Anytime, anywhere, these dudes can drop some serious funk

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 02, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Staff

I noticed the name first, The Soul of John Black. Something about it was a little mysterious. I thought the name was more interesting than the picture of the duo -- two rather plain but handsome brothas, one in a cowboy hat (that would be the lead singer John "JB" Bigham), the other kneeling down with his hand outstretched (that's Christopher "CT" Thomas).

The music on the unit's recently released self-titled debut reveals faint traces of contemporary flavors. And although the sound is firmly rooted in classic rock, funk and soul, the album doesn't feel dusty or self-consciously retro.

Calling from Los Angeles, JB, 44, breaks it on down for me. "The name comes from the spirit, come from deep within," says the singer-guitarist. "John Black is like the spirit of the great soul singer from back in the day. His voice is like an alter ego. We're bringing back a flavor that's been lost in the process of new music."

Yeah, yeah. These days, just about every soul (and pop) singer who can play an instrument and owns a copy of Stevie Wonder's or Al Green's greatest hits is on this mission to "bring something back." But TSOJB isn't selling us short. These guys are the real thing, musicians who can -- anywhere, anyplace, anytime -- drop some serious jazz, rock, funk, ska, whatever you want. Or the two can throw it all together as they do on The Soul of John Black.

CT, 33, speaks up. "See, people today have taken technology so far that you actually miss the human process of playing an instrument. There's not enough people playing on their stuff."

Each artist has been in the business for a while. Of course, JB has been in the game the longest. He was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, the youngest of five. His mama, a hip woman who worked for the post office, turned him on to music early.

"My parents were into the Chicago scene," he says, "you know, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield. I remember hearing Lou Rawls and Dionne Warwick, too. Later on, my brother came back from Vietnam and brought back Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix."

The artist started playing guitar at 13. CT grew up in St. Louis, where his folks weaned him on Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland, the Temptations. Like his partner, the bassist is the only musician in his family.

"I just absorbed all that stuff," CT says. "Me and my cousins would entertain the family with homemade shows, costume changes and all."

JB joined the Air Force Reserve after high school and spent three years as an aircraft mechanic stationed in Victorville, Calif. When that stint ended, he bussed on to Hollywood and worked various gigs as a musician. He also became friends with Miles Davis, contributing "Jilli" to the jazz great's last studio album, 1989's Amandla. For eight years, he played in Fishbone, the rock-punk-ska band.

After he finished high school, CT moved down to Louisiana, where he studied with Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans and worked with pianist Henry Butler, sax man Kenny Garrett and different members of the Marsalis family. Six years ago, CT moved to Cali, where he crossed paths with JB around '98. The two played a gig together. And once they found out they shared similar musical visions, a union formed instantly.

Recording their first album together was an organic affair. The two laid down tense, no-frills tracks with some musician friends, and the overall feel is freewheeling and vibrant. JB's twangy, tart vocals and irreverent lyrics that mostly center on the peaks and valleys of love drive the 13-cut album.

"I think it's hard for people to understand that we just played the music," CT says. "We just sat around and did it. The energy, I think, comes through."

"That's what we do," JB chimes in. "I mean, we wanted to convey that whole live vibe. It's hard to be original, you know. But what makes it original is that it comes from the heart, that your thoughts about the music are pure. We're just trying to introduce people to new ideas, man."

CT echoes his homeboy, "Yeah, man, that's all we're trying to do."

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