God, Make Me Funky

Soundcheck: The backward-looking funk of Boulder’s Jive

July 12, 2001

I’ve got a friend who’s managed to “avoid the funk” with the same enthusiasm that a lot of starry-eyed Bootsy Collins evince when rolling their shoulders and professing their good fortune in having been on the spot when said funk was, to borrow the popular phrase, “given up” in cannabinolically memorable fashion. I’m not sure I agree with him—for what it’s worth, he’s also proud of the fact that he’s managed to make it this long without ever eating a salad. Really.

At the same time, I can see where he’s coming from. Good funk can put a cut in your strut and a glide in your stride; bad funk can foul your soft palate worse than a food bank oyster. For every Desco funk 45 or stupid-dope bassline laying fat in that cut, there’s some bunch of stinkfoots who got it in their heads that writing a solid tune is as simple as stealing anything that ain’t nailed down, and transposing just enough notes to obscure the provenance of a chop-shop “Chameleon,” into a flat-black painted “Good Times.” From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I also concur that the world doesn’t need any more white kids with berets and five-stringed basses up so high that they bang their chins on the body doing funky-chicken moves like the bassist with no chin (cf. the guitarist with the all-chin) from the old band on “Saturday Night Live.” And don’t even get me started about thrash-funk!

There are many schools of funk and some are busier than others, but for a funk band to really water my melon they’ve got to embrace a certain backward-looking minimalism. The rhythm section should walk all over the band and make “distinctive instrumental voices” in the band bend to the will of displaced notes and a down and dirty grubbiness that gets crowded with three. Clavinet and Fender Rhodes should have Hammond B-3 running scared all the damn time. Horn players should be nothing short of virtuosos, which in turn just barely makes a case for mid-length solos. The music should have a certain incidental quality to it, like the Deathwish soundtrack, and melody should always defer to bare-naked comping and locked-in grooves. In short, no matter who’s playing, I should always be able to close my eyes and summon up images of dashikis, huge afros and clunky plastic ‘70s shades.

Believe me, I despair of finding new bands that fit these specs, which in case you hadn’t noticed are pretty much those of Herbie Hancock in the years just prior to his disco fadeout. But Jive are one of them, and if I was going to lay just one new release on my funk-dodging pal this year, it would be the Boulder (yes, I know) band’s self-titled album, recorded live (as is increasingly the fashion, it seems) at some wine bar in the band’s hometown. All outward signs (Boulder, button-up, Grateful Dead cited as an influence, etc.) point to dull kitchen-sink funk-hybrid, but all I can say is Damn, that stuff’s happenin’.

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