Back in 1990, a few years before neo-soul exploded, it was all about acid jazz, a fresh style made by young people whose musical sensibilities hearkened back to the pulsating period when jazz, soul and folk were “more real.” In England, acid jazz artists like Galliano and Young Disciples were being glam in the glossy pages of The Face and I-D while their American counterparts were still struggling for their breakout moment. The North American acid jazz scene was eventually brought together by New York City-based promoters/managers Maurice Bernstein and Jonathan Rudnick, who founded Giant Step in the early 1990s.
Launching their influential Groove Academy events and parties in 1990 with the slogan, “Dedicated to the preservation of Funk,” Bernstein and Rudnick assembled Afro soul fiends, dusty fingered crate diggers, hip-hop b-people, be-bop folks, electric funkateers and acoustic instrumentalists in one room. While their old school shows at S.O.B.’s featured luminaries including the late Gil Scott-Heron, the Ohio Players and Maceo Parker, the parties were the bohemian equivalent of jiggy where the vibe was laidback and pleasant.
Usually hanging at these events with friends, including photographer Alice Arnold who captured countless images from the affairs, or drifting through solo, I recall seeing Guru from Gang Starr chilling with Neneh Cherry, Caron Wheeler sipping wine with the Jungle Brothers, and the notorious writer and scenester Bonz Malone dropping street knowledge as DJ Smash played an obscure James Brown track. In addition, their weekly jams became the launching pad for the next school of racially diverse soul kids the Brand New Heavies, Groove Collective and Repercussions. Running as far as they could from the then-popular new jack swing sound that dominated the radio thanks to artists like Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and L.A. & Babyface, these bands were on a shared mission to return to the “realness” of music making.
On stage in the crowded Union Square club Metropolis, where the air was always cigarette and blunt smoky, these artists claimed their sonic territory with memorable performances. All were cool, sharp and soulful, and eventually signed to major label deals. But while the acid jazz groups were a precursor to platinum-selling analog loving artists D’Angelo and Erkyah Badu, their own records stalled in the stores and at radio, with the Brand New Heavies the only ones able to escape cult status and become major stars. Meanwhile, Repercussions, led by powerhouse Brooklyn-reared vocalist Nicole Willis, should’ve been next in line, but something happened to derail these plans.
After releasing the first ever single on upstart label Mo’ Wax, the jittery dance track “Promise” (1992) that fused James Brown pacing with elements of jazz and salsa, Repercussions signed an album deal with Warner Brothers. In 1995, their terrific debut Earth and Heaven, overseen by Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, featured stellar sidefolks including newcomer keyboardist Mark Batson (currently a member of Dr. Dre’s musical army) and Luther Vandross’ backup singers Robin Clark and Fonzi Thornton. Sporting a cute kid with an Afro album cover photo, the album featured vibrant songs “Promise Me Nothing” and “Love Like the Sun” that should have penetrated radio airwaves. But instead, as JazzTimes writer Tom Terrell reported in 1997, the album “got lost in marketing black holes and internal politics.” The follow-up release Charmed Life (1997) didn’t fare much better and the group eventually disbanded.
In 2005, Willis, who some critics have compared to Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones although she was making records a decade before either of them, relocated to Finland, joined forces with a crew of funky palefaces calling themselves The Soul Investigators and released the nitty gritty LP Keep Reachin’ Up. The title track was a favorite of President Barack Obama (it featured on his Spotify playlist during the 2012 campaign) and the moody noirish “No One’s Going to Love You,” which critic Zeth Lundy described as, “a six-minute potboiler of slow-motion tension and minor-key R&B,” later thrilled viewers of TV crime drama Ray Donovan. Ten years after their debut, Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators have released their third album Happiness In Every Style, which shines like a bright light compared to the dark room that was their second album, the aptly titled Tortured Soul (2013).
While that disc relished a spooky southern sensibility that had Willis sounding like Ann Peebles on the tracks “On the East Side” and “Delete My Number,” Happiness opens with the upbeat “One in a Million” and tries to sustain that energy throughout the duration of the song suite. There are a few detours onto Maudlin Road, as heard on the reflective “Where Are You Now” and the no-good man subject of “Thief in the Night,” but most of the electrifying tracks including “Let’s Communicate” and the first single “Paint Me in a Corner” take you right back to finger-snapping mode.
“Let’s Communicate,” my favorite song on the album, is a risk-taking funk jam filled with unexpected changes, a crazy drum solo and a horn section that sounds like big-band JBs. Everything I love about Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators can be heard on that track, most notably their willingness to take risks while also paying homage to their musical heroes. Be it James Brown or John Barry, as can be experienced on the cinematic weirdo pop of “Together We Climb” with its spy flick feel and organist Ante Määttänen closing with an amazing solo, they know the rules of tradition, but have no problems coloring outside the lines.
On “Bad Vibrations,” Willis is confident enough to chill and let the band bring the heat on the doozy instrumental that has the wah-wah appeal of a lost blaxploitation soundtrack. Flutist Jimi Tenor, who is Willis’ husband, plays with a fierce, fluid style that would make Bobbi Humphrey and Herbie Mann mighty proud. “Paint Me in a Corner,” their dynamic first single, contains lyrical philosophy that essentially says, “I won’t subscribe to your expectations, so leave me alone to do my thing.” With all of its vintage jazzy-soul smarts, Happiness In Every Style challenges the listener while still having a sonic appeal that will have you dancing in your chair, singing loudly in the shower, or playing air instruments for an invisible audience.
Notable Tracks: “Bad Vibrations” | “Let’s Communicate” | “Where Are You Now”