Liza goes from funk mama to mature musician
July 6, 2006
For music fans whose heyday was Aspen in the ’90s, it’s probably hard to separate the name Liza from the sound of funk music. Liza – officially Liza Oxnard, but known by the one-name stage moniker – was the singer-guitarist of Zuba, a Boulder-based funk machine that had an extraordinarily successful run in the Colorado mountains for most of the decade. It’s hard to picture another band duplicating the feat, but Zuba would play Aspen every month or two, usually multinight runs, and almost always pack whichever club they played. What brought out the fans was the hard-driving funk, which guaranteed a night or two of sweaty dancing.Zuba ended around the same time as the ’90s, and the music Liza has made since has parted ways with the funk. On her new CD, “Bird on a Wing,” the gaptoothed musician emerges more as a singer-songwriter. The album, released on her own Liza Bones label, also explores territories of jazz and piano-oriented soft rock. It marks a most successful transition from funk mama to mature musician for Liza, who six months ago became a mother to Kalea Skye. (Liza’s husband, Jesse Aratow, is also her agent, and a partner in the Boulder firm Madison House.)While the gentle songs of “Bird on a Wing” might surprise old fans of Zuba, it is something of a homecoming for Liza. As a kid, growing up mostly in various towns in the South, Liza and her sisters sang Broadway tunes, jazz and folk. Liza dug the mellow sounds of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She finally encountered funk while living in Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati – both, as Liza observes, borrowing the terminology of funk father George Clinton, “chocolate cities,” where the radios boomed with Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown and Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic. Funny thing was, Liza wasn’t aware of the label that went with the sound: “You’d listen to funk music without ever knowing what it was,” she said.
In Telluride, in the early ’90s, before forming Zuba, Liza had a short-lived folky duo with Billy Nershi, who would go on to form String Cheese Incident. When drummer Wallace Lester approached her with a concept for a group, she was puzzled.”He said he wanted to form a funk band. I said, ‘Hmmm, funk? What’s funk?’ Then I went, ‘Oh, that,'” she said. “It was definitely music I knew, but it was my first time singing funk music, with a funk band.”Zuba toured nationally, performed at several prominent festivals and landed songs in the movies “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary.” In front of the band was Liza, a seductive presence with a powerful voice, serious guitar chops – and an undeniable knack for the funk. But Zuba came crashing down when Liza and drummer Lester broke up as a couple. Instantly, Liza reached back to her musical roots.”After Zuba ended, things kind of blew up for me,” she said by phone. “It was a lot of intense change at the same time. Zuba broke up, I lost my relationship and my house. All in the same weekend.”That’s when a lot of the material [from “Bird on a Wing”] was created, during that big change and turmoil. Losing my confidence, it threw me back on my heels. It was figuring out who I was without Zuba, without my relationship. It was a big turning point in growing up and being an adult.”
Among the songs to come out of those changes was the introspective, acoustic guitar-based “Foolin’ Myself,” written when Liza realized something was amiss in Zuba-land. “I wasn’t happy and I couldn’t figure out why,” she said. Another was “I Gave It Away,” a jazzy piano ballad about letting go. The opening song, “Take Me Back,” dates back before Zuba.Liza gives much credit for “Bird on a Wing” to Casey Collins, who contributed not pounding drums or bomb-blast bass, but vocal lessons. For four years, Liza has been coached in singing by Collins. “That’s a big help on this album. There are very challenging vocal songs,” she said. Liza says she could have used Collins back in the Zuba years: She suffered frequently from nodules, growths on her vocal cords. Fans might remember a speechless Liza, hanging out backstage with a chalkboard to preserve her delicate voice.The new approach is as evident onstage as it is on CD. Liza says the current material translates well to the live setting, so long as people aren’t anticipating the same old funk.”If people come expecting me to rock out all night … well, I’ve been badgered a few times,” she said. “But I do play that stuff a little. At the end of the night, when things are loosened up.”
There’s been much to feast on out there in local musicland. But remember, summer in Aspen is a marathon, and I hope you’ve saved something for the last legs. It’s only going to get busier.Belly Up’s August and September calendars are, to put it mildly, insane, and getting more so by the day. The latest bit of craziness: Gov’t Mule, the best Southern rock band going, has been added to the schedule for Sept. 3 – yes, smack in the middle of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village. It will be the Mule’s first club gig in Aspen since the late ’90s and their first appearance here since the 2002 Labor Day Festival. The band, which began as a trio, has been fleshed out with the addition of keyboardist Danny Louis. Andy Hess, formerly of the Black Crowes, is the permanent bassist after Gov’t Mule spent some years rotating bassists following the death, in 2000, of founding member Allen Woody. The band’s new CD, “High and Mighty,” is scheduled for release Aug. 22.
Tickets go on sale Monday, July 10, and will go fast.Also representing the South is Dickey Betts, who leads his band, Great Southern, to a Belly Up gig Aug. 27. Betts may not have been good enough for the Allman Brothers; the band he helped form, and for which he wrote “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica,” gave Brother Dickey the boot in 2000. But he’s good enough for local fans, many of whom cited his show last year as the high point of the Belly Up’s year-and-a-half history.The David Grisman Quintet, possibly the best newgrassy group ever, is set for Aug. 6. Tricky, the British rapper whose 1995 debut “Maxinquaye” invented the trip-hop style, makes his first local appearance Aug. 10. The King of the Blues, B.B. King, brings his 80th Birthday Celebration Tour to Belly Up Aug. 12; it is one of a handful of gigs – and the only club date – squeezed in between European tours. Joe Cocker, King of the Spastic Arm Motions, follows Aug. 13 for one of his few summer concerts.More royalty: Asleep at the Wheel, kings of Texas swing, play Aug. 17. Jerry Douglas, crown prince of the dobro, is set for Aug. 26. Jurassic 5, who for my money wear the crown in the realm of live hip-hop, perform Sept. 8. The Big Chiefs of New Orleans brass bands, the Dirty Dozen, are at Belly Up Sept. 14. Buju Banton, possibly the most legitimate successor to reggae king Bob Marley who doesn’t carry the Marley name, makes his Aspen debut Sept. 21.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org