Down to the Bone defies the labels with 'Cellar Funk'

British band goes beyond jazz base with danceable disc

Music: in concert, CDs

January 29, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Don't even try to label it. (It's jazz, right? R&B?) It's pointless, trying to pigeonhole the groove-dominated music on Cellar Funk, the brilliant new album by British band Down to the Bone.

Jazzy improvisation spices the mix -- a thoughtful sax solo here, an intricate keyboard run there. But the tunes are club-friendly, highly danceable. And that was one of the main objectives as Cellar Funk took shape: To get you out of your seat, shake something, move your feet.

"I want to gradually make music more harder and more funkier," says Stuart Wade, the mastermind behind DTTB. He's phoning from his flat in Chobham, Surrey, England. "I want it to cross over more to the clubs than it has been. Smooth jazz -- the format on which I'm usually played -- is a much older audience. But I want the music to cross over to a younger audience and to more formats."

The ideal age group Wade seeks is somewhere between 25 and 35. Those who dig on smooth jazz stations tend to be older than that. If DTTB wants more club exposure, that may happen with the new album, the group's fifth and first since 2002's critically lauded Crazy Vibes and Things. Ambient house beats awash with jazzy overtones, buoyed by muscular funk bass lines, drive the instrumentals on Cellar Funk, which hit stores Tuesday. Highlights include "The Flow," a sassy, horn-fueled number with scats by Flora Purim, and "Back to Business," an aggressive jam slightly reminiscent of early Patrice Rushen.

"Cellar Funk was done under a period when I was unsigned, so I could experiment more," says Wade, 37. "It was more about stripping the songs to the groove and little melody."

Down to the Bone, an ensemble of various session musicians founded by Wade and Chris Morgans, first snagged chart and radio attention in 1996 with the release of its debut, From Manhattan to Staten, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's contemporary jazz listings. Critics and fans immediately noticed the ensemble's tight musicianship, the flowing rhythms and locked grooves. All of this, spearheaded by Wade, was especially impressive because the English producer can't play a lick of anything. He never formally studied music.

"For me, it all starts with the groove," he says. "That's what gets people dancing, their toes tapping, and the heads nodding."

From there, he hums an overlying melody into a dictaphone. Afterward, he's able to determine if the melody is a piano rhythm or a horn riff. He calls a keyboard player (usually Neil Cowley or Neil Angilley), who listens to the dictaphone, and he and Wade search for the right chords. The method is organic and unfolds smoothly -- sometimes.

"Because I'm not a musician," Wade says, "I'm able to step back and hear very quickly what works and what doesn't. It's pretty ruthless and cut-throat sometimes in the studio. Pretty much what I do is an amalgamation of everything I love: soul, funk, jazz and R&B."

Wade, who owns more than 6,000 LPs, fell in love with those sounds when he was just a chap. It was in Houston, Texas, where he discovered soul music -- Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Marvin Gaye -- through the radio. His father, who worked for an oil company, had moved the family there from England. During his three years in the South, Wade's appreciation of soul, particularly the jazz-soul fusion that was popular in the mid-'70s, deepened. And he knew then that he wanted a career shaping the kind of music that blared from his radio all night.

He says: "We didn't have that in England, that type of music 24-7."

Inspired by jazz-soul pioneers Roy Ayers, Ramsey Lewis, Leroy Hutson and Donald Byrd, Wade immersed himself in the underground soul scene in England during the late '80s and early '90s. By 1995, he hooked up with various session players to create his version of the music that filled his time in Texas.

Wade's artistry is consistent. Since the release of From Manhattan to Staten, subsequent Down to the Bone albums -- The Urban Grooves: Album II and Spread the Word: Album III -- have fluidly showcased Wade's deep love for The Groove and his growing interest in other styles, particularly samba, funk and house.

"So much of what you hear now is becoming very much the same," Wade says. "A lot of the soul and funk scene needs a little injection of life. It's the same [in England] and in America. It's very difficult for the authentic stuff to come through -- not enough rawness."

On his instant-vintage new set, the man who jams without an instrument takes us there -- to the funk below.

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