After years of simmering on the backburner of the Twin Cities music scene, jazz-inspired funk bands are back—and they’re bigger, louder, and groovier than ever
On a snowy day in late 1978, just a week before Thanksgiving, jazz saxophonist Morris Wilson staged a rally for working musicians on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Fed up with the dwindling opportunities for funk bands with horn sections in the Twin Cities and the rising popularity of dance music, he led a small crowd in a call to arms: “Disco is jive, bring back live!”
Up until that point, the ’70s had been a time of prosperity for saxophone, trumpet, and trombone players in the area—not to mention rhythm sections, guitarists, and any vocalist who could carry a soulful tune, especially if it was written in four-part harmony. Bands like Prophets of Peace, Band of Thieves, and Willie and the Bumblebees would take the stage with upwards of nine or 10 musicians to play sweltering funk and R&B jams with complex horn arrangements and deep grooves. It was a heady time, filled with matching leisure suits and hot summer dance parties—a period that’s been revisited recently by Secret Stash’s reissue compilation, Twin Cities Funk and Soul, and Numero Group’s Purple Snow—and by 1978, thanks to the disco dance craze and the push for venues to book DJs instead of full bands, it was all coming to an end. Disco was jive, but it was succeeding in the war against live.
Almost four decades have passed since Morris Wilson led his rally cry in the name of live music, and the Twin Cities scene has since reinvented itself, split open, spawned countless movements, and propagated dozens of micro-communities. But what is so striking about this anecdote from the late ’70s is that you can practically trace a line from that afternoon in November 1978 to right now, in this moment. Because, after years spent observing a scene dominated by synthesizers, crystalline vocal effects, and electronic wizardry, a new crop of local artists are bringing wind instruments back on stage and crafting a new style of organic, jazz-influenced funk music for the masses. And the masses are digging it.
“People are noticing,” says Cameron Kinghorn, who fronts the six-piece neo-soul band Nooky Jones and performs in several other like-minded groups around town. “You can tell that there’s a lot of people that really get down to this style of music. It makes you want to dance, and I think people want to dance.”
Nooky Jones is just one of more than a dozen jazz-influenced live bands that have popped up in the past two years in the Twin Cities. Unlike other more traditional jazz groups in town, however, these acts aren’t relegated to strictly playing jazz clubs and they aren’t drawing traditional jazz audiences. When the bands Hustle Rose, New Sound Underground, Crunchy Kids, and #MPLS play their popular “Funk on First” showcase at First Avenue on July 11, it will be the third time they’ve drawn enough young fans to fill the floor of the Mainroom.
While each band certainly puts their own spin on the genre (or genres), combining elements of hip-hop, modern R&B, and pop with Afrobeat, soul, funk, and free jazz, one common thread unites all of these groups: They’re pushing horns to the front, cranking the energy up to 11, and putting on animated, enthusiastic shows that have been sorely lacking in recent years.
“Just like fashion, popular music often changes in a cycle. Right now people are looking for something with an older, vintage, soulful sound when they go to a live show because that gives them a feeling you cannot recreate on a recording,” says David Glen. Glen is the lead singer of the party-funk band Hustle Rose, whose latest singles rival the energy and bombast of Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s Minneapolis Sound-inspired hit “Uptown Funk.” He also plays in the hip-hop-inspired live band #MPLS.
“In the past five years, EDM, DJs, laptops, and synths have been ruling the radio and festivals,” he says. “But that feeling of ‘when is the bass going to drop’ from EDM and DJ-driven shows is different than a full band with nine players performing each part. And now that recorded music has seen a huge decline in value because of accessibility and pirating, the live show means more to fans than it has in years.”
Glen says musicians from his generation were heavily influenced by artists like Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, and D’Angelo, who in turn took their cues from ’60s soul groups with big horn sections and organs. He also credits George Clinton’s enduring impact on jazz-inspired music, which can be traced through generations of hip-hop and electronic samples.
“On the bus ride to school we heard Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg’s ‘What’s My Name’ and Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger,’ but we were actually listening to music from George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’ and Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman,’” Glen notes.
Preserving this old-school aesthetic has been paramount to the success of Minneapolis soul artists like Sonny Knight and the Lakers and PaviElle, who each perform backed by eight or nine musicians. This throw-back tone is also at the heart of the most forward-thinking and inventive acts on the scene, such as the Adam Meckler Orchestra, which brings 18 musicians on a wild ride through the history of the big band era, New Orleans jazz, ’70s funk, free jazz, and hip-hop.
“Throughout the history of jazz, that’s what we’ve done: taken music that’s external to jazz and made it internal,” Meckler reflects. “John Coltrane was super into the music of India, and Miles Davis was jamming with Jimi Hendrix and with hip-hop artists in the ’80s. Jazz music is like an amalgamation. It lets everything in.”
In that sense, it’s the perfect live reaction to a wave of electronic music that’s relied heavily on smashing disparate rhythms and genres together to create new patchworks of sound. And unlike dance nights that hinge on a single person or two with a laptop to transmit energy from the stage, these bands are intent on packing as many people as possible into the spotlight to create their songs in real time.
For David Tullis, who plays congas in the Afrobeat-influenced horn band Black Market Brass, getting that many people on stage is essential to creating a live, exciting feel. “When’s the last time you saw a horn section never mess up, ever? It’s that riskiness that it could all fall apart at any given moment—but it doesn’t,” he says. “That’s what I think people are starting to latch onto again, or discover again.”
Visit thecurrent.org for episodes of Andrea Swensson’s new series, After Hours, which invites jazz and jazz-influenced musicians into the studio for a live session and interview. This month’s guest is the Adam Meckler Orchestra.
Editor’s note: This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.