It was spring of 1999. Drummer Alan Evans and his organist brother Neal invited guitarist Eric Krasno to come up to their house in Woodstock, NY, to cut some tracks in their home studio. They had a simple idea, bring jazz back to the dance floor. In the years since, their blend of soul, jazz and hip-hop has done exactly that, attracting throngs of fans around the world and the respect of musicians from every genre. They called their idea Soulive.
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Right away it was clear that there was something magic about Soulive and the band’s style of music. They played retro instruments and wore vintage suits. The sound was anything but old, however. The beats were hard and funky, and the bass shook the club. The melodies were soulful and memorable. And, it caught on. Within a year of coming together, the trio was playing in front of large audiences at sell-out concerts across the United States, and had signed a deal with Blue Note Records. From there, they went on the road with the Dave Matthews Band, The Rolling Stones, The Roots, and India.aire, and recorded two highly acclaimed studio albums.
Now, after three long years of touring, writing and recording, Soulive is back with Break Out, the band’s debut release for the Concord Music Group. With it, Alan, Neal and Eric deliver their most creative, crafted and cathartic recording to date.
Soulive has evolved significantly from the band’s last recording. Gone are the suits and the extended jams. In their place are beat-driven instrumentals and dazzling collaborations with a host of funk-inspiring artists, including Chaka Khan, Ivan Neville, Corey Glover (Living Color), Robert Randolph, and Reggie Watts (Maktub). “One of the first songs we wrote for the record was ‘Got Soul’ with Ivan [Neville],” explains Alan. “It kind of became the anthem for the record. We wanted to make a record for all people that got soul.” While Break Out will certainly satisfy the hard core Soulive fans, it also reaches into new domains?it keeps beat conscious hip-hop heads on their toes while resonating with those who grew up on Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & The Family Stone, and Curtis Mayfield.
“When we first started Soulive, the musical vision was very focused. In order to stay fresh, though, we felt the need to really integrate all of our influences into the music we make,” says guitarist Eric Krasno. In a nod to Jimi Hendrix, the band rocks out a boisterous rendition of “Crosstown Traffic” with help from long-time friend, pedal steel guru Robert Randolph. On this track, like most of the record, there are no hollow body guitar sounds. Instead, Eric lays into distorted and wah-wah laced solos?his tone and sensibility on “Reverb” is much more akin to friend John Scofield than Grant Green. Krasno even revs up the acoustic for some tasty rhythm work on “She’s Hooked.”
Essential to the new sounds of Soulive are the powerful and tasteful arrangements of the “Soulive horns,” a.k.a. Rashawn Ross (trumpet), and Ryan Zoidis (tenor and alto saxophones). The pair has now become a full-time horn section and an integral part of the band, traveling everywhere they go. Other key new ingredients on Break Out are the Eddie Harris-like licks of Cochemea Gastelum on “Glad Ta Know Ya;” the trombone parts of Robin Eubanks and Lasim Richards; the background vocals of Jordan Battiste; and, Daniel Sadownick’s incredible percussion. Though Neal still pounds on the Hammond B-3 organ and the bass keys for many of the songs on this CD (he plays all the bass lines and organ at the same time), he also lends his considerable skills to the clavinet, the Fender Rhodes and the piano.
The new CD stays true to Soulive’s essential grittiness, yet it also represents a large step forward in terms of production. “We did a lot of different things with the drums on this record,” says Eric. “We all produce at our home studios a lot, making hip-hop beats, so we applied some of that to this record.” Tunes like the latin-flavored “Cachaca” and the catchy collaboration with Reggie Watts, “She’s Hooked,” are a combination of drum sequences and live drums. “The basic difference between this record and our others,” laughs Neal, “is that this is the first time we’ve had more than five days to make a record. We recorded almost 40 songs before we found the right combination of material. Maybe next time we can find a happy medium between five days and three years.”
Most of all, Break Out solidifies the band as the world’s most prolific soul collaborators and firmly positions them as the “Funk Brothers of the 21st century.” They have recorded with everyone from Dave Matthews, Talib Kweli, and Black Thought, to Amel Larrieux, Meshell N’dgeocello, and Chali 2na. “We’ve worked with a lot of people in the past, but this is the first time we actually got to sit down, write and develop the material with an artist,” explains Alan. The band’s relationship with Ivan Neville, Corey Glover, Robert Randolph, and Reggie Watts go back for years. By contrast, the collaboration with Chaka Khan came down like a bolt of lightning. Soulive was doing a small showcase at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles. The legendary soul singer was in the audience and was so into the music that she was moved to join the band on stage. “We had heard she was in the audience, and we were really going for it that night,” says Alan. “When she got up on stage we almost lost our minds. Chaka was one of our biggest idols growing up.” The next day the band went over to her house and wrote “Back Again.”
Soulive is joining the Concord Music Group at a time when the label is enjoying tremendous growth and expansion, not least because of its merger with the prestigious Fantasy, Inc. in 2004. The company is now is ruminating over the re-launch of the legendary soul, funk and R&B label, Stax, making the relationship with Soulive particularly synergistic. “The opportunities to combine the music and legendary artists of Stax with the contemporary sounds of bands like Soulive are endless,” says Chris Dunn, A&R representative for Concord. The boys of Soulive are also hoping that Concord will be to help them introduce their music to a wider audience. “Our fan base is really young, because we’ve been out there playing the clubs,” says Eric. “Soulive’s music is universal, however.” Certainly, you can imagine them playing a frat party in Georgetown and then rolling over to the White House for a noon reception for the National Endowment for the Arts. “We think Concord really has the relationships and savvy to help build our fan base and to get us heard by people that would never otherwise discover our music,” continues Eric.
Soulive has a busy summer festival season all over the world, including appearances on three continents in July: the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, Lollapalooza in Chicago and the Fuji Rock Fest in Japan. The band will embark on an extended tour this fall in support of Break Out. “Without a doubt, this is our best record,” says Krasno, “so we’re going out there to give it our best shot. Our music has changed a lot, but we’re still out there trying to basically do the same thing?move people’s bodies and then move their minds.”
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