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The Graham Album Review #2123

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Lettuce: Unify

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/27/2022)

Like so many styles from decades past, funk music has been experiencing a notable revival, with a number of groups carrying on the style more or less originated by James Brown in the 1960s, and developed by groups like Parliament and Funkadelic, Tower of Power and some of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s recordings. More recent bands include the Motet, the New York Funk Exchange, OtiS a band who appeared on WVIA’s Homegrown Music series, and interestingly, a number of bands from Europe, include Redtenbacher’s Funkestra from the UK and Beat Funktion from Sweden.

This week we have a new release by an American band who are marking their 20th year together with a new release. The group is Lettuce, and their new eighth studio album is called Unify.

Lettuce was formed in 1992 in Boston by then teenagers involved with a high-school music program of the Berklee College of Music. They went separate ways, but reunited while they were Berklee undergrads, and while looking for venues to perform, often going into jazz clubs they would ask “let us play,” which gave rise to their name Lettuce. Over the years, the band has performed and recorded part time, with most of the members being active as studio and backing musicians for people like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, jazz guitarist John Scofield and Wyclef Jean. The mostly instrumental group has seen a degree of commercial success, with their 2015 album Crush reaching the top of the Billboard jazz charts.

The title of the new album Unify was inspired by the separation of band members from each other and from audiences, caused by the pandemic. Drummer Adam Deitch also cited the political divide in the country as a reason to unify. The other members of the sextet include Ryan Zoidis on sax, Adam Smirnoff on guitar, Erick Coomes on bass, Nigel Hall on keyboards and vocals, and Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom on trumpet. Their years together have given the group the solid rhythmic tightness that makes their brand of funk so danceable. Most of the compositions on the new album are instrumental, but there are some vocals, usually with positive lyrical message. One of the vocals features a guest appearance by Parlimemnt/Funkadelc bassist Bootsy Collins. But most of the album is self-contained by the band, who were glad to get together in person for the recording. They made the album in Denver, where they recorded their two previous albums. And part of this generous, 70-minute release consists of tracks the band recorded for their previous albums which were not used at the time.

The musicianship is first-rate, with the band’s funky tightness and infectious grooves being apparent from the get-go. The grooves are the main focus of the album, so they are not strong on melodic lines or hummable tunes. But the music is virtually guaranteed to get you moving. The material runs from fairly extended funk jams to three little 30-second bits they call ‘Ludes for interludes.

Opening the 16-track album is a kind of classic funk groove-based tune called RVA Dance which highlights the group’s horns. <<>>

The track featuring the guest appearance by Bootsy Collins is Keep That Funk Alive. Collins imparts his Parliament-Funkadelic beat with lyrics that do tend to make their point. <<>>

A track called Hawk’s Claw has a vaguely mysterious quality while keeping it danceable. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the more optimistic tunes on the album is Everything’s Gonna Be Alright. It’s a vocal tune that embodies the thoughts behind the album’s title “Unify.” <<>>

Some tunes provide opportunities for extended solos by the members. Trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom is featured on a track called The Lock. <<>>

[A piece called Vaminos has a kind of mutant Latin sound in one of the more interesting arrangements on the album. <<>>]

Another of the vocals with a decidedly retro sound, both musically and lyrically is Change the World which is also another great danceable track. <<>>

Evoking the kind of funk in the James Brown tradition is Gravy Train which shows how rhythmically tight Lettuce can be, which also keeping it interesting by adding little twists to the groove. <<>>

A definite highlight of the album is Get It Together also with a classic sound both musically and lyrically, with great playing and a rhythmic groove with surprising complexity. <<>>

Funk has never really left the scene since the early 1970s. It has taken different forms, and was integrated into the hip-hop scene. But there are a good number of bands who serve up music in the classic sound, with real drums, minimal electronics and tight musicianship. Lettuce, on their new release Unify hits all the right buttons, with great playing, engaging tunes, and thoroughly danceable rhythmic grooves. As has been the case for a number of artists, the pandemic, and its aftermath, provided part of the inspiration for the album. In this case, celebrating the chance to get together again.

Sonically, we’ll give the album close to an “A” for a clean, punchy sound with a good mix that keeps everything in perspective.

If you have been a long time fan of funk, or are just rediscovering the classic styles, this is a good time with several outstanding groups active on the scene. And one of the best is Lettuce, something underscored on their new album Unify.

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