake your presumptions just as much as your booty. Underneath all that clavinet and soulful horn-blowing is a solid and complex foundation that calls both the mind and the body to rise up and shake what the good Lord gave ya.
If all this is what gained Modern Groove Syndicate the Academy’s attention with its first release, there’s no telling what the upcoming Vessel could bring for these Richmond homebodies. Modern Groove Syndicate is an engaging collection of funk jukes and soul-food witticisms, but at times former guitarist Jackson’s standard guitar vamps and often stumbling solos seem like a clumsy dance partner for the graceful and passionate steps of the other Clarke, DeNunzio and Herrington. Vessel, which is currently available at shows and will be released for distribution in February, is a testament to the exponential growth the band has undergone since Jackson’s departure.
Saxophonist Kuhl, who started sitting in right around the time of the recording of the first album and actually appears as a member of the band in the artwork, brings out the best in his bandmates in his first truly full-time stint. His more mature style and smoother delivery help compliment the jazzier moments on songs like "Angel Rust" and "Too Good That It’s Gone," and he adds weight to the complex changes in "Exs & Hos" and "Fresh 21."
The other members reach further into their creative arsenals as well. DeNunzio, particularly, is much less straight-forward: his beats delve deeply into drum n’ bass and fusion territory, and he’s much more likely to step out and take the lead, no longer content to just lie back and furnish the sax and keys with a comfortable groove. His own experimentation pushes Herrington and Clarke to kick it up a notch as well. This greatly matured incarnation of Modern Groove Syndicate has produced a brilliant album that ranges in flavor from jazz to dub and from Mahavishnu Orchestra to Sesame Street while never losing touch with its foundations in the steamy funk of New Orleans.
Bourbon Street is a long way from Richmond, VA, but Herrington, DeNunzio, Kuhl and Clarke are relatively content for the moment. The tiny little scene provides ample opportunities for growth and exploration, and besides, it’s home. Having spent the past few years playing almost exclusively in Virginia, though, it is starting to get a bit frustrating, says Kuhl. "The big problem is getting people to come out and see you."
They sometimes feel stuck without the exposure of larger markets like Washington, DC and Atlanta, but there are advantages to being a big fish in a small pond. "Richmond’s a good place for us to be right now," says Clarke. "We’re in the middle of all that stuff." No more than a day from almost anywhere on the east coast, the foursome is perfectly positioned to begin its courtship with live music fans up and down the Atlantic coast, and with a tentative spot on next summer’s High Sierra Music Festival, this could be the year they finally rise above Richmond’s cobblestone streets to a wider vista.
Their experience has given them both the aspirations and the perspective of veterans. Kuhl took off from the Virginia college scene as a member of Agents Of Good Roots in the late 90s, but, like a true career musician, he is now content just to play. "We’re not looking to play arenas or anything like that. I mean, selling out places like Cary St. Caflaces that hold about 200 people or so a nightwould be great for us." Clarke reiterates his colleague’s humble aspirations: "To be able to play the music we like to play and make a living doing it." Spoken like a true lifer. But if their audience grows anything like their music has, Richmond’s own little personal funk band just might exceed its own modest aims. Of course, they wouldn’t snub a little more success. "Tour the world, hell, that would be a nice way to make a living," says Kuhl. Just don’t ask him to wear ripped jeans and Blondie t-shirts.

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