Soulive has never made any bones about what they do best; it’s right there in their name. Since forming in 1999, the trio of guitarist Eric Krasno, drummer Alan Evans and keyboardist Neal Evans has carried the torch for the soul-jazz organ trio—that venerable, funky institution pioneered by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Groove Holmes in the late ’60s. Rest assured, when the Evans brothers first brought Kraz by their Woodstock studio, there was plenty of old vinyl spread out on the floor.
In their 16 years together, Soulive has followed the muse in the direction of hip-hop, R&B, blues and rock, collaborating with the likes of Chaka Khan, Dave Matthews, Talib Kweli, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Maceo Parker, Susan Tedeschi, Robert Randolph, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Fred Wesley, The Roots, Ivan Neville and so many others, even going so far as to record a full album of covers by The Beatles (Rubber Soulive). But, no matter how they push the limits of the organ trio, they always come back to their bread and butter: blistering solos and grooves that don’t quit.
Their latest, a four-track EP entitled, SPARK, deserves a place on your record shelf right between Booker T. and a bottle of some damn good single-malt. Recorded over a day and a half with saxophonist/flautist Karl Denson (The Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), the record captures the smoky vibe of early-’70s-era CTI Records releases by the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson. It’s the stuff Denson grew up on. “I’m older than the Soulive guys,” he says. “When I heard those records being sampled back in the late 80s, early 90s, popping up in clubs when I was over in Europe touring with Lenny Kravitz, that’s what really prepared me for this whole thing we’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It was a natural progression for me to finally do something in the CTI vein.”
Each tune was ultimately just a vehicle for the musicians’ playing, so, sticking to this formula, the quartet used very few overdubs. “Back in that era,” Krasno explains, “you bought a piece of vinyl and it had two tracks on either side. The grooves were kind of dark but really open and each musician got a chance to breathe.” Denson continues: “SPARK is really about the playing, less about the tunes. It’s the four of us collectively getting back to more of a jazzier thing than we’d done in recent memory.”
The first side opens with Yusef Lateef’s sultry Nubian Lady, featuring Denson on flute. It was a mutual love for Lateef that brought the quartet together to begin with—Kraz having studied with the legend and Denson having idolized his records. The laid-back tempo lets the group simmer on the theme until Kraz decides to slice the whole thing open with some Middle Eastern fretwork, leaving Karl to pick up the pieces. Denson describes the sound as “Something a little more chilled out but funky at the same time.” Povo is a perfect evocation of the era, first recorded by Freddie Hubbard on CTI in 1972, featuring some of Kraz’s most sinewy lines and a caterwauling climax on tenor from Denson. When the two lay out, the Evans brothers remind the listener why an organ and a drum kit have always been plenty good for funky jazz. “We’ve always loved James Brown and music that’s going to make you groove,” says Krasno. “But there’s so much more vocabulary from jazz that you can put in it.” Art Farmer would have agreed. The band’s rendition of his 1972 tune Soulsides slips plenty of ideas into the deep pocket, putting Neal Evans out front on piano.
Spark, the only original song on the record, was written in homage to legendary soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks, who passed away only days before Soulive entered the studio. Known for his fleet fingers and deft sense of the blues, Sparks made his name backing organists like McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Krasno grew up listening to Sparks play at a regular gig in New Canaan, CT, and credits the guitarist with inspiring many of his own sensibilities. When Denson asked Sparks to open for the Greyboy Allstars’ first East Coast tour in 1994, it revived his career. “We totally got along and had a great time over the years,” says Denson. Sparks joined Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to record Dance Lesson No. 2 in 2001 and “just annihilated it. He was a great cat and a total musical mentor.” So, it was with sadness that the four musicians collectively penned the tune and with reverence that they perform the slinky strut, while dedicating the EP to his memory. Denson eulogizes on both flute and tenor while Krasno’s tone impeccably channels the musician he calls, “one of the great guitarists of our time and the coolest dude I knew.”
Special Guest: Susan Tedeschi
"I think it's a pivotal record for me – I like this one a lot," Susan Tedeschi says of her new Verve Forecast release Back to the River. "I think it's really emotional, but it's not really a blues record. The blues is still in there, but there's a lot of other stuff too. I definitely put a lot into this one and worked really hard to put a lot of ideas across."
Indeed, Back to the River—produced by George Drakoulias, whose resume includes work with the Black Crowes, the Jayhawks and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—is a mature, soulful work that demonstrates how much singer/guitarist/songwriter Tedeschi has grown in the decade since she burst onto the scene.
Back to the River's 11 songs encompass a broad musical and emotional palette, and showcase Tedeschi's multiple talents as a deeply expressive singer, a soulful and melodic guitarist and a distinctive, evolving songwriter. The album is partially the product of Tedeschi's work with a stellar assortment of songwriting collaborators. She journeyed to Nashville to work with legendary swamp-rock godfather Tony Joe White, with whom she co-wrote the album's raucous title track (whose homesick lyrics refer to her home on the St John's River in her adopted hometown of Jacksonville, Florida). She went to Minneapolis to write "Learning the Hard Way" with the insightful Jayhawks leader Gary Louris.
The album's assertive opening track "Talking About" was written by Tedeschi and stellar guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, who also plays guitar (and sings) on that song and plays guitar on two more Back to the River tracks. She composed the rousing, socially conscious "People" with acclaimed young singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell, and wrote the anthem "Revolutionize Your Soul" with noted musician/producer John Leventhal (of Rosanne Cash/Shawn Colvin fame). They also collaborated on "700 Houses," written as a reminder of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina with relevance to all natural disasters. "True" conveys a significant message of universal truths and how each person's actions have an effect on the harmony of the world. The chord and guitar parts on that song mix a Carlos Santana feel with a Stevie Ray Vaughan rhythmic approach. Another highlight of Back to the River is Tedeschi's fiery take on the Allen Toussaint-penned New Orleans soul classic "There's a Break in the Road," originally recorded in 1969 by Betty Harris.
Tedeschi co-wrote the exotic funk workout "Butterfly" with husband and fellow guitar-slinger Derek Trucks, (of The Allman Brothers Band and his own Derek Trucks Band). Derek—who plays slide guitar on four Back to the River tracks and co-leads the part-time combo Soul Stew Revival with Susan—produced "Butterfly" in the couple's home studio prior to the commencement of the album's main recording sessions at L.A. Sunset Sound studios. Trucks also co-wrote the infectious "Love Will" with Tedeschi and renowned lyricist/bassist Tommy Sims (who co-wrote Eric Clapton's "Change the World," winner of 1997's Grammy® for Song of the Year).
Tedeschi and Trucks are also the parents of a young son and daughter. Becoming a mother, Susan says, was an influence upon some of Back to the River's more thoughtful, introspective lyrics, which take a humanistic view of a variety of sociopolitical issues.
"These songs," she says, "are about real life issues that have been on my mind. I don't think it's my job to impose my opinion on people, but I do feel it's my responsibility to write songs that reflect the times and how I feel about them. Becoming a parent makes you start to think on a different scale, and it made me realize that you can write more than love songs. Even if a song can't change the world, you can still capture a little tiny bit of truth and deliver it to people."
Tedeschi's knack for musical truth-telling has been apparent in the years since she first captured the public's musical imagination. Growing up in the Boston suburb of Norwell, Massachusetts, she began singing with local bands at the age of 13, and subsequently pursued her passion for music while studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. After establishing herself as one of New England's top-drawing live acts, and making her recording debut with her embryonic 1995 album Better Days, Tedeschi achieved an impressive musical and commercial breakthrough with her 1998 indie release Just Won't Burn. The album became a massive grass-roots success, with a minimum of hype and plenty of old-fashioned word of mouth. Just Won't Burn achieved Gold sales status and won Tedeschi a Grammy® nomination for Best New Artist, alongside such unlikely company as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray and Kid Rock. Her next release, 2002's acclaimed, Grammy®-nominated Wait for Me, was produced by legendary studio veteran Tom Dowd. She moved to Verve Forecast for her fourth album Hope and Desire, which marked a substantial departure for the versatile artist, presenting her in the role of interpretive vocalist.
Now, with Back to the River, Susan Tedeschi takes a major musical leap forward. "I worked really hard on this one," she states. "I've enjoyed writing with so many different songwriters and loved working together with musicians to get across my ideas and visions." "I'm really excited about this record, and I'm anxious to have people hear it," Tedeschi concludes. "People have been waiting for new music from me for awhile, so I look forward to touring, to bring these songs to as many people as I can."
Opener & Special Guest: Jon Cleary
A respected session and sideman, British blues pianist and composer Jon Cleary has worked with rock, blues, and soul artists like Bonnie Raitt, D'Angelo, Maria Muldaur, Taj Mahal, and Eric Clapton. Originally a guitarist, Cleary began playing at age five, and started his first band at 15. Raised on blues, jazz, and soul records, his love of New Orleans blues and jazz in particular took him across the ocean after he graduated from art school.