The Greyboys Are Back

It’s rock that does it best for me. It can come in whatever stripe – indie, heavy metal, with an orchestra or without, with a synth or without, folk-infused, progressive… you name it. Rock is my first preference when I want to listen to music. I like the blues too and R&B, some hip-hop, some post-rock, electronic dance music even, and sometimes experimental avant garde but not as much as I like rock. But there are those occasions when nothing but a classic jazz album will work for me. At such times, my well-thumbed sleeve of Miles Davis’ 1970 double album, Bitches Brew is brought out, and spun and, in spite of the nasty scratch on Spanish Key (first track on Side 3), I marvel for the umpteenth time at the fabulousness of that towering jazz-rock fusion album, its tracks, of course, but also the deadly line-up that trumpet guru Davis got together for it.

Photo courtesy: Facebook

Photo courtesy: Facebook

Then there are those occasions when only Keith Jarrett’s Fort Yawuh (1973) will do, particularly the track named De Drums, a 12-minuter when drummer Paul Motian, bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Dewey Redman, percussionist Danny Johnson and, of course, the man himself, Jarrett, who not only plays piano on the album but also the soprano sax, hold me in thrall. Music is a matter of personal taste and some Jarrett fans I know don’t care as much for Fort Yawuh as they do for his other work – The Köln Concert, Nude Ants, Sleeper and so on – but my favourite is Fort Yawuh. Sometimes a bond develops between listener and album and there can be many reasons for that. For me, Fort Yawuh was the first jazz album that I really liked and one that made me seek out other great jazz music.

That kind of thing works in the case of a band as well. The first time I heard The Greyboy Allstars in the late 1990s, I immediately liked them. It probably was the timing. I was listening almost exclusively to post-Grateful Dead jambands those days, Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, moe., Disco Biscuits, The String Cheese Incident, and so on, when someone recommended a 1995 album by the Allstars called West Coast Boogaloo. It was jazz but of a different variety, blended with funk and soul, and the band, in fact, was a collaboration between a jazz quintet and a DJ, DJ Greyboy, whose trademark sound was 1970s funk. The quintet comprised musicians, each of whom were super formidable in his own right, especially, Karl Denson on horns and Robert Walker on keyboards, both with their own bands and touring ensembles. The six men jammed in San Diego, and an incredible band was formed.

West Coast Boogaloo was their first album with an old-school soul and funk sound all laid over the trademark grooves of DJ Greyboy whose name the band took. West Coast Boogaloo has eight tracks, and every one of those sounds really cool, but what stands out for me is called Tenor Man on which Denson’s virtuosity is in clear display. It’s the kind of jazz that made The Greyboy Allstars a regular on the jambands’ circuit, sharing gigs with more rock-ified, psychedelic bands. But the band itself was not one that you could call regular. Denson toured with his own band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Robert Walter had his Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, and even the other members of the band, bassist Chris Stillwell, and guitarist Elgin Park, have other projects running. But every once in a while, they converge and, besides playing gigs, record albums. Not always, however, with Greyboy, though that famed DJ’s name seems to have stuck.

Independent projects and gigs have meant that the Greyboys aren’t very prolific. After West Coast Boogaloo, they’ve released just four albums and not all of them have the DJ on board. This year, they released their latest, Inland Emperor, six years after their last album came out. I picked it up a bit late – I must admit that I haven’t been tracking the band as keenly as I ought to have – but it was a good decision. The band hasn’t lost its touch. Those 1970s vibes I mentioned? Still intact. The funk? The groove and the soul? Still there. I didn’t mention that The Greyboy Allstars have vocals in many of their songs, which work very well with the music. On Inland Emperor’s Bitch Inside Me, singer John Bigham’s falsetto is like an instrument that works in a contrarian manner with the rest of the deep cadence of the song. On Old Crow, the vocals are like a classic Woodstock-era rock band’s.

But what stands out on Inland Emperor as it did on West Coast Boogaloo (as well as a third album of the band that I subsequently heard, 2007’s What Happened to Television? and one on which DJ Greyboy features) is the band’s perfect synergy: Walter’s keyboards, Denson’s horns, Stillwell and Park on their guitars, and Aaron Redfield’s drums. Soul. Funk. Jazz. You couldn’t have asked for a better mix.

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