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Published: 2002/03/20
by Chris Gardner

Next – Soulive

Blue Note Records 7243-5-35869 2 8

The jazz-groove game is a tricky one. Many a hepcat has fallen to the side
of this road, drifting into the smoothed out land of elevator music. Even
Jimmy Smith, the mighty touchstone to whom Soulive is most often compared,
fell off the tight rope and sank into the cheesy roadside sludge from time
to time. The trouble seems to stem from the fact that jazz-groove is the
offspring of funk and smooth jazz. Take too much of the latter, and your
choice cut of funk is suddenly ripe for inclusion on the Crate and Barrel
in-store sampler. The challenge then involves rooting the rounded tones of
smooth jazz around an uncompromising, hard edged rhythm section. Soulive
makes it look easy.

The Evans Brothers, Alan on skins and Neal on keys, pin each groove down
for the four count. Alan attacks his pared down kit, hammering the two and
the four like he's driving in railroad ties while Neal stomps out
bounce-heavy
bass lines with the foot pedals of his Hammond B-3. The brothers are more
propulsive than ever on "Next", their second release for Blue Note. The
opening block of three
songs stakes their claim. The hard driving opener, "Tuesday Night's Squad",
features a twinned theme stated by the organ and horn and a head-bobbin',
clap along beat. The aptly named "Flurries" sees Alan in rare form,
slapping out flurrious beats that belie his usually restrained demeanor at
the kit. "Liquid" provides the final stamp, blending the strengths of the
band into a midtempo groove that opens up beautifully for the soloists.

Among the instrumentals, there are very few missteps. The group has honed a
distinctive sound within the genre that survives despite the line-up change.
The addition of Kininger means a diminished role for Krasno in every way.
He often lays out while Neal and Kininger weave themes, and his guitar is
too frequently buried in the mix. It is a tribute to the strength of the
rhythm section and the songwriting that the band is able to maintain its
signature sound without Krasno in the forefront.

Next also finds the band collaborating with four vocalists – Black
Thought, Talib Kweli, r&b vocalist Amel Larrieux, and some guy named Dave
Matthews. All four offer solid performances that force the band into
secondary and almost inconsequential roles. The exercises with Talib Kweli
and Black Thought are solid, but the band plays a minimal role, proving
merely that they can lay a loop and serve as sampling fodder. Larrieux's
cut, which she co-wrote with the band, has a more distinctive Soulive stamp.

"I Don't Know" slinks along beautifully, but Larrieux is unquestionably the focus. The fourth vocal cut adds a slight swing to Ani Difranco's "Joyful Girl" (which she has already remixed several times herself) with touring buddy Dave Matthews at the fore. Here the band sounds least like itself. Aside from Krasno's guitar, there is little here to suggest that this is not Dave's band. In short, each of these collaborations produced a solid song that proves that Soulive could have a successful career as a back up band if they ever decided to quit making their own music. These are all strong pieces of work, but they belong somewhere else.

Next could have been Soulive's most consistent album to date, were it
not
for the vocal diversions. They redesigned their sound while still
maintaining its essence. They scripted a cluster of songs with themes so
thick and tasty that the licks linger for days. They crafted a hard-edged
groove sound that dodges all of the smooth jazz side roads. They updated
the sounds from the back stacks of the Blue Note catalog, and they threw in
some collaborations with vocalists that will undoubtedly increase album
sales.

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