As a wise man once put it, "You get what you want if you know how to find it."
If you want home-cooked, heart-felt jazz and soul, in Portland, Oregon you know you can find it by going down to the nightclub called Jimmy Mak's. And especially on a night when the stalwart dance band Soul Vaccination is in the house, the funk will flow and its medicinal powers will be in full effect. If it's good to ya, it's gotta be good for ya!
Under the leadership of trumpeter Dave Mills, Soul Vaccination has been administering its brand of cost-effective health care around the Northwest for more than a decade. (Note the regional population?s small percentage of racial minorities yet also its surprisingly low incidence rates for honkypox.) From time to time, though, a booster shot is in order.
Enter Mr. Bruce Conte, guitarist for the mighty Tower of Power during its most productive and popular years, and a longtime friend of Soul Vac's Bay Area-bred B-3 maven,
"King Louis" Pain.
And as the combined forces of the storied guitar ace and the fine-tuned groove machine embark on a sweaty survey of 1970s rhythm methodology (with appropriate special emphasis on the Tower of Power songbook), the crucial question of course is "What Is Hip?" The prevailing answer ("What it is!") to this funky zen koan is delivered here with crisp confidence and a surgically precise solo from Conte.
Throughout these tracks, in fact, Conte shows the development of his sound, retaining the bluesy sting of his younger days yet sporting a sharper sense of harmonic development. Perhaps that?s the result of the kind steadiness, focus and persistence suggested by his thematically apt solo in "Don't Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)."
This combination of craft and killer instinct allow Conte to construct a surprisingly refined, if intense, architecture for his solo midway through the gut-bucket classic "You Got To Funkifize," only to burn it down in a blaze of passion over the final several bars. Meanwhile, the Soul Vac rhythm section digs deep into the pocket; instead of making the groove charge like a sarge's command, as on the great Tower original, this version is unhurried and unshakable. When you know it's in your soul, the funkifizing is inevitable.
Then again, some of us funkifize as a natural fact, like breathing. Dig the bottom end that Tim Bryson breathes into "Only So Much Oil in the Ground," having as much fun as a bari sax man should when filling the shoes of "the Funky Doctor" himself, Stephen Kupka.
Speaking of the low end, in an endeavor such as this, bass is at once basic and exalted. And if you haven't by this point been paying particular attention to John Linn's indefatigable way with a groove, then you must just be too busy dancing. Check the way he puts "Only So Much Oil" smoothly into top gear with his take on the legendary Francis "Rocco" Prestia's propulsive yet melodic style, then switches character deftly into the sticky stank of Johnny "Guitar' Watson's "A Real Mother for Ya," then the finger-poppin' goodness of Tom Browne's "Funkin' for Jamaica" (alongside some very tasty crosstalk between Conte and Soul Vac resident guitarist Kerry Movassagh).
Having stepped out of the Tower's shadow to pay tribute to such lesser-known gems of the era, why not approach another giant? Why not, indeed, when the horn section can bring such joyfulness to the Stevie Wonder-ful "I Wish," and Pain can comp behind Conte's highwire solo like a trusted accomplice?
Oh yes, the horn section. A who's who of Portland scene veterans, they're damn near faultless all the way through here, but never more so than in the bittersweet majesty of "So Very Hard to Go." And while it's the instrumentalists cooking with their own Northwest version of "East Bay grease" (some sort of cold-pressed organic oil, no doubt), the singers get to serve up some flavor of the their own, most notably "Gigi" Wiggins and Mark Wyatt getting carried away with the old Rufus nugget "Once You Get Started."
As we said before, you get what you want if you know how to find it. Sometimes that?s individuality. Which certainly is part of the subtext to "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," the 1969 Sly Stone classic that prefigured so much of the sound, style and attitude of the decade given such spirited homage on the rest of these tracks.
And there it all is -- individual spirit and collective identity, colorful personality and careful teamwork, expressed through fresh renditions of absolute classics of the form. Which brings us back around to the tune that lent this band its name, "Soul Vaccination," with drummer Edwin Coleman III climbing the funky switchbacks of Mount Garibaldi and "Gigi" Wiggins as the lady doctor giving you that protective shot in the arm.
Remember, if it's good to ya, it's gotta be good for ya. Everybody! Get in line!
-- Marty Hughley