Groove Duke Nailin’ It From Jump Street
For those not fluent in the Lingua Franca da Cornu, or, the way horn players talk, the term Jump Street means from the top, at the beginning, right off the bat, from the left, immediately. For example, if a jazz trumpeter were to say “I knew the skirt made change from jump street.” his friends would understand that, in his opinion, the girl in question was a known purveyor of sexual commerce from the very beginning. There, that should clarify the title, but more about Groove Duke and the “IT” being nailed in a moment.
There was a time when recordings, really good recordings, were being made by really good people as a matter of routine. These recording projects came in under budget, everybody usually got paid and if they were successful, there might have been a little $omething on the back end. This was back in the days before iPods. Audio-philogically it was the Cro-Magnon era of monophonic AM radio. The mono 45 rpm record is to the mp3 as cave painting is to CGI. A friend of mine has an old Chrysler with the original tube radio and I have to say man, old-school R&B popping out the top of that single dashboard speaker still gets the hairs on my neck up and dancing.
So now, here we are in the summer of 2010. Recording budgets have become somewhat of an oddity on display in the history museum. The skill set of composing and recording digital music is approaching that of virtual Playstation auto theft with the results being a fairly accurate representation of the circumstances under which the crime was committed. Okay, that’s a bit strong, but there can be no argument that, under the heading of of self-produced recording projects, there exists a lot of crappy music parading under false pretenses.
Out of this fog and into the harbor sails the Heavy Mariner. This freshman release from Chicago’s own Groove Duke, Mark Alan Cornell, has somehow managed to corral a cracking ensemble of living, breathing musicians, singers, technical personnel and other mercenaries for next to nothing to produce a body of work that does exactly what a horn-driven R&B album should do…it makes you smile.
Groove Duke provides plenty to love for everyone on this album. The horn arrangements are tightly written and performed and the solo playing eloquently serves the songs rather than the players egos, a welcome element and the benchmark of experienced road warriors. The Rhythm Section, capitalized out of respect to the album personnel, is a heaving beast of groove. There is nothing mechanical about this band. The true test of any Rhythm section is a slow shuffle and the depth of feel in You Better Believe It is like being tied to a chair next to a sleeping Rhinoceros. The back beat pops at the last possible instant and what seems to be a groovy little tune is actually quite sinister under the shiny facade. And let me say something about sounds. I’ve spent hours watching engineers trying to get rid of a snare drum ping. But wait til you check out Judas Love. A ping never felt so right. From the single, Stick Boy right down the line, the Rhythm Section kicks the rest of the band square in the ass and handing in a less-than-my-best-stuff performance doesn’t seem to be an option for anyone.
But let me get to what makes this album really work in the tradition of classic R&B records. Instrumentals are great and who can’t find love in their heart for Squib Cakes, Home Cookin’ and What Does It Take. But the ultimate connection with an audience happens at the vocal mic. That’s where the story unfolds, that’s where the guts get spilled, that’s where all the joy, pain, faith and details are put on display for everyone to see and hear. And it is at the vocal mic that this album makes its boldest statement. Pauli Carman, the voice, heart and soul behind Champaign’s How ‘Bout Us produced the background vocals so it will come as no shock that they are stellar in every way. The arrangements are classic and familiar without being trite and Cornell’s stories couldn’t be told without the marvelous interplay so characteristic of great R&B vocal ensembles.
Mark Cornell’s singing chops are deceptively musical. While he isn’t Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Donald Fagan, Sly Stone or even Wayne Cochran, his original dialect is derivative of a massive hit singles collection. But it isn’t beauty of tone in the usual sense that make Cornell’s vocals compelling. Cornell is first and foremost a musician in general and a trumpet player in particular, a combination that has proven both interesting and successful in the past. Witness Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Jack Sheldon for example. Of the three, only Baker had what most would consider a pleasing voice in the strictest terms, but all three are masterful singers who get the point across on a most intimate level. Accomplished Jazz musicians have a sense of intonation, time and phrasing rare even in the best golden-throated vocalists. Cornell is cut from the same whole cloth and when he tells you a story you listen and believe. Sometimes he’s the guy across the bar and sometimes he’s sneering menacingly into your ear as in the afore-mentioned You Better Believe It. His emotions run from zero to sixty but he is always consistently “That Guy” and you just want to hear more.
Which brings me to my only real issue with this album. Does Mark Cornell see himself as a trumpet player who sings or as a singer who plays trumpet? There is never a moment on the album where I say to myself, “Damn, I wish that trumpet was louder.” I can’t say the same for the lead vocals. There are sections where the background vocals, excellent as they are, could step back a few feet from the front of the stage. But I can’t blame them because it feels as if Cornell is having an “I’m really just a trumpet guy doing the best I can.” moment. I got news for you Mr. Cornell. You’re busted! No matter what you think, you sing your ass off so step up and accept a 5dB boost in the mix for your bad self.
Getting back to the craft of making records that sound and, more importantly, feel good, Heavy Mariner kicks the hell out of some projects costing a boatload of money. Everyone involved with this record knew exactly what they were doing and did it well. It sounds like just a good time weekend in the studio with a bunch of pals but anyone in the know will tell you how much is involved in an album like this.
Heavy Mariner from Groove Duke started out as a Sellaband project but Mark Cornell made it happen on his own. Above all, the album makes you smile. Yeah, there is the obligatory instrumental to open the show. But my face started cracking open about halfway through the drum fill that starts I Get The Picture and I was a stepping, grinning mess for the duration.
Get yourself a copy, go find someone with an old mono sound system, preferably in the dashboard of a mid-sixties chrome-encrusted land-yacht and roll the windows down. Just don’t forget to floss because you’re gonna to be grinnin’. The “IT” is old school R&B and Groove Duke is nailin’ it right from Jump Street.