Independent Seek nourished by creative freedom

Atlanta group is refusing to be cast in specific genre

Music: in concert, CDs

April 08, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Open the way / Show me the way ... to your divine design ...

The voice crooning those words suggests a stream -- cool and tranquil as it flows over chunky rhythms: busy conga drums and elastic bass lines, mechanical house beats and floating digital bleeps. The voice slips between fluttering flutes and echoing guitars.

Every breath I take is a miracle to embrace / Rise and face another day / Searching for some passion in each moment that I live ...

Lisa Terry, who fronts the urban sextet Seek, is the possessor of that calming voice. And her introspective lyrics ride soulful, laid-back melodies on Journey Into Day, the group's latest album. In putting the music together, "we don't generally try to come up with a theme or concept," says Terry, who's calling from her Atlanta home. "But we wanted to do more of a concept with Journey Into Day -- like a continuation of Surrender," the band's 2002 album. "With the songs of this album, it's about struggle and the whole idea of life being a journey."

One of the most promising independent bands around, Seek includes bassist-guitarist Freddy Luster, keyboardist Billy Fields, drummer Brad "Tasty" Hasty, percussionist Tina Howard and second keyboardist Chris Kounelis. The Atlanta-based group is well-known in its hometown, and Seek is steadily breaking through in markets along the West and East coasts. Its music is also well-received overseas in London and Japan.

A sound like Seek's -- honeyed, finely crafted and undeniably urban -- typically gets no attention from mainstream radio. But the group doesn't worry about that. The Internet and old-fashioned word-of-mouth have been integral parts in spreading the music.

"It's about live performance with us," Terry says. "The basis of what we do was formed on stage, and that comes across on the CDs, I think."

Sure does. The overall sound is polished with live instrumentation blending deliciously with the subtle programming. Sade, the Brand New Heavies and, at times, late-'70s-era Patrice Rushen are evoked. Highlights on Journey Into Today include the breezy "Open the Way," the stepper groove "Taken" and the shimmering title track.

Freddie Luster, the group's low-key producer, who also lives in the Atlanta area, says, "We try to stay true to ourselves. But our influences are pretty diverse, from Sade to the Isley Brothers to Carole King to Everything but the Girl. ... What I like about those artists is that they all have a unique ability to weave through musical genres and stand alone in their own box. I think music like that may not always sell the most records," he says, "but it makes great impact on the musical landscape."

Making an impact has been Seek's main purpose since its formation in 1999. Taking its name from an Atlanta graffiti artist's "tag" or signature, the band was started by Luster, co-owner of a venue called Yin Yang Music Cafe. He recruited his cousin Terry, an aspiring lyricist who never really had ambitions of becoming a singer.

"I really wanted to be a songwriter," says the 30-something performer. "I rose out of the spoken-word scene in Atlanta back in the early '90s."

After recruiting the other players, the group fine-tuned its sound at clubs around Atlanta before releasing its debut album, 2001's Venus & Mars, on the independent Soulestial Elements label. The record solidly showcased Seek's open, airy style but offered little variation in the music. Still, the CD generated enough heat to keep the band working regularly on the national underground soul circuit.

In late 2002, Seek put out Surrender, a much stronger album with muscular grooves, pronounced jazz flourishes and focused lyrics by Terry. The approach consciously defied general conventions of contemporary R&B: no hip-hop in the mix, no rock elements.

"We kind of struggled with the whole label situation and what genre we fit under," Terry says. "I don't like the neo-soul label, because it doesn't really fit what we do."

Self-contained bands are rare in today's R&B. Major companies "would rather have a superstar producer do the tracks and have an artist come in and sing over them," Terry says. "Everything is cookie-cutter, so it's been hard to be a band and do what we do with everything so producer-driven."

The upside to being independent is the creative freedom the group enjoys. Each member contributes to the smooth creations, driven by Terry's refreshing vocals.

"It's hard to get past the American Idols, MTV and all the commercial stuff to get to all the real musical movements going on," the singer says. "We need a revolution to get our type of music more known."

And that revolution won't be televised.

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