Native Soul – Soul Step – Talking Drum/American Showplace TD 2010, 69:14 ***1/2:
(Peter Brainin – tenor and soprano saxophone, flute; Noah Haidu – piano, keyboard; Marcus McLaurine – acoustic and electric bass; Steve Johns – drums)
Soul Step is the sophomore release from modern jazz quartet Native Soul. While there are some funk elements during this 69-minute record, this is by no means strictly a soul-jazz effort. Tenor and soprano saxophonist Peter Brainin, keyboardist Noah Haidu (who plays acoustic piano as well as Fender Rhodes), acoustic/electric bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Steve Johns work through blues themes, do up a classic rock cover tune, rearrange a jazz standard and perform boppish material. One thing the 11 pieces have in common is groove: a pulsing feeling permeates every track.
All four members supply compositions. Some astute fans may even recognize Haidu’s numbers since the title track and the intricate “Slipstream” were recorded for Haidu’s solo project, Slipstream, which was also issued in 2011. “Soul Step,” as the name suggests, is a soulful nugget with a funky bass vamp, Haidu’s Fender Rhodes styling’s and a Grover Washington-like soprano sax solo, all of which evoke a mid-seventies CTI or Kudu Records awareness, although the rhythm section provides a more modern beat. “Slipstream” is a fast-moving feature with several perceptive chord changes and is centered on Haidu’s sagacious piano and Brainin’s significant soprano sax. This is no doubt a big audience pleaser in a live setting.
Johns’ contributions tend toward a late-evening connotation. “Deep Blue” is a measured ballad which has an early 1980s inclination. McLaurine’s solo electric bass interlude has a warm ease as does Brainin’s tenor sax, which brings to mind David Sanborn. This seems readymade for smooth jazz listeners. “Into the Night” has a similar casualness. Brainin switches to flute – and inevitably echoes Hubert Laws – though the arrangement has a mellow jazz overtone rather than Laws’ R&B crossover quality.
McLaurine gravitates to a swifter pace with quick changes on his “Inner Search,” which has an exterior marked by a persistent, contemporary groove fronted by more Fender Rhodes, Johns’ insistent cymbals and brushes and McLaurine’s slippery, amplified bass. McLaurine goes for a lighter groove on his swinging tribute, “One for O.P.,” which skips right along courtesy of Haidu’s melodic piano flourishes and some equally stalwart sax.
Although Brainin’s “Mingus” is christened after the famously irascible jazz genius, the tune essentially bows more toward Joe Henderson due to concentrated bass lines, stimulated drums with fine stick work and in particular Brainin’s relaxed but still animated tenor sax. Brainin’s “Talking Drum” is an album highlight. The mid-tempo cut has an informal, friendly discernment which is soft but not watered down, easy-going but durable.
Of the two covers (the group also does “End of a Love Affair”), Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” is the most interesting. McLaurine’s electric bass – which starts and stops this piece – and Haidu’s Fender Rhodes take the place of the typical guitar while the foursome gives the well-known rock tune a bright fusion/funk edge while retaining Hendrix’s original low-key soulful strut. If the Crusaders had interpreted Hendrix they might have done something akin to this.
Soul Step should appeal to anyone steeped in or widely conversant with the CTI or A&M catalogs from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, when jazz unapologetically melded with contemporary pop music to produce jazz for the masses.
1. Soul Step
2. End of a Love Affair
3. Deep Blue
4. Inner Search
7. Castles Made of Sand
8. Into the Night
9. Talking Drum
10. One for OP
11. Gift Within
— Doug Simpson