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Published: 2012/06/20
by Brian Robbins

Soulive and Karl Denson

Royal Family Records

Though not an official member of Soulive, hornman Karl Denson has always been a perfect match with the band whenever they’ve collaborated, blending easily with their souljazzian organ trio sound. Spark! finds Denson and Soulive paying tribute to Melvin Sparks with a 4-song EP that embraces both the late guitarist’s exploratory side and his unshakable knack for keeping the groove within arm’s reach no matter how far out he went. The quartet burrowed into the studio only days after Sparks’ passing; the result is music that’s beautiful, honest, and chock full of emotion.

The title track (an original written for these sessions) is a cool hipster strut: Krasno takes the main melody apart, offering multiple revampings of it; Denson steps in with a gone-deep flute trip before picking up his tenor sax and laying down some love. The group’s epic cover of Yusef Lateef’s “Nubian Lady” is multi-textured, with both Denson’s flute and Krasno’s guitar launching into magic carpet rides heavily spiced with Middle Eastern flavors. Pay attention, though – listen to how the Evans brothers bring the groove around as the song approaches the 8-minute mark – that’s pure street, man. And by the time Neal Evans reaches the end of Art Farmer’s “Soulsides” he owns it – this is five-minutes-and-five-seconds’-worth of righteous keyboard work, from glistening piano tones to thick, sweet organ goo.

My personal favorite on the album is the cover of Freddie Hubbard’s “Povo” – an audio buffet of Soulive/Denson goodness. The tune is brought in on a grand sweep of tones before giving way to Neal’s bass line (remember, now – that’s that extra limb of his) and Alan’s cool-as-hell drumming. Krasno establishes the main theme, weaving melody threads with Denson; a couple passes through and he’s got his miner’s helmet on, burrowing into the tune’s center with a magnificent fretboard workout (the flurry that begins at 3:33 is the guitar equivalent of tongue-talking rapture). By the time Krasno shakes himself free of the song’s grip at 4:54, it’s hard to believe that there would be anything left to say, but Denson finds plenty. He doesn’t putter around, launching into a full-fledged tenor assault that roars and soars for almost two minutes – a complete and utter soul-wringing. The Evans brothers take it home from there, landing the beast on a bed of classic drums-and-organ funk. Perfect.

Spark! is one of those albums that feels so personal you’d almost think it was a bootleg of a session never intended for ears outside of the room it was recorded in. Seriously: this is Soulive and Karl Denson’s best work yet.

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