Is there any term in contemporary music more mercurial, more undisciplined, than the seemingly ubiquitous jamband? What the hell is a jamband, anyway? The moniker evokes an image of a set of musicians gathered onstage to, well…jam, I suppose, as in “boy, those guys were really jamming last night,” or “man, those guys can really jam.”
And what is the etymological root of jamband? Is it jam as in jelly, a spreadable substance sometimes tart and sometimes tangy, messy and sticky, perhaps anchored by chunks of mashed fruit? Is it jam as in traffic jam, the ill-advised attempt to cram way too many things through a space ill-equipped to handle them? Or is it, as Webster’s notes in a slang definition, “to improvise freely, esp. in jam session”?
The obvious answer may seem the slang option, a term coined to describe the free-flowing, extended instrumentals performed by jazz experimenters beginning in the ’40s and ’50s. But that option feeds the perception of these bands as aimless noodlers, musicians who play in a “jamband” because they haven’t the discipline or gumption to figure out a style for themselves. And if you’ve ever been in the presence of such a band, it can be enough to make you pine for a traffic jam, far away from the senseless onslaught of mishmash coming from the formless posers on stage.
So I would posit that a jamband worth seeing is one that embodies the jelly aspect of jam, sticky like love juice, tart and tangy, chunky enough to satisfy the most groove-starved of music-goers. And the San Francisco-based Vinyl is as jellied a jamband as I’ve heard in a long time.
Vinyl comes to Missoula packing kudos of all sorts, from performances as Phil Lesh’s backing band to a show with the legendary Meters in New Orleans to a prestigious Bay-area “Wammie” award to inclusion in the top 25 of jamband.com’s national poll. Vinyl’s own literature presents the band as a blend of “old-school funk, Latin percussion, reggae and R & B,” a mishmash of influences that, thanks to the interplay between the band’s eight highly skilled members, results in a sound much tighter than its origins suggest.
Vinyl has released three independent records, 1997’s eponymous debut and last year’s Flea Market, both studio efforts, and 1998’s Live at Sweetwater. The octet is grounded heavily in the rhythm section, with Geoff Vaughan on bass and Alexis Razon on drums, and the Onorato brothers divvying up duties on bongos, congas, timbales, etc. Billy Frates’ scorching lead guitar shares front-time with Doug Thomas on sax and flute, and Danny Cao is a song-stealer with some serious chops on trumpet. Anchoring them all, and a vital component of any band claiming even a solitary genetic strand of funk, is Jonathan Korty and his nitro-powered Hammond Organ.
“Morse Code,” from the live album, is fine example of the funk underpinnings of Vinyl’s sound. It’s a bass- and percussion-fueled number, with strong leads taken on trumpet and sax before it dissolves into a screaming guitar solo backed by Korty’s percolating, staccato strokes on the Hammond.
“Night Ride” shows the band’s versatility, beginning with a smooth jazz groove elevated by the sweet tones of Cao’s muted trumpet prior to blastoff into a reggae beat highlighted by alternating leads on horns and guitar. More of the band’s flexibility is on display in “Last Camel to Vegas,” with a swanky Latin beat providing a base for some slow, raunchy trumpet work before the tune morphs into a high-charged sax number and then back again to swank central, this time with a dose of flamenco flavor from Frates’s guitar. It’s dizzying stuff, the leaping of genres in a single bound, but Vinyl’s relentless rhythm section keeps everything grounded to an ass-shaking constant.
This one’s bound to be a hot, vinyl-and-jelly type of affair, folks, exactly the sort of thing to spread all over a dark November’s eve.