The legendary entertainment machine Kool & The Gang always knew how get the party started and never veered far from their solid "funk formula" — a strong 4/4 beat with a warm groove, thumping 'n' melodic bass line, smooth harmonies, and peppery brass work.
"That's what we tried to keep with this project," says bassist and co-founding member Robert "Kool" Bell. "We've been trying to maintain that signature sound, whether it's J.T. Taylor or our new singer. The music was always there before we had singers [laughs]. I always like to lay back with the drummer and keyboard player. That's where the groove is at — back there with the drummer. You gotta stick together."
Kool & The Gang last visited Charleston for an outdoor concert at Patriots Point during the opening ceremonies for the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. They were loud and tight and totally fired up.
Their newly-released 16-song collection sounds just as solid and energetic. Still Kool, the band's first studio outing since 1996's State of Affairs, is remarkably smooth and crisp. For the sessions, the Gang joined forces with 23-year-old vocalist Jirmad Gordon (a friend and collaborator with Bell's son, Hakim Bell). "We knew Jirmad was a dynamite singer, but we thought at first he might be a little too young to sing for the band," Bell says. "But when he came into the studio with us, he really rose to the challenge.
"We've come full circle and are now situated to pull from a vast number of our experiences," he adds. "This album speaks the languages of jazz, funk, rock, R&B, ballads, and kountry with a 'k.' ... We ventured into a little more rock with some extra guitar tracks ... a little more rock than we initially planned!"
While best known for their disco-tinged pop hits "Ladies Night," "Celebration," and "Get Down On It," as well as the Top-40 pop hits "Fresh," "Joanna," and "Cherish," Kool & The Gang actually started out playing instrumental jazz-fusion in the '60s. They went through various names — The New Dimensions, The Soul Town Band, Kool & The Flames — before settling on The Jazziacs. Based just outside the Big Apple in Jersey City, N.J., they changed the name to Kool & The Gang in 1969 and started jamming toward a brassy style of funk and jazz more in line with James Brown's heavy stuff, Motown's shadowy rhythm section The Funk Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, The Meters, and Miles Davis.
Over the next three decades, Kool & The Gang won two Grammy Awards and sold over 70 million albums. Their 1973 album Wild and Peaceful put them at the top when the single "Funky Stuff" became their first Top-40 hit. Chart-toppers "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" followed.
"We worked on what we used to call the Chitlin' Circuit, although I hate to use those words now," remembers Bell. "We got out there and played in clubs and dives and developed our craft on the road, just like James Brown's band, The Meters, Johnny Taylor's band, and all those guys. You don't see that kind of thing as much today."
The band released a few compilation albums in recent years, including The Best of Kool & The Gang (on Mercury's 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection series), and the two-disc set Hits Reloaded, comprised of "reloaded hits" featuring guest performances by Lisa Stansfield, Ashanti, Jamiroquai, and some early live recordings of the Jazziacs live at the Kool Jazz Café.
Currently four of the founding members of the Gang are still groovin' together — Robert Bell, sax players Ronald Bell (Robert's brother, a.k.a. Khalis Bayyan) and Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas, and drummer George Brown. Sadly, in June, 2006, co-founder/guitarist Claydes "Charles" Smith died at the age of 57 after battling a prolonged illness.
Despite the loss of a musical brother, the latest ensemble maintain the positive vibe. And they still understand the main ingredients necessary for a great funk tune.
"I would say that the drummer and the bass player start the foundation of the funk," says Bell. "Then you have your horn section. A lot of our stuff was instrumental back in the '70s, so we just laid down the groove, like on 'Funky Man' or 'Funky Stuff.' My brother and the horn section with their riffs were like our singers at that time. You know, the rhythm section can't get too busy. A lot of bass players with the five-strings and eight-strings, playing all over the place ... to me, you just got to lay in the pocket. If you get too busy, you lose the funk. Like George Clinton used to say, I'll lay the funk on the one and on the one and lock it in." —T. Ballard Lesemann