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Published: 2006/08/19
by Chris Gardner

Texas Thunder Soul, 1968-1974 – Kashmere Stage Band

Now Again 5023

They were just a high school band, and the first few times through this
compilation it's hard to think past that, hard to stop being wowed by the
audacity of that. The music is too crisp, the groove too deep, the horn
section too sharp, the rhythm section too damn tight for this to be a bunch
of high school kids who needed an elective credit. But it is just that. Of
course, the Kashmere Stage Band under the direction of Conrad O. Johnson was a better than average high school band. Blending deep funk rhythms with Johnson's predilection for carefully charted orchestral jazz in the mold of
Duke Ellington and Count Basie, the band from the northside of Houston won 42 of the 46 contests it entered between the years of 1969 an 1978, was
named Best High School Stage Band in the Nation in 1972, and pressed eight
LPs and three 45s. This long overdue and startling compilation offers sharp
and sticky large ensemble soul jazz with big brassy horns, crisp
in-the-pocket rhythms, and enough urgency and virtuosity to pack the house
and stun it.

The compilation, which splits the recorded and live output of the stage
bands from the years 1968-1974 into two discs, serves as a tribute to
Johnson's mastery as a teacher and composer. While the lineup constantly
shifted, the quality of the band's work remains steady. Initially focusing
on covers of popular material, Johnson re-charted music in both directions,
jazz to funk and back again. They deliver a punched up, funk-driven, almost
unrecognizable "Take Five" that leaves space atop for a saxophone to swagger
through Brubeck's signature riff. "Thank You" is at least as, if not more,
deeply funky than Sly Stone's original, and the band's "Super Bad" would
leave Fred Wesley and the JBs with little to complain about. More
impressive still are the original tunes with their heavy reliance on thick
horn charts, where Johnson's blend of funk and jazz is perhaps more
discernable. From the blistering "All Praises" to the rollicking "Keep
Doing It" to the comparatively minimal funk of "$$Kash Register$$," the band
under Johnson's hand plays with vitality and precision. They've got the
chops, and they've got the swagger.

The band could press it, as they do on the swinging "Thunder Soul" where the
relentless rhythm section (replete with flurrious congas) seems to battle
with the horns. They could also lay deep in the pocket, as they do on
"Kashmere," which features Craig Smith on drums and Gerald Calhoun on bass.
The band had its share of exceptional musicians (Melvin Sparks among them),
but none outshine these two. Calhoun's often frenetic fret work perfectly
offsets Smith's crisp simplicity, and here, where the band repeatedly falls
out for Smith's break beats, you get the best of all sides. DJs dug this
band's work off the discard pile, and here you see exactly why.

While the quality of the live recordings is not exceptional, the content is. This is clearly a band built for performance, a skilled and drilled band
that somehow brings fresh energy to songs that must have been rehearsed ad
nauseum. "Zero Point" features Johnson's most intricate and tangled horn
charts, and the live cut flies through them flawlessly. It sounds like a
jumpy band, a band chomping at the bit, an anxious band moving through
things a little faster than they intend to. "Ain't No Sunshine" on the
other hand finds the band in full recline, swagging deep into the blue
groove and feeding off the vocal crowd's energy without ever losing the
languor. It's hard not to think of the JBs, which undoubtedly served as a
model for stage bands across the nation during these years, but the Kashmere
Stage band isn't only about the groove. As a competitive band, they had to
demonstrate flexibility, versatility, virtuosity, and precision, and it's all
captured here.

It's an excellent collection — dense, comprehensive, rewarding, and proof
positive that there's always something buried out there for the diggers.
The liner notes reproduced sans the lengthy interview with Conrad O.
Johnson) are here as
are a few photos (afro damn-near required). You can also check out David
Brown's radio piece here. Go on. Do some digging.

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