This month we turn to the city of Memphis to find our Jambands New Groove of the Month. There’s a fresh new style resonating from the haven of American blues and barbeque, and it’s probably not what you expected. Coming out of a city not normally known for its synthesizer-rich electronica, Pnuma has stormed onto the live radar screen this year, and done it only months into their brief career. After turning heads with an explosive performance at this year’s Wakarusa Music Festival (one of the best performances of the festival in my opinion), an opening spot at Sam Altman’s farewell Camp Bisco and their third Colorado run this year about to take place, Pnuma is already in line to be a lasting flavor for the future. Comprised of Alex Botwin on bass, Ben Hazlegrove on keyboards and Lane Shaw on drums and percussion, this Memphis-based electro-jazz trio is poised for big things.
Pnuma’s story began less than a year ago, December 22nd, 2004 to be exact. In that short span they’ve already achieved what most young bands can only hope for and it’s all thanks to a chance meeting of three ambitious, young musicians.
“It began by us being introduced by a mutual friend in Virginia to play together,” explained Botwin. (Botwin recalls rather vividly that the exact date was December 22nd). “Our jams were so sick. In January we all dropped what we were doing at the time and moved to Memphis to start Pnuma.”
Within days of this first encounter Pnuma was formed and they relocated to Memphis. Although the members were each living in different areas and busy doing things like college, it felt too right. It’s funny how quickly a chance opportunity to play music with some friends of a friend can carry such resonance.
Together these three youngsters-each not far removed from their teenage years-have already made quite the name for themselves amongst those in the live electronic scene. Still while they’re talented and ambitious, but how will they separate themselves from trendsetters like the Disco Biscuits, The New Deal, STS9’s and a new generation of younger bands?
Botwin summed it up into a neat package. “Well, we started out listening to all these bands. What we do in Pnuma is take bits and pieces of each and create a totally new sound. We have so many electronic influences, but we turn them into a unique experience that doesn’t just involve sound.”
Indeed, Pnuma aims to extract from these influences (LTJ Bukem, Phish and STS9 to name a few) to produce a sound that fits its members differing personalities. For instance, drummer Lane Shaw draw heavily upon drum n’ bass technique in his playing. He’s fierce and quick as hell but steady and on point. Hazlegrove is a truly gifted and versatile keyboardist. Though classically trained from the Berklee School of Music, he can lay on KORG-laced trance like a seasoned veteran, all with great charisma and stage presence. And then there’s Botwin. Once a Gold Cup champion in Suzuki style violin, he now drops the thick, slap-happy funk on the bass.
“We have a variety of musical knowledge and we can adapt to many different types of music and styles,” said Hazlegrove. “Our shows consist of a very emotional, energetic vibe. That helps set us apart.”
While the band maintains a foundation deeply rooted in jazz sensibilities, it’s undeniably electronic in tone. There are elements of so many styles in the mix, from Southern funk and driving house to Jimmy Smith jazz and Bukem bass. It can sound down right dirty and it can be smooth and flowing. At the core, they produce atmospheric soul trance. Botwin asserted that it’s all about taking the club-like atmosphere, adding live instrumentation and bringing that to a live audience. On the whole, Pnuma succeeds by grasping the listener and bringing them through an entirety of sounds and emotions while making it appealing and accessible.
“It’s kind of jazz influenced electronic house and drum n’ bass….Organic, intelligent, dirty electronica I guess,” said Botwin. “Lately it’s been getting nastier. Ben’s added more keyboards and we’ve added more amps. Our tone is getting really clean and clear.”
While it may be a difficult pill to swallow for some, for those who’ve had the opportunity to witness Pnuma in action, the reception has been loud and clear. After playing an impressive breakout set at this year’s Wakarusa the band continued on to Colorado for another stellar set post-Conspirator that eventually earned them an opening slot at Camp Bisco. In between all of this they’ve been packing clubs and theatres in their hometown of Memphis and around Nashville while also making it back to Colorado as we speak for another extended run through the Rocky Mountain State.
Pretty good for a band that’s performed together for less than 10 months.
For Hazlegrove and Pnuma, it’s all about keeping their eyes geared towards the future. “I guess the goal is to have the vast majority of people into this type of music to know about us, but also to stick to our jazz roots. I just want people to know it’s worthy music.”
For those in Colorado, Pnuma will be hitting the state hard in the first half of September with stops in Denver, Boulder, Snowmass, Fort Collins and several mountain towns before heading down to Arizona. Past that, the future is bright. Their debut studio album should be out by early next year there will be guest appearances along the way and plenty of good things to come. Stay tuned and check out www.pnumalive.com for downloads, news and more.