When I introduce one of my friends to Vulfpeck, I tell them that if they want to fully comprehend the music, they should listen to Stuff. Stuff was essentially piano-driven, danceable funk; a ’70s project of pianist Richard Tee. Propelled by a tightly wound rhythm section, Stuff was said to exude kinetic musical energy that had been missing since the departure of mid-century Harlem Swing Bands. Stuff proved itself to be a collaboration of the best session musicians in the biz, and soon was sought after to record with the likes of Aretha, John Lennon, and Joe Cocker.
On Thrill of the Arts, Vulfpeck’s first full-length LP, primary composers Jack Stratton and Woody Goss diversify the Stuff model and supplement with Joe Dart’s turbocharged bass, which prominently features in lines and fills. The first track, “Welcome to Vulf Records”, draws heavily from Richard Tee’s sound, leading off with a characteristically bright piano, but quickly veers in a more compositionally sophisticated direction. Intricately crafted with concise movements and Zappa-esque vibraphone fills, this short track is a surge of Richard Tee meets the Mothers of Invention. The piece comes to a close with a slowed-down version of Outro, recorded once again with punchy saxophone by Joey Dosik (pronounced Dah-sik), and finishes with the Vulf Records coda; a reward for the loyal fan.
Rather than waiting for a modern-day Aretha to invite them into the studio, Vulf is bringing in their own rotating cast of vocalists. Theo Katzman sings on “Back Pocket“ with co-author Christine Hucal, as well as on “Christmas in L.A.“ (this marks its third Vulf release in some form). Both of these are essentially Stratton-ized pop songs. Straying from piano-driven funk, “Back Pocket” is more stripped down, focused on vocals and sustained by Joe Dart and the percussion. And as a pop song, it could equally turn out soulless or grooving; the rhythm section makes or breaks it. In many ways, Dart’s bass and Mark Dover’s closing clarinet trio are what makes “Back Pocket” work for me.
This album also includes a long-awaited repeat performance by soul/gospel singer Antwaun Stanley, whose melodic flexibility and range are unmatched. Finally they give him a straight funk track. “Funky Duck“, a title reminiscent of Rufus Thomas, bears a combination of low-down dirty funk and smooth vocals that reminds me of Stevie’s “Do Yourself A Favor“. While Antwaun does not have the opportunity to croon in the way he has on past Vulf releases, his fills and scatting during the song’s hook demonstrate a virtuosic combination of vocal strength, smoothness, and range. Get him in the band full time.
Another strong track is “Game Winner”, a Joey Dosik tune that is masterfully re-recorded with Charles Jones’ earnest gospel vocals (and Fender Rhodes). Jones’ major claim to fame is that he has performed with neo-soul star Raphael Saadiq. “Game Winner” also features Dosik on piano and background vocals, as well as Motown guitarist David T. Walker (played guitar on the Jacksons’ “ABC”). This one could go big. To quote Freshest Clams’ founder Jacob Diskin, “This is baby-making music.”
My favorite track on the album is “Conscious Club”. It sounds to me like Nile Rodgers and Richard Tee teamed up to turn “Square Biz” into a gospel exercise tape. This upbeat disco-like tune features conga drumming by Richie Rodriguez, who performed with Tito Puente and was a former instructor of band member Theo Katzman. This is also a standout track for Joe Dart. An “instrumental” version, this song will be getting lyrics in a future release.
Thrill of the Arts is the most advanced and musically diverse of Vulfpeck’s releases thus far. They dabble in soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, jazz, funk, disco. In their debut LP, Vulfpeck affirms their role as the amuse bouche of eclectic piano-driven funk. These songs have all the technicality and innovation of a jazz fusion performance, packaged into concise, easily digestible tracks that leave you wanting more. Every song ends so abruptly, pregnant with the extended jam that you can almost anticipate. Catch it on their next tour.
The fourth track is a minimalist remake of “Rango“ from their first EP, featuring biting slide guitar by Blake Mills, and perhaps a vocoder at the climax of his solo. “Walkies” is a short burst of classic Vulf funk, a more compact Speedwalker with barking dogs. “Smile Meditation” is a low-key groove with Tyler Duncan on whistle. It sounds like someone in the band was on a smooth jazz kick, maybe spent a little too much time on 107.3 The Wave.
The album closes with Mushy Krongold’s ode to guided meditation and flatulence. This is not the same side of Mushy we have seen in the past, promoting Shabbos (his way) and blowing the shofar at Beth Am’s alternative children’s service. Perhaps Mushy is toning down the religiosity for his first Vulfpeck crossover.