Occasionally, innovative improvisation seizes the stage of the music industry, breaking the boring and predictable rhythm of monotony with something refreshing and new. Decades ago, DJ Gilles Peterson dug through crates of vinyl to sample ’70s jazz, soul and funk grooves at a British nightclub, sparking a new subgenre: acid jazz, loosely defined as jazz mixed with funk, soul, hip-hop, electronic and disco, with beats and bass at the forefront.
“Jazz has seen many transformations over the years: bebop, hard-bop, traditional, smooth, soul, swing, free, funk, fusion and, yes, acid,” says Chad Fox, radio host for KSDS Jazz 88.3. “It’s not in what some people may call its traditional form, but that’s the beauty of jazz — it doesn’t have to be.”
Throughout the late ’80s and into the ’90s, DJs and musicians collaborated live, putting bands like The Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai in demand and on rotation. Percussionists imitated the beats of mix masters and paired it with jazz chords, soul grooves and funk bass lines. To this day, this fusion music plays loud throughout Europe, but the “acid jazz movement” isn’t exactly making it on to Top 40 playlists.
“Acid jazz is a past term,” says Karl Denson. “It was recognized in the media when it was new and fresh, but its time is now over.” Denson, the vocalist, saxophonist and founding member of jazz prodigy ensembles Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, calls his sound “deliciously funky soul” and infuses some tracks with Afro-beats, sitar strums and surreal psychedelic production touches. Though Denson has met success — playing saxophone alongside Lenny Kravitz, recording multiple albums and booking a national tour (including two nights in LA later this month) — today’s opportunity for acid jazz artists to find fame beyond niche audiences is rare.
“Most genres of music had their spotlight in the time period they were constructed,” says Fox. “Acid jazz kind of falls into that underground category. Most people just prefer what’s hot and happening today.”
Well, acid jazz may be underground, but it’s hot. And happening. Today. If you look for it. Here’s who to watch out for and how to witness their mind-tripping music the way it was meant to be: live.
Pocket, a reincarnation of the acid jazz band The Price of Dope, shares in the frustrations of the genre’s invisibility.
With a mix of funk grooves revolving around rhythm and drenched in soul and jazz, Pocket prides its sound on thriving without a singer. “Acid jazz or soul jazz are not genres that people search out,” says the band. “Most people want a singer and lyrics they can relate to. Picture James Brown’s band without James Brown, totally funky and playing their asses off.” So what do they bring onstage instead?
“Being one of the few bands stupid enough to haul around a 1954 Hammond Organ gives us a secret ingredient that most definitely complements our sound, used in hopes to try and reproduce the sound from the soul/funk bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s,” says the band. Noted by the San Diego Music Awards multiple times and selected for a Nike commercial featuring LeBron James, Pocket has dragged its organ to Anthology, 4th & B, Belly Up Tavern and The Casbah, and plays at Bar Pink on the second Friday of each month.
Chuck Walker Trio
Sticking to the classic elements of acid jazz, the Chuck Walker Trio relies on its jazz improvisation to bring out the funky break beats that are signature of the subgenre. “Our sound reaches out and connects with in-the-pocket drum grooves, thick bass thumps and lush guitar lines,” says Chuck Walker. “The ability of the drums, bass and guitar to combine and create an improvisational platform for the soloist to play over is what the Chuck Walker Trio creatively explores every time we step on the stage.” Currently recording their first album, the trio performs at Prohibition in the Gaslamp Quarter every Friday night.
Jesse Molloy answers to narrow mediums by adapting through collaborations and exploring new niches. Playing saxophone and doubling on rhythm guitar and vocals, he’s shared the stage with Earth, Wind and Fire and Ozomatli. He’s won the San Diego Music Award for Best Jazz Album in 2007 with his acid jazz band, On the One, and he just wrapped a tour with The Pink Floyd Experience. “My sound is a work in progress, all the time,” says Molloy. “My new project, Crush Effect, is a live-electronic-producers-mixed-with-saxophone-keys-and-drums-type sound.” Crush Effect blends Molloy’s acid jazz aesthetic with trip-hop and dubstep, a blend featured at The Office bar, W Hotel and Andaz this past New Year’s Eve.
Is acid jazz “dropped?” Not unless these local musicians stop grooving in lounges, speakeasies, bars and nightclubs. “You can dance to our music,” says Pocket. “And we love it when you do.”
All That Jazz
Keep an eye out for acid jazz acts coming to these joints ...
548 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter | prohibitionsd.com
El Dorado Cocktail Lounge
1030 Broadway, Downtown San Diego | 619.237.0550 | eldoradobar.com
3829 30th Street, North Park | 619.564.7194 | barpink.com
200 Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego | 858.270.7467 | dizzysjazz.com
1337 India Street, Little Italy | 619.595.0300 | anthologysd.com