Sep 24, 2010
Cochemea Gastelum - The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow
Cochemea Gastelum is one of New York City's most in-demand horn players, a touring member of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and saxophonist in the original band for the Broadway musical, Fela.
Now, at long last, this key figure in New York City's underground funk and soul worlds drops his highly anticipated debut album, The Electric Sound Of Johnny Arrow. Produced by Adam Dorn (a.k.a. Mocean Worker), the ten-track collection is guaranteed to be some of the greasiest music to hit the streets this summer: full of concise songs that leap forth with the energy and focus of his influences, while pulling the thread forward from the inspiration of '70s' rare groove to create razor sharp, modern instrumental tracks.
Its title giving a nod to his Native American roots, The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow is the debut album from Brooklyn-based saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum. A touring member of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, and a recurring saxophonist in the original band for the Broadway musical Fela!, Gastelum here pays tribute to some of his soul and Afrobeat heroes—including Fela Kuti & Afrika 70 baritone player Lekan Animashaun and tenor players Igo Chiko and Christopher Uwaifor, and—above all—electric saxophonist Eddie Harris, an early master of jazz/r&b/soul groove music. Other explicit influences include War and Ethiopian composer/bandleader Mulatu Astatqe. The 10 track album—on which each track comes in, retro style, at about three and half minutes—is one mighty chunk of fun.
On the opener, "Dark City," Gastelum pays his propers to Kuti and Astatqe, both of whom are echoed in the majestic, long-form horn lines which carry the tune. He overdubs tenor and baritone, not to mention flute, organ and percussion, and delivers a steaming solo on the bigger horn. From here on in, the music is more resonant of War, in its throbbing, percussion-rich grooves, and Harris' electric saxophone, which Gastelum plays on six tracks. Tempos are mostly up and solos are mostly hot, but Gastelum also adds cool-breeze flute to a few tunes and there are two dreamy, soulful ballads, "You're So Good To Me" and "No Goodbyes." All the compositions are Gastelum originals or collaborations.
Gastelum could probably have played all the instruments heard here if he chose to—in addition to the aforementioned he also plays Fender Rhodes, clavinet, ARP String Ensemble, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, vibraphone and piano—but he's surrounded himself with a bunch of ace groove adepts including trumpeter Eric Biondo and a rolling cast of guitarists, bass players, percussionists and drummers (including, on "Fathom 5," Joe Russo). His own gutsy bass clarinet puts a nice spin on "Fathom 5," which is otherwise redolent of chill-out scene music from 1970s blaxploitation movies. And still the tributes come. "Impala '73" is heavy boogaloo and "Beijo Do Sol" evokes Hawaiian-tinged exotica.
The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow benefits from the presence of Adam Dorn (aka Mocean Worker) as producer, who has welded the episodic nature of the program and its diverse cultural references into a seamless whole. Irresistible.
Thanx to Chris May at allaboutjazz.com!
Cochemea Gastelum's saxophone has been heard with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, though he has also played in the Broadway musical Fela! and with a diverse group that includes Paul Simon, Amy Winehouse and the New Pornographers. His debut as a leader focuses almost exclusively on creating a party vibe, in particular a vibe that travels back to the early '70s when the soul-jazz grooves were heavy, horn solos were brief but concise and the music focused on the dancefloor. With musician and mix master Adam "Mocean Worker" Dorn co-producing and occasional handling bass duties, The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow has a lot of muscle adding to its heaviness.
The "electric sound" of the title is represented in the use of the electric saxophone, which Eddie Harris made popular during the decade mentioned above. On five of the 10 tracks, Gastelum whips it out, using the horn's distorted tone and wah-wah effect not as novelty so much as a way to grab your ear and add to the already diverse mix of sounds. In addition to regular alto, tenor and baritone saxes, Gastelum also handles a battery of keyboards (organ, Fender Rhodes, ARP, clavinet), flute, bass clarinet and percussion throughout the album. The mood of the songs encompasses everything from slinky ballads and Headhunters-style vamps to melodies that touch on the Fela influence or, to dig deeper, the spirit of Osibisa. Most of the time, the horns work together in unison for texture, but Gastelum cuts loose with a sizeable solo here and there.
The only setback of Johnny Arrow, aside from the annoying vocal loop on "Carlito," is that the music doesn't sound live. Each track boasts at least three people, usually more, playing the music, yet a lot of it sounds like it was built around samples.
In trying describe what gives music a '70s-centric feeling, it could be said that this period combined the unadorned sound of a band playing live in a room with burgeoning recording technology that had not yet risen to a level where it could sanitize the soul of the music. (The latter problem reached full bloom about a decade later.) Instead of going ahead and trying to capture that feeling directly, Johnny Arrow falters because it sounds like Gastelum and Dorn filter it through a self-conscious "retro" perspective, and doesn't let the band breathe as much as it should. Nevertheless, there are some great horn shouts and funky grooves lurking in these mixes.
The big-toned but supple saxophone of Cochemea Gastelum has been a crucial element in the Afrobeat and funk excursions of the Budos Band and the retro-soul of the Dap-Kings. Now‚ with his first solo album‚ The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow‚ Gastelum blends those flavors -- and many more -- into an imaginative and appealing amalgam of groove‚ mood‚ and texture.
There's no doubt that main ingredients and spices redolent of groove music from the past -- the electrified soul-jazz of the 70s in particular --are in plentiful supply. The streetwise funk of 70s cop and spy movie soundtracks is evident too‚ as the record's title might hint. But there's also a personal depth to Gastelum's sonic vision: at times he seems to have layered his compositions and arrangements in a way that's reminiscent of Les McCann's work on albums like‚ well‚ Layers. The effect is engaging and evocative‚ with Rhodes and percussion colors‚ flute‚ vibes‚ section and solo horns (the horns at times electrified ala vintage Eddie Harris) all coming together in surprising and satisfying ways.
Co-producer Mocean Worker has brought his touch of DJ in places--most noticeably perhaps on "Carlito!‚" with its stripped-down dance music gestalt‚ its sampled vocal hook. But the strongest tracks are the ones that let Gastelum's imagination loose. For example‚ there's "Impala 73‚" a charanga-style flute workout over a summer-vibed‚ sideways bugalu. Or "Stars‚" with its ambient drifts‚ dreamy bell-toned triplets‚ languid Drifters-esque string ensemble‚ and wide-open and expressive sax all mingling and coalescing gorgeously into something like intergalactic smooth jazz from the future.
Indeed‚ it's the mingling and coalescing in ebullient --and fun-- ways that gives the record such a sense of lift. In its best moments The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow might summon the feeling of summer in a windows-and-doors-open urban neighborhood where groove-centric musicians from many places‚ spaces‚ times‚ and traditions come together to jam and party‚ finding new ways to share what they've got.
As a child, I grew up with a special fondness for the old Motown Records and soul music sound – there was nothing more perfect in life that to hear the harmonies of the Temptations, the love songs of Marvin Gaye, the infectious pop songs of the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, the amazing Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and so many countless others that I could go on for days. Those great old records not only capture their time period but there’s something universal in their infectious joy. Now, the Brooklyn-based Daptone Records first developed a reputation across town, then across the country for their loving recreation of the old soul and funk records of the late 1950s through the 1960s through acts such as the Budos Band and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, as well as a ton of reissues. Instead of super slick digital reproduction that modern ears are used to, you get that slight graininess and fuzz of analog recording processes – it’s much like listening to carefully used vinyl. And the art work is just pitch perfect recreations of things music fans would have come across then. Sure, a cynic may say that Daptone Records may pay attention to these little details to be kitschy but I think it works because a certain level of nostalgia for what’s no longer is necessary to get why they go about what they do. (For a great example, check out Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings 100 Days and 100 Nights. There’s a special “Best of Daptone Records” disc that’s pretty funny in how accurate it is to those old AM radio shows.)
But Daptone Records also has developed a reputation for exposing New York and American audiences to some serious Afrobeat with their reissues of some of the genre’s great but sadly obscure artists who released albums in the early 1970s, as well as Anitbalas, who have gained increasing fame and notoriety as the backing band for the biographical Broadway show, Fela! Interestingly, this has brought Fela Kuti’s sometime bizarre life story and amazing music to mainstream America in ways that Kuti would have never dreamed possible. Now here comes Cochemea Gastelum, the saxophonist in Sharon Jones’ backing band, the Dap Kings with a solo debut that continues Daptone Records’ amazing run of producing and nourishing some artists that do retro music proud while adding their unique spin to it – all while being a bit of a departure from the signature Dap Kings sound he’s been behind for a number of years.
Unlike his Dap Kings work Gastelum’s Johnny Arrow is heavily influenced by Afrobeat, 70s soul, Latin Rock and jazz and from an initial listen, this album could have easily been released in the summer of 1974, as much as it could be released now. Some critics and listeners will probably say that this album reminds them of great Afrobeat albums such as Fela Kuti and the Africa 70’s Expensive Shit/He Miss Road and Open and Close/Afrodisiac, as Johnny Arrow is at times as funky as both of those albums. The horn section in “Dark City,” reminded me of the cool, brooding and slowed down funk of “Water Get No Enemy.” But such comparisons will only miss out on how strong Gastelum’s Latin Rock and Latin Jazz influences are throughout the album – songs like “Carlito!” and “You’re So Good to Me” reminded me of the great but now sadly obscure 70s Latin/Funk/Rock band Mandrill (a band I’ve fallen in love with recently – and a band that I think everyone needs to check out if they’re into 70s soul). These songs have a ton of flute floating and dancing about as a lead instrument, funky bass, and break beat-styled drumming. It feels a bit unfair in my mind to compare Gastelum’s album to Mandrill’s work – but what I will say is that both Gastelum and Mandrill seem at ease jumping back and forth between soul, funk, African and Latin-influenced jazz and mashing them up in ways that are smooth, sexy and downright funky. Granted, the one big time knock on this album is that what Gastelum is attempting on this album isn’t exactly original – and if you’re familiar and know Gastelum’s influences, you may stick to your Fela, War or Mandrill albums. But regardless of that, what this whole retro music trend does is bring great obscure songs and artists new life and a new audience who may be curious to give them a chance, when time all but forgot. So check out The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow and while you’re it, check out Mandrill and Fela – they’ll all fill your summer with some ass-shaking funk.
1. Dark City
2. Arrow's Theme
4. You're So Good To Me
5. Guardian Angel
6. Impala '73
7. Fathom 5
8. No Goodbyes
9. Beijo Do Sol
Labels: Cochemea Gastelum