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Sophistifunky fusion arrives with the Brotherhood of Groove

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Headhunters, the Herbie Hancock jazz-funk album, was not a life-changing experience for me like it must have been for some people, but it’s still right up there on my Top Ten list of jazz releases from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that were. All the same, I can barely bring myself to listen to “Chameleon” anymore, because the torrent of nominally jazzy, self-consciously funky jazz-funk unleashed by Hancock’s 1973 breakthrough has pretty much spoiled it for me. It doesn’t help that weak cover versions of “Chameleon” breed like mice wherever there are jam bands. The sheer number of bands still riding on its funky coattails suggests that of all the landmark albums from those early heady years of jazz fusion, Headhunters has been the most accessible for those would imitate instead of innovate.

And innovation is what’s sorely lacking in a lot of hybrid styles lumped together under the vague heading of fusion. The term itself, originally coined to describe a mixture of jazz and rock, not funk, has become something of a catchall over the years. Only rarely does its modern application accurately reflect the power of the bands it was originally coined for. But then again, show me the modern-day band working under the vague rubric of fusion that can match the crackling electric fury of an O.G. fusion band like the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. Or one that can wrap “look-Ma-no-hands” flights of solo fancy around an astonishing, constantly evolving melodic core like the second incarnation of Return to Forever.

Like “world music,” “fusion” is a term whose usefulness has expired. That said, the New Orleans-based rotating five-piece Brotherhood of Groove makes a pretty credible case for keeping it around for at least another show. The name of the band and the title of its debut album, Pocket Full of Funk, both have a mild whiff of jam-band cluelessness to them, but the album itself kicks righteous ass. In its best moments, it’s a solidly original album with amazing musicianship and a comfortable style that defies easy categorizing. Even when they’re just at low simmer, the songs are mostly far too involved and meticulously worked-out for Brotherhood of Groove to sound anything like a smugly funky jam band babying a few fragile jazz parts. Pocket Full of Funk isn’t just mindless jam music; its complexity nudges it toward contemporary fusion territory.

The title track is probably the most overtly funk cut on the album, with plenty of wah-wah guitar pedal and distinctly New Orleans-sounding horns courtesy of John Ellis and Michael Ray, saxophone and trumpet, respectively. Ray used to play trumpet for both Kool and the Gang and the late Sun Ra, and his clean tone is a good complement to arrangements that never get too cloying or unnecessarily busy. Fusion factor on “Pocket Full” is low, but the song is still limber-limbed and, once again, very funky. “Degrees of Separation” picks it up a notch, and by “Kaia’s Waltz,” the fourth song in: Bingo! Approaching fusion airspace; passengers are now free to move around the cabin.

It’s also by about the fourth song in that guitarist Brandon Tarricone starts to really grab you as a phenomenal player. Fleet-fingered on the runs and death-defying sextuplets (like Al DiMeola) but powerfully expressive as a soloist (more like John McLaughlin), Tarricone brings the feeling of old fusion to the fore on “Kaia’s Waltz,” with the slicing guitar tone of an early Larry Coryell to complete the trifecta. It’s the highlight of the whole album.

Brotherhood of Groove can also boast an amazing drummer in Dan Caro. A list of questions frequently asked of Brotherhood of Groove (or so it says in their press release) includes this one, which frankly sounds like it was planted by either the band or concocted by their publicist: “Sometimes it sounds as if Dan Caro is playing with five limbs. How is this possible?” The answer: quick, compact, precise and efficient drumming. Tarricone runs the show, but Caro definitely keeps the books, and healthy competition can drive a band to new heights.

Funk is supposed to be all about sex, but ain’t a damn thing wrong with funky music that gives your brain a boner, too. That’s why Brotherhood of Groove gets my vote for this week’s don’t-miss show.

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