Instrumental Change

The City Champs: Championing the "comeback" of the jazz age.



 

From the Dap-Tones' retro soul to Medeski, Martin & Wood's jazz-and-jam to the Bad Plus' deconstruction of pop hits, there are plenty of recent success models for virtuosic, instrumental-oriented bands. But Memphis' City Champs — Joe Restivo on guitar, Al Gamble on organ, and George Sluppick on drums — don't have to look very far for a model.

Memphis has a long history of producing notable (mostly) instrumental bands: the Bill Black Combo, the Mar-Keys, Booker T. & the MGs, Hi Rhythm. The Bo-Keys are a recent example. The City Champs — whose debut The Safecracker was created under the partial stewardship of Bo-Keys leader Scott Bomar and released via Bomar's Electraphonic label — are partly influenced by this history (especially the organ-heavy Booker T. sound) and partly by Blue Note jazz of the '60s, with plenty of other influences thrown in. >>>

"We've all got varied influences, but we were in agreement on '60s Blue Note records, Booker T., Lonnie Smith, stuff like that," Sluppick says.

"It's definitely a soul-jazz thing," says Restivo, who wrote all of the original music on The Safecracker. But Restivo also cites such influences as Afrobeat giant Fela Kuti, film-score legend Ennio Morricone, and surf-rockers the Ventures.

The three members of the City Champs come from different backgrounds: Memphis native Restivo was in high school punk and rock bands until a band teacher introduced him to Charlie Parker. He went on to get a BFA in jazz studies from the New School in New York. Gamble is a native of the musically fertile Muscle Shoals, Alabama area and is probably best known locally for fronting the popular Gamble Brothers Band with brother Chad. Sluppick was reared on Beale Street by his Blues Foundation-connected dad and toured with blues legend Albert King as a teenager before relocating to California in a career that's seen him tour internationally with — wait for it — Sha Na Na. ("I was the fifth drummer he'd gone through in two months," Sluppick remembers of touring with King.)

The trio came together in Memphis a couple of years ago. Sluppick was touring with the jam/roots band J.J. Grey & Mofro alongside Memphis sax player Art Edmaiston, who was then playing in the Gamble Brothers Band. When the Gamble Brothers Band called it quits, Edmaiston, Sluppick, and Gamble joined Restivo to form the instrumental quartet the Grip, releasing a debut EP, Grab This Thing, on Archer Records.

A potential full-length project with Archer didn't work out, and Edmaiston went back on the road with Mofro, but the remaining trio regrouped as the City Champs and hooked up with Bomar. The band recorded The Safecracker with Bomar at his Electraphonic Studio, working on vintage analog equipment and, unlike the Grip, focusing on original material.

 

The Safecracker features seven songs on its vinyl and CD editions, with three additional digital-only bonus tracks (one of them a waltz-tempo meditation on "Ol' Man River" partly inspired, Restivo says, by childhood memories of seeing the late James Hyter sing the standard at Sunset Symphonies). In addition to Restivo's originals, there's a sharp cover of Amy Winehouse's "Love Is a Losing Game."

"We think it has a timeless feel," Sluppick says of the record.

"I didn't want to do a funky band project, where we just jam," Restivo says. "That's cool, but I wanted to have a stronger melodic presence."

Though the band's debut is slated to be reviewed in Downbeat magazine, the band is curious to see how they'll be received by the modern jazz scene.

"We'll see," Restivo muses. "[What we do] is not that sophisticated. Now jazz is akin to what happened to classical music in the early 20th century. It's almost like a science project; the harmonies are very dense. That's what turns a lot of people off. It turns me off." 

Instead, the City Champs have built an audience more used to rock bands and rock clubs, honing their sound at residencies in local clubs such as the Buccaneer and the Hi-Tone. The band also supplied some music to Craig Brewer's $5 Cover project, playing a great set — alongside Bo-Keys horn players Jim Spake and Marc Franklin — as the lead band at the recent $5 Cover/MusicMemphis showcase at Austin's South by Southwest Festival.

 

Brinkley, Ark.

(and other assorted love songs)

 

Bob Frank and John Murry

(Evangeline)

Folk-scene veteran Bob Frank and relative youngster John Murry are a pair of separated-by-decades Memphis ex-pats who met when Murry moved to the San Francisco area several years ago. Two years ago, the pair joined forces for World Without End, a terrific collection of modern murder ballads based on true stories.

The pair's follow-up album, Brinkley, Ark. (And Other Assorted Love Songs), is also thematic, though less tightly knit. This collection of love songs is more personal and coheres more from a musical connection than a thematic one. Stylistically, the record leaps forward from the folk ballad tradition to the blue-eyed country soul of the '60s and '70s.

It's a surprising move, and one that helps both Frank and Murry. It pulls Frank out of his folkie comfort zone and reveals that his voice is less limited than those familiar with his previous work might have expected. Just listen to how he ably negotiates the different registers and phrasings in the smoky nightclub soul of "Night Train." 

But this setting really underscores and expands Murry's talents in ways that World Without End didn't. Literary, old-timey, and dark — World Without End was a comfort-zone of a sort for Murry as well, though he (and Frank) were able to explode the gothic costume-party limitations others have found in the murder-ballad genre. But this record takes Murry into more organic, more personal places. 

Once a Jay Farrar doppelganger vocally, here Murry's grown into a voice both lighter and wilder. He sounds more like the Band's Rick Danko, and the blues/soul roots of the music fits the comparison as well.

Overall, Brinkley, Ark. is less impressive on the surface than World Without End (that "assorted" in the subtitle is truth in advertising), but might prove to be a more durable listen.

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