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From the Bluff
Label: SwirlDisc Records
Time: 11 tracks / 57:43
Soul, funk, jazz.
That pretty much sums up what you need to know about the Memphis-based jam-band known as FreeWorld. While it’s no surprise to hear about a funk and soul oriented band coming out of Memphis, it is a surprise to hear one that stands out from the rest of the pack, which this ensemble of seasoned, talented players does – the fact that they’ve done a cover of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (not on the current project) tells you that these guys aren’t afraid to step out of their genre-box to pull a few surprises out of the hat. From the Bluff is the current CD, which features eleven tracks that stylistically cover everything from New Orleans to Motown, mixing a tasty blend of funk and soul with healthy doses of jazz, and even a tip of the hat to Frank Zappa along the way.
The ‘meat’ of From the Bluff is really found between the first and last tracks: the former, “Keep Smilin,’” being a friendly, horn-driven tune with an optimistic, non-threatening message and the latter, “Save Our Soul,” actually listed as a ‘bonus track,’ being a musical cousin to Wilson Pickett and Steve Cropper’s iconic “In the Midnight Hour.” It’s on the second track, “Give it Back,” that the funk really gets thick, with tight, punchy horn parts, percolating bass and guitar, and some classic-soul organ sounds. The sax and guitar solos on this track have just the right amount of jazz technique mixed with generous amounts of emotional fire. This song sets up the rest of the album, which is quite strong on many levels, only missing the mark occasionally on the vocals (I can imagine what Delaney Bramlett would do on some of these tracks) and a couple of song choices. Produced by Memphis stalwart Jim Dickinson, the sound is fresh and energetic – with no place for the solos to hide, even featuring a full, rich live horn sound.
The group has had a variety of members through the years, and is currently down to a core group consisting of singer/bassist Richard Cushing, co-founder and tenor sax player Dr. Herman Green, drummer David Skypeck, guitarist Brian Overstreet, trumpet player/vocalist E. J. Dyce, and alto/tenor sax player Captain Phil McGee. Any band with a Doctor and a Captain among the personnel is something to contend with, and these guys do mean business, although there’s a definite sense of fun about the album. As a matter of fact, the only time the band seems to get into uncomfortable territory is when the lyrics get a little too philosophical or introspective, like on “Time on the Mountain,” a song that sounds somewhat like something from Clapton’s post-Delaney & Bonnie pop period, and “Not Alone,” with its somewhat preachy tone, ineffective vocal and late-sixties ambiance: the song is redeemed, though, by a nice, jazzy middle section featuring enough tasty trumpet and guitar soloing to make me even forget the sitar(!) that found its way into the piece. The album’s biggest mis-step, though, is followed by one of its highlights – “Spartacus” is an outstanding jazz/funk barn-burner that showcases the instrumental prowess of the band. This track, along with “Samurai,” shows these guys at full-tilt, sounding like Tower of Power-meets- The Brecker Brothers-meets-Zappa and The Mothers. Some nasty stuff there, and by that I mean make-ugly-faces-while-you-listen jamming – this is some hard-core playing.
The instrumental work on From the Bluff is so good that it points out the occasional weakness in the vocal department, making me look forward to the instrumental sections all the more. I’d certainly welcome an all-instrumental album by these musicians, whose writing seems to lean more towards the jazzy side of things. The writing, by the way, is shared by Cushing, Skypeck, Overstreet and Dyce, and they certainly know how to construct a strong piece of music. Even when FreeWorld gets into more conventional soul/pop territory the result is good, but more nostalgic than creative. The ensemble work and the instrumental soloing is where it’s at for this band. From the Bluff’s got the real stuff when these guys jam, and that’s something you just can’t bluff.