For most bands, embracing the jazz category usually means settling for a career of playing Sunday brunches, sundry festivals, and trendy bars. But Boston's Soulive has managed to steer clear of these pitfalls, carving out a growing audience among the mainstream masses.
Since first forming in 1999, Soulive (drummer Alan Evans, organist/keyboardist and Alan's brother Neal Evans, and guitarist Eric Krasno) has managed to lure everyone from Phish heads to hip-hop fans and jazz purists to its live shows. This is due to its propensity for injecting breakbeats into uptempo jazz movements that run the gamut from acid to contemporary, while adding Hammond organs and funky drums to its jam band opuses, resulting in finger-snappin' and, yes, even rear-end- movin' music. Not quite your father's jazz, it's not only a hybrid of genres but a creation that is reflective of their diverse influences.
"We have a lot of different influences to draw from," says Alan. "I think that makes our sound unique." Collectively inspired by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Sly and the Family Stone, Grant Green, and Stevie Wonder, Soulive takes soul and funk and wraps it up in an improvisational package that is both all and none of the above.
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"People shouldn't feel bad if they dig G-Unit and Johnny Cash," he adds. "I feel they should be able to mention them in the same sentence with no problem. I have no problem doing it. We're just trying to help that process along and break down some barriers."
During the mid-Nineties the Evans brothers, who played together in New York State jam band Moon Boot Lover, met Krasno, who played in Beantown funk act Lettuce, at a Northampton, Massachusetts, jam festival. After the festival each went their separate ways. But when their bands broke up, mutual admiration led the Evans brothers to track Krasno down and extend him an invite to play together. In 1999, on the first day the trio played together, they went into the studio and recorded their debut album, Get Down!, in just one take. "We just rolled with it and found that the chemistry was there; it sounded fine to us," says Alan.
From that moment on the band decided to remain a trio, explains Krasno. "When we started performing, [staying a trio] made sense," he says. "I'm not only between these two guys [onstage] that are great musicians, but they have a deeper connection than you could imagine. The communication is so open in the way that they set up. They face each other, and I'm in the middle, and I catch that communication between them. They're so connected it's like they're one being."
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The following year Soulive dropped another full-length, Turn it Out. Like its seven-song predecessor the album was released through the independent label Velour, partly run by Krasno's brother Jeff. Then the legendary jazz imprint Blue Note took note of the band and signed them, resulting in Doin' Something in 2001.
From that point on Soulive's popularity seemed to have a life of its own. It landed opening slots for jazz guitarist John Scofield and arena acts like the Rolling Stones and the Dave Matthews Band. (Matthews would later collaborate with Soulive on the latter's remake of Ani DiFranco's "Joyful Girl" on 2002's Next.)
After the band released a live self-titled effort earlier this year, Blue Note and Soulive mutually parted ways. "After [labelmate] Norah Jones, everything changed," says Alan. "She became the focus. After Norah won ten million Grammys, it was hard to get the label to return your phone calls." Holding the rights to its pre-Blue Note releases, the band, who is still deciding which label they'll sign with next, revisited Turn It Out to create a remix album featuring collaborations with soul singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello and rappers J-Live and Charli 2na and Akil from Jurassic 5.
"We're making some pretty good friends and good musical relationships," says Alan. "We always find out people who are checking us out, and it's totally bizarre. That's when you realize you're not exactly the small garage band anymore. It has somewhat of an impact, but you're still able to walk out on the street and nobody knows who you are."