New Mastersounds import soul-jazz
ASPEN In late April, the groove quintet the New Mastersounds made their New Orleans debut with a high-profile Saturday night gig at the House of Blues during the closing weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, followed by a late-night gig the following night at the Blue Nile. When the festival ended, Eddie Roberts, the group’s founder and guitarist, stayed on in the Big Easy for a week, soaking in the sounds and playing them as well.It should have been the time of Roberts’ life. He jammed with such New Orleans stars as Galactic, Ivan Neville and Papa Mali. He played with Idris Muhammad, a 67-year-old jazz drummer who has been a pioneer in adding a New Orleans funk element to traditional jazz. “Mind-blowing,” said Roberts of the musical exchange with Muhammad. “I’ve been listening to him for decades.”The experience was, in fact, a highlight of Roberts’ 36 years. “Really, I’m still very speechless about it,” he reports by phone, as he and the New Mastersounds roll from Denver to Ft. Collins. Still, Roberts can’t shake the slightly out-of-place feeling he got from being in New Orleans.The New Mastersounds – bassist Pete Shand, drummer Simon Allen, and recent additions Joe Tatton on Hammond B-3 organ and reedsman Rob Lavers, as well as Roberts – come from Leeds, in northern England. Which can make them feel like imposters as they play a sound that traces directly back to kings of the groove, the Meters, a legendary New Orleans combo.”The first time we came over here,” said Roberts, referring to the band’s first trip to the States, three years ago, “we said, ‘What are we doing here?’ We’re playing American funk music for an American audience. They’re going to think we’re idiots.”
“The first time we came over here,” said Roberts, referring to the band’s first trip to the States, three years ago, “we said, ‘What are we doing here?’ We’re playing American funk music for an American audience. They’re going to think we’re idiots.”For a short while after that first U.S. gig – opening for the Greyboy Allstars, a groove outfit from San Diego, at Chicago’s House of Blues – the New Mastersounds might have felt a touch idiotic. That date led nowhere; the band returned to the U.K. and didn’t get another stateside booking for a year. But the following year, through the same fan who had wrangled the Chicago show, the New Mastersounds got a slot at the High Sierra Festival in northern California. In attendance were executives from Madison House, a Boulder-based management company. The band got signed, and the ball was rolling. This summer, the New Mastersounds are slated to bring their soul jazz – “a strange U.K. brand of it,” according to Roberts – to the Wakarusa Music Festival in Kansas, the Gratefulfest in Ohio, and back to High Sierra. They also appear Tuesday, June 5, at Belly Up Aspen.••••A native of Wales, Roberts picked up guitar at age 10. The monumental task he first set for himself was to learn Deep Purple and Black Sabbath licks on his classical guitar. His affection for rock also included Santana – for the percussion element as much as Carlos Santana’s guitar-playing – and Jimi Hendrix – specifically for the guitar work. “What guitar player in his early teens doesn’t love Hendrix?” asked Roberts.At 14, Roberts’ tastes took a turn. His older brother began spending his paper route money on jazz records, everything from Charlie Parker’s early bebop to John Coltrane’s late experiments in free jazz. As quickly as his brother bought the albums, Eddie stole them. And while he loved the music, there was a problem in translating that affection to his instrument.”In jazz, I didn’t find anything I liked on guitar,” he said. “That electric chorus effect that was popular in the ’80s – I didn’t like that at all.” So at the Leeds College of Music, the only school in the U.K. at the time with a jazz program, Roberts tried to adapt his playing to a style he liked. That meant emulating horn players on his guitar. The organ trio the Three Deuces, Roberts’ first group of any note, specialized in playing Jazz Messengers tunes, with Roberts playing the trombone parts.
“I was trying to approach it a little more like a horn player. That’s what I listened to,” he said. “I listened to Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Charles Lloyd, Sam Rivers. That’s what I listen to now more than anything.”In Leeds, Roberts found his way into the club scene – not jazz clubs, but dance clubs, where the DJs regularly spun a brand of groove that Roberts liked. The DJs made tapes for Roberts, and those tapes led him to a style of jazz guitar, the soulful sounds of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, that turned him on.”That was a sound that interested me,” he said. “With that sound, it’s very immediate and honest, with no effects. I was into early blues as well, Robert Johnson, and that was a very natural sound. That’s the sound the guitar just naturally makes.”The groove scene in Leeds revolved around DJs spinning records, rather than bands playing live music. Still it was, in Roberts’ view, an important part of the music scene. Most dance clubs played what he calls “this banging house music”; groove was an alternative to that sound, yet was danceable. And the DJs were always on the lookout for records to spin.Roberts worked his way into the dance scene, running a club night at the Cooker. When the spot added a second room, Roberts decided to assemble a band to play there. Every Friday night, his group, the New Mastersounds, played live groove music. The repertoire borrowed heavily from the Meters, and when the band started writing its own songs and making its own records, it continued to look to the Meters for inspiration.
“If you just stood in a room, and heard the music – that’s the sound we were going for. That old vinyl sound,” said Roberts. “When we approached playing this music, we got that old sound in our head.”••••The New Mastersounds’ 2005 CD, “This Is What We Do,” could well pass for a vintage Meters album. On their new release, last year’s “102%,” the band took a more aggressive and more contemporary approach to the rhythm. The album also features new member Rob Lavers, playing saxophone on several tracks and flute on some others. The result leans more toward the Greyboy Allstars, but it also gives the New Mastersounds something closer to their own style. But while Roberts and his mates are familiar with the sound of American groove music, the scene remains something of an oddity. The Greyboy Allstars – as well as such instrumental-oriented groove groups as the Motet, from Colorado, and New Orleans’ Galactic – travel in the jam-band circles, for which there is no analogue in the U.K.”We knew nothing of the jam-band scene,” said Roberts, who is learning from first-hand experience. “From the U.K., we never heard of it. It’s a strange scene which I can’t get my head around.”
Despite the lack of familiarity, the New Mastersounds travel comfortably on that circuit. Groove – also known as soul jazz or jazz funk – is among the various genres that have squeezed into a scene that started with the Grateful Dead, and now extends from improvisation-heavy rock bands (Widespread Panic) to bluegrassy combos (Yonder Mountain String Band). In fact, apart from metal and gangsta rap, it’s hard to come up with a genre that doesn’t fit into the expansive jam-band circle.”To me, it’s basically just music lovers,” said Roberts. “The genres are quite broad, everything from bluegrass to techno. If it’s good, people are into it, and that’s refreshing. In the U.K., all of Europe, it’s more genre-based, and a very fickle scene.”Within the jam scene, the New Mastersounds are finding a welcoming reception in the instrumental groove corner. Nobody seems to care that they came from Leeds before settling into it.”Now we feel quite embraced by it all,” said Roberts. “We have [Meters bassist] George Porter, Jr. sitting in with us. Ivan Neville always jumps up for a few tunes.”Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 9 p.m. show. Tickets are $12.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Aspen Art Museum’s SO Cafe will begin serving free to-go meals three days per week in its new “Lunch for Locals” program, the museum announced Thursday.