Saturday, April 10, 2021

Infectious Groove: The Steve Band at Blue Note Tokyo

Steve Gadd Band at Blue Note Tokyo Dec 2019 BFM Jazz 621 834 676 2

There is no escaping the infectious shuffle that the now seventy-six-year young drummer Steve Gadd offers on the grooving opener “Where’s Earth” from his latest album Steve Gadd Band Live at Blue Note Toyko. What better groove masters can the legendary trap artisan employ to make some enjoyable music on a spectacular evening in Japan in Dec of 2019? The album is impeccably recorded for posterity by Junto Fukuhara of Blue Note Toyko and mixed effectively by Steve and his son Giancarlo.

The album features veteran bassist Jimmy Johnson, trumpet stylist Walt Fowler, and the multi-keyboard artist Kevin Hays joined with drummer Gadd. Add the intrepid David Spinoza, who more than ably fills the guitar slinger-seat usually occupied by the impressive Michael Landau who couldn't make this trip and you have this band. These guys are just loving the vibe, feeding off the audience’s respectful attention and reverential applause. In turn, these guys offer an impressive display of confidence, simpatico, skill, and poise. The group finds a line, skillfully plowed by a Gadd-created furrow. They plant seeds, germs of ideas, with the inherent DNA of one part creative improvisation, one part irresistible biorhythm.

Despite being the drummer’s gig, Gadd rarely showboats. On Spinozza’s sweet composition, “Doesn’t She Know By Now,” the groove is like poetry, a sustained slide between Johnson’s walking bass and Gadd’s cadenced traps, cowbell, and toms. The song features some searching flugelhorn work by Fowler and aerial-sounding Rhodes work by Hays, but it is Spinozza’s soulful guitar that seals the deal on this one. The man wears this song like a favorite, well-worn shirt. He has an inherent comfortable ability to find such soulful lines that just sweep you into his musical vortex. Here his guitar work floats over the fretboard with such unfettered loose style and impeccable taste.  

Spinozza’s studio work has been an integral part of many of the era’s most memorable songs. His guitar can be heard on albums released by Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, John Lennon, and James Taylor to name just a few. His short but potent solo on Dr. John’s 1973 hit “Right Place Wrong Time” is like a guidepost to notable funky guitar solos of the past nearly fifty years. It’s a pleasure to hear Spinozza’s distinctive fretwork add a special voice added to this great band’s core.

“Timpanogos” is a Fowler Latin/Caribbean-inspired composition with Johnson’s buoyant bass and Gadd’s percolating beat. Fowler’s trumpet solo is gorgeous and Spinozza’s guitar lines are precise and emotive. Kevin Hays offers a beautiful keyboard solo that just floats like a billowy cloud over a tranquil aquamarine bay. Pour yourself one of those cool umbrella drinks and sit back and enjoy.

There is always room for the blues on a set like this, especially with such responsive artists. “Hidden Drive” features Hays on some inspired honkytonk piano and Johnson’s fat bass lines anchor the strut on top of Gadd’s snare and hi-hat-driven timekeeping. Fowler’s muted trumpet adds a soulful inflection and Spinozza’s guitar is a master class on his expressive authority of this genre.

The surprising voice of Kevin Hays is the feature on his soulful “Walk with Me.” This is a get-down type song and Fowler’s clarion trumpet works is in lead here. Gadd’s beat is particularly out front on this, with his definitive ability to create a commanding groove driven by his imagination, utilizing his kit to all its possibilities.

On Jimmy Johnson’s “One Point Five,” the group interacts more in synchronous sections. Gadd offers a roiling drum solo that starts at the 3:12 min mark and just brims over with intention and inventiveness. Gadd's improvisation is spurred on by his bandmates accenting the breaks in the music’s paced breaks and leaving no doubt who is commander of this group.

One of Gadd’s favorite songs, "Way Back Home," is a composition by Wilton Felder, the saxophonist/bassist of the Crusaders. Gadd first played this song back in the ’70s with the supergroup Stuff. The drummer here utilizes brushes. He and Giancarlo purposefully highlight them and Johnson’s bass in the mix to get the feel the drummer is looking to feature. There is some intuitive conversational action between Spinozza’s twangy guitar and Johnson’s bass that is a treat and Hays adds some nice honkytonk piano work toward the coda.

Guitarist Michael Landau’s influence is never far from this band’s psyche and here they play his “Rat Race” to great effect. Johnson’s bass lines are so funky, and Gadd’s shuffle habit-forming, you can’t get enough. Hays is back on Rhodes and it is so rewarding to see how well-suited this talented pianist's playing enhances this group's sound. Fowler’s accents, here on mute, are always timely placed and expressive. Spinozza never fails to offer his own stamp here. He releases some exciting guitar work that just elevates the music to a new level of urgency. Put on some earphones and absorb this. Guitar creativity to be savored.

The set ends with Bob Dylan’s bluesy “Watching the River Flow” sung well and with real emotion by Hays. The group just goes with the shuffle here and it is a happy ending to a fabulous night of music. 

There is no denying that listening to these guys play such uplifting and grooving music on Steve Gadd Band At Blue Note Tokyo is a delight not to be missed and rest assured the trap master  Steve Gadd has not lost a scintilla of his groove. 

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