By Gary Hizer
For those in the know, Galactic has long been one of the most exciting jazz/funk bands on the planet, merging its New Orleans roots with a variety of musical styles.
Along the way, the band has won over fans from all corners of the musical spectrum. Jazz fans can appreciate their musical chops, while rock fans identify with the swagger, and funk aficionados dig the band's indelible groove.
Meanwhile, the band has also developed an old-school, roadhouse sensibility and won over the jam band crowd with its willingness to be open and explore all musical avenues.
With the arrival of the band's latest CD, From the Corner to the Block (due to be released in August), Galactic proceeds to stand listeners on their collective ear and make its mark on the hip-hop genre by bringing in an all-star cast of eclectic MCs to rap over the band's imperative groove. Although idea of a New Orleans jazz/funk/rap album may sound like the band is making a left turn to some, it amazingly all makes sense in the grand scheme of this ever-evolving act.
It's not like the marriage of jazz and rap is a new idea or completely unheard of, it's just that no one has presented it this well for nearly a decade. US3 tried to make a similar blend sound cool in the mid '90s with "Cantaloop (Flip-Fantasia)," but the effort yielded mixed results. Branford Marsalis did it much better with his under-appreciated outfit, Buckshot LeFonque, and I haven't heard anyone come close to those results -- until now.
Once you can get your hands on the CD, feel free to start anywhere - it won't take long before you get a glimpse of the big picture. This is quite possibly Galactic's quintessential jazz/funk/fusion party record. Whether dishing up "Bounce Baby" with DJ Z-Trip, "I Got It (What You Need)" with Lyrics Born or the title cut (featuring Juvenile and Soul Rebels Brass Band), Galactic has cooked up an infectious stew of progressive New Orleans Jazz and hip hop.
So what inspired the apparent change in direction? Truth be told, this is the album the band has hinted at in its performance for years now. Long-time vocalist Theryl "Houseman" DeCloet departed the band nearly three years ago, in late 2004, and the band has continued to tour as an instrumental act ever since.
According to founding member and bassist Robert Mercurio, each of the band members is a hip hop and rap fan, so when work began on a new disc, they decided, "Maybe it's time to do the album we've always talked about. Why wait?"
"Timing and evolution wise, it just seemed right," said Mercurio. "We had a vocalist before so it wouldn't have made sense."
As it worked out, the band was able to hand-pick the guests who appear on the CD and develop the material as it deemed appropriate.
"We didn't want to make just an album with a bunch of guests," said Robert. "We wanted it to have a theme, a focus -- not just be another Santana album or Dave Matthews record."
With the new CD completed, Galactic took advantage of the opportunity to preview the material (with an overwhelmingly positive response) to the crowd at Bonnaroo a few weekends ago, performing with seven guest MCs during the band's three-hour set. Although it's not logistically or financially feasible to do an entire tour with that many vocalists, the band does plan to bring out two or three guest MCs on the fall tour, which starts in October, after the new disc is released.
Developmentally, the new record seems like a logical step from the band's last album, Ruckus, on which the group worked with producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura (Dr. Octagon, Gorillaz, Head Automatica).
Ruckus saw the band take on a more modern tone and concise, structured format in the studio while beginning to experiment more with loops, sampling and electronica in a live setting on the subsequent tour.
When asked how working with Nakamura on the previous album influenced the group when recording From the Corner to the Block, Mercurio answered, "We took what we learned from that album, studio wise, and added more of a live feel to it. A lot of it wasn't a super conscious thing. Of course we had to decide 'Are we going to make an MC record or not?' but musically and stylistically, we've just developed this way."
"One of our favorite people to play with is JJ Grey of Mofro and he's southern rock," said Robert. "This is just where we are right now."
Unfortunately, when Galactic arrives in Tulsa for a show at the Cain's Ballroom next Tuesday, July 17, we won't be seeing the band with MCs in tow. (The band is waiting until the CD is officially released, on August 21, before taking guests out with them.) That doesn't mean, however, we won't hear any of the new material next week.
"Some of the songs were already instrumentals before we put vocals over them," said Robert. "You'll definitely get to hear a preview of the music - just not with the MCs and vocalists."
There's no need to worry, though, as the group's previous stops in Tulsa have always seen Galactic put on a stellar show. The band's last show at the Cain's, roughly two years ago, was an inspiring evening, serving up a show of near-equal parts jazz, funk and jam-rock that turned into one huge dance party.
Don't miss your chance to get a sneak preview of the new material and join the merriment at the Ballroom this Tuesday night. Tickets are $20 in advance and Dubconscious will open the show at 8pm.
If you can't wait to hear the new stuff, you can download the first single, "From the Corner to the Block," off iTunes for the standard 99 cents. Once it gets under your skin, you'll be itching for the rest of the album -- take my word for it.