Shuffle Demons – Clusterfunk – Linus 270152, 54:10 ***1/2:
(Richard Underhill – alto saxophone, vocals, co-producer; Perry White – tenor and baritone saxophone, vocals, co-producer; Kelly Jefferson – tenor saxophone, vocals, co-producer; George Keller – electric and acoustic bass, vocals, producer; Stich Wynston – drums, percussion, vocals, co-producer)
How do you get people to spontaneously rise up and move to the music, whirl and dance, grab the nearest stranger and swing across the floor? Just punch up the speakers and put on the latest, long-awaited release from Canadian quintet Shuffle Demons. For over a quarter century the jazz-funk-fusion artists have entertained crowds from Australia to America and from New Zealand to the old world charms of Europe. Clusterfunk is the group’s eighth release and first of all original material in close to 20 years, the result of the ensemble’s 2004 reunion tour (they broke up in 1997), which celebrated a Shuffle Demons greatest hits package.
The band may best be known above the 49th parallel, since their 1986 debut, Streetniks, had a surprise hit with “Spadina Bus”; they have been seen on Canadian television shows; and the Toronto-based musicians have garnered much praise and some Canadian music awards. But many tours and concert appearances at jam band and jazz venues outside the Maple Leaf nation has also generated a receptive audience which appreciates the group’s high-energy live performances. That no-holds-barred deportment vividly comes alive on the seven vocals and five instrumentals which make up the 54-minute Clusterfunk. The three-sax, bass and drums lineup creates a palpable party atmosphere right from the get-go on the sardonic “Sell Me This,” where the horn section has an ear-catching funk orientation reminiscent of Tower of Power or The Brecker Brothers. Electric bassist George Keller lays down a thick bass beat while drummer Stich Wynston keeps the backbeat and groove going. Lyrically, “Sell Me This” brings to mind the parodist/mass media irony parlayed by The Tubes, with couplets like “I don’t care if we are headed to disaster/I just want to get my junk food faster.” There’s even an emcee who echoes Fee Waybill’s larger-than-life persona. The mid-tempo “He’s the Drummer” has a similar, quirky attraction, although the minimal lines don’t say much; however, there is some excellent sax soloing. “All About the Hang” has a retro soulful tang, which relates how everyone enjoys a good time, from CEOs and British royalty to Joe Schmo, and from “Juliet and Romeo to JFK and Jackie O.” The album title refers to the heady funk-fueled “Daddy Long Legs,” about a spider on the wall not Fred Astaire, although the titular arachnoid does some dancing. “Daddy Long Legs” has a persuasive shuffle, memorable sax interaction and a rolling percussive charisma: it’s not often alto, tenor and baritone saxophones get together in a jazz-funk triple play.
Although the members of Shuffle Demons like witty wordplay, the quintet’s reputation is not built on narrative strengths, which is why their instrumental prowess is always at the forefront. The five instrumentals are prime pieces. “Way After Midnight” has a quickened hard-boppish pace and is a real cooker, where Keller (on acoustic bass) and Wynston maintain a loose, slightly earthy beat while the three sax players display an r&b influence. This cut is evocative of some of Sonny Rollins’ material (think the good-natured “Did You See Harold Vick?”). Shuffle Demons exhibit their ecologically-edged side on “Earth Song,” a contemporary groove track with a notable Keller arco solo, which provides an almost disconcerting balance against the funky, urban meter. There is a comparable swagger on “Fukushima,” which is dedicated to the victims of the recent, tragic nuclear disaster. While others might have produced a wistful, reflective composition, Shuffle Demons craft something with more chaos and clamor, obviously inspired by the confusion and pandemonium which followed the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. There’s a cool jazz/Caribbean posture to the sauntering “Strollin’,” another vehicle for the saxes: this has a genuine jazz attitude and drive, and suggests the spirit (but not necessarily the tone or sound) of Monty Alexander’s work. Shuffle Demons end with the down-tempo “On the Runway,” the sort of gig-closing, last-call tune which puts listeners in a somewhat melancholy mood and proves if Shuffle Demons wanted to do a straightforward jazz record, the results would be probably be quite good.
TrackList: Sell Me This; One Good Turn; Way After Midnight; He’s the Drummer; All About the Hang; Earth Song; Daddy Long Legs; Shanghai Shuffle; Fukushima; Strollin’; Bottle and Cans; On the Runway.
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