GREYBOY ALLSTARS – What Happened To Television?

This third studio set from The Greyboy Allstars is a gem.  DJ Greyboy and his collective give you eleven slabs of acid jazz and funk of a timeless quality.  Meshing the late sixties chic of James Brown, with a dash of seventies attitude and the nineties revivalism of Brand New Heavies and Galliano, ‘What Happened To Television?’ is an album that’s near impossible to dislike.

The title cut demonstrates everything that’s great about Greyboy and his all-star crew, hitting a groove which feels like classic late 60s funk, but beneath that, often has a playfulness evoking the quirks of 1970s incidental music from Sesame Street.  While the drum lays a more than pleasing easy shuffle incut with busy fills, and the Grant Green inspired guitar leads carry most of the tune, Robert Walter’s organ contributions shouldn’t be overlooked.  Beneath the more obvious elements, he’s there almost permanently beneath everything laying down some solid foundations with his Hammond. ‘Left Coast Boogaloo’ is equally tight.  A jazzy guitar groove from Elgin Park paves the way for some excellent interplay between Walter and Karl Denson on sax.  It’s a little softer all round than ‘Whatever Happened To TV?’, though still far too busy to ever be lumped in with any lounge jazz, despite the fluid smoothness of the brass elements.  The over-riding feel is that of a fantastic acid jazz band.  The guitars lean towards more muted chords and wah-wah pedals, but the brass and organ more than fill the arrangement, never faltering.  That’s not to say the piece doesn’t give Park much to do – his featured solo is just as superb as his playing had been on the title cut.

‘Still Waiting’ really hits the mark, and with its use of Marva Whitney/James Brown styled beats, it’s a number which refuses to let the listener go from the outset.  Here, with tight rhythms, courtesy of drummer Zak Najor and bassist Chris Stillwell – coupled with more excellent Hammond B-3 work – that The Allstars really hit their stride.  The addition of a vocal gives The Allstars an extra dimension, but it’s not essential; this hard-edged tune could have provided as many thrills as an instrumental workout.  Better still is the fantastically busy ‘Old School Cylons’ which marries hard beats and a little DJ scratching with classic sounding acid jazz flutes and funk drumming to create something which could have been lifted from Jamiroquai’s ‘Return of The Space Cowboy’ release.  If you’re into either the more jam-oriented side of acid jams or have a passing fancy for those Beastie Boys funk instrumentals, chances are you’ll love this.  Topped off with a busy flute solo, it’s one of the album’s real winners.

For harder old-school funk, ‘Knowledge Room’ has fewer smooth edges.  Its hard drumming brings some very off kilter rhythms against which Walter channels jazz organ greats of the sixties.  Once again, Denson’s flutes take a somewhat dominant role, managing to blend their soft, effortless patterns against drumming which can, at times, be pretty intrusive.  These hard edges – at times bording on a jazz rock freakout – naturally work better once the sax steps into the spotlight.  The brass wanders a fine line between improvisation and pre-planned playing, lending an atmosphere reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s 1967 jazz-fusion masterpiece ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’.    Similarly in the old-school, the bones of ‘V Neck Sweater’ showcase a love for James Brown, featuring a sassy organ line, some very rhythmic guitars and a rousing voice which calls to the crowd.  Throw in some parpy baritone saxes – and a rather parpier solo – and you have a track that’s lots of fun and always expertly delivered, even if it doesn’t always equal the Allstars at their compositional best.

Although throughout most of this disc Elgin Park’s guitar work moves between Grant Green-esque softness and just plain understated, for ‘Back In The Game’ he gets a little more time in the spotlight and turns in a very commendable guitar solo, slightly more angular than his playing elsewhere.  Despite this, it’s both Walter and Denson which appear to drive the piece, exchanging riffs which are simple, but totally right for the mood.  Across five minutes, this track rarely breaks from its initial groove, but the organ flourishes and occasional flute loops maintain listener interest with such ease.  While there’s a huge array of talent on show within Greyboy’s chosen Allstars, in many ways both Walter and Denson are the real stars of this album.

Midway through the disc, the band launch into a cover of jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson’s ‘How Glad I Am’ featuring three-part harmony vocals supplied by Eleni Mandell, Inara George [of The Bird and The Bee] and Becky George [of Lavender Diamond].  The older style jazz doesn’t appear to blend in with the other chosen tunes on first listening, but subsequent spins prove this to have plenty of charm.  The harmonies aren’t always as smooth as they could have been, largely due to Mandell having such a distinctive tone – one which doesn’t blend well with others – but despite this, it’s still fun.  Musically, the band appears more than up to the task, with Zak Najor’s drums taking the lead.

Released almost a decade after ‘A Town Called Earth’, this really raises the bar in comparison to the Allstars’ previous couple of outings and marks a more than welcome return.  With nothing which could be remotely considered filler material, fans of funk – particularly those keen on stuff with acid jazz leanings – will find this an indispensible disc.

January 2010/December 2011