Celebrating its ninth year, funk band Children of the Horn performed Sunday evening in Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre as a part of its MusiCoal summer concert series. Although the venue and audience were small, the band had a big sound and a variety of jazz styles. This six-piece band consisted of a close-knit group who assembled for the sole purpose of playing funk music together. There has only been one member change in nine years, and they seemed to have developed the kind of musical telepathy that is necessary to play in such a fluctuating, improvisatory style.
From the very first tune, which went unnamed, the group showed off an enthusiastic, jamming sound. Solos from guitarist Drew Lile and trombonist Robo Jones brought life to this first standard funk song with a great underlying groove. Manager, spokesperson, baritone saxophonist, and auxiliary percussionist (playing the tambourine, shaker, and vibraslap when able) Wayne Leechford introduced the band and talked up the group’s two CDs, one released in 2006 and the other in 2010-2011, which were on sale in the lobby. The next work, “Scraggle,” played in an upbeat, modern Los Angeles jazz style, was an original from their first CD. Cornet player Bryan McCune took a solo, demonstrating his double-role as an impromptu sound engineer as he used reverb and effect switches as he played. Lile answered with a technically impressive guitar solo that used almost as much reverb.
Some other original works they performed included the spooky “Skeleton Seeds,” which had much more brittle and quick rhythms than the others, “Funky John,” “Bad Dog,” and “Fu Man Chu.” These all laid a firm groundwork for the funk style that this group loves. For the layman untrained in jazz styles, it all sounded like a flowing blanket of jazz; each song was fun yet almost too similar. The improv solos were well-played, showing off the full ranges of the instruments and demonstrating good understanding of the styles and chord structures in which they were playing. My only complaint would be that I didn’t enjoy seeing so much of the performer’s backs or the tops of their heads – they didn’t seem to want to interact with the audience much, which is understandable as a group that gets together to play for their own enjoyment. One thing they did very well, though, was communicating with each other while playing about who was soloing, when they would move to a new section, or how they would end the song.
Children of the Horn members also pride themselves at reworking covers of ‘60’s and ‘70’s funk, which they showcased in their performances of “Charlie Dozen,” made famous by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and “Jan-Jan,” originally performed by Greg Greene. “Charlie Dozen” had a complicated bassline that bassist John Simonetti chose to tackle on the sousaphone, the tuba-like creature that wraps around the player’s body. He played both fretted electric bass and sousaphone interchangeably throughout the concert, depending on what kind of feel he wanted to give the bassline. The sousaphone worked particularly well for “Charlie Dozen,” adding to the funk vibe that repeated underneath a double solo from Leechford and McCune. This concert featured the debut of “Jan-Jan,” a soul jazz tune with a trombone solo and interesting flourishes from the guitar at key points.
A few gems were saved for last, rather than being mixed into the funk set to add variety and break up the style, but they were still impressive. An arrangement of Leo Parker’s “Let Me Tell You ‘Bout It” was arguably the loveliest song of the night – and the only slow ballad. The rhythm section took a break while the horns formed a quasi-brass-choir reminiscent of New Orleans hymn tunes, then interspersed solos from the cornet, sax, and trombone, while the sousaphone kept the pulse underneath. McCune gracefully led in and out of the work with gorgeous solos that showed off his tone and control of his instrument.
Following this distinctive ballad was the band’s interpretation of Klezmer music, Leechford switching from baritone to curved soprano saxophone – the “baby sax” – and leading a rapid melody that had the audience clapping. The Klezmer influences remained as the band started layering it with jazz, improvising slower jazz lines over the running bass.
The final two works were original works, one by Lile called “Political Football” that had a blues feel and a fantastic guitar solo using the full range and versatile sounds of the instrument, and “Party On!” The last piece was as energetic as its name, in a rapid tempo with an irresistible beat. Each member had a solo or small break, and Leechford showed off his auxiliary percussion skills with a well-placed vibraslap strike. Of the many electronic effects used in the concert – for nearly every player had pedals or a switchboard of some kind or another, McCune used the most. They were all very interesting and added to the overall feeling of the concert, but could have been made less obtrusive.
Children of the Horn is a band full of talented musicians who work very well together and seem to have a lot of fun. Although the programming of this concert could have been changed to add variety, it was entertaining and a great way to spend a summer evening! Children of the Horn will perform next on Saturday, August 27 at 3pm at Raleigh’s Brewgaloo. The next event in the MusiCoal program will be Ian Finley’s play Up From the Ground on October 2. Please see our calendar for details.