AWARD-WINNING AARON WHITBY DELIVERS HIS DEBUT AS BANDLEADER WITH FUNK, FUSION, AND PROG ON ‘COUSIN FROM ANOTHER PLANET’ (ALBUM REVIEW)
London-born, current Brooklyn resident Aaron Whitby handles too many roles to fit in a convenient headline, so we’ll lead with his credits as producer, composer, songwriter, pianist, engineer and educator. Cousin From Another Planet (Ropeadope) is Whitby’s debut as bandleader, and appropriately enough, it is on the progressive Ropeadope label. It’s a mash-up of funk, fusion, and prog , sure to please fusion and jam-band aficionados. His bold piano playing is often front and center as he draws from classic jazz and fusion with echoes from his many years of working in R&B, Pop, Folk, and World. Whitby composed seven of the eight selections, the other from Herbie Hancock’s “The Eye of the Hurricane 2.0.”
We’re not about to catalog all the people that Whitby has worked with but he is best known for his work with longtime collaborator and life partner Martha Redbone, the acclaimed Native/African- American songstress with whom he created the music genre “Native American Soul” and subsequently took William Blake to Appalachia. The single sand albums they co-wrote/co-produced include notably: “Home of the Brave,” “Skintalk,” and The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake.These have received numerous award and critical praise. Currently, the team have created and tour Bone Hill – The Concert, a devised, multi-disciplinary theatrical concert originally commissioned by Joe’s Pub and The Public Theater. Whitby and Redbone are recipients of the NEFA NTP Award and NPN Creation Fund Award and are currently developing a new musical commissioned by the Public Theater in NYC supported in part by MAP Fund and Creative Capital.
Whitby’s storied career has many other projects, but we allude to those above as Redbone provides vocals on “Sleeping Giant,” “Make Somebody Happy,” and the title track. Also aboard on that track is Lisa Fischer, of Rolling Stones fame, and with whom Whitby has worked several times. The musical program is designed to also be performed live on state accompanied with video art by VJ Lady Firefly (Dave Chapelle, The Roots) to capture the colorful, cartoonish and movement-inspired world view. The album was recorded in Lehigh Valley, PA with overdubs and piano recorded at two separate studios in Brooklyn. Musicians include:
Charlie Burnham – Violin, vocal on “Mrs. Quadrillion”
Fred Cash- Electric Bass
Gary Fritz – Percussion
Jerome Harris – Acoustic Bass on “The Invisible Man Breathes” and The Eye of the Hurricane 2.0”
Rodney Holmes – Drums
Keith Loftis – Tenor Saxophone
Aaron Whitby – Piano, Fender Rhodes, Synthesizers, Vocal FX
Vocalists in addition to Redbone and Fischer are Tamar Kali and Rome Neal, both on “Sleeping Giant”
As you’ve doubtlessly gleaned from the song titles and the brief synopsis of Whitby’s current creative projects, this is highly imaginative, rather unpredictable, meandering and at times soul-stirring music. “Sleeping Giant” kicks off with a funky, smooth groove, propelled by longtime colleague Fred Cash’s sturdy bass line, as the voices, synths, and percussion keep it percolating until Loftis’ tenor takes it home. ”Walking with Z” is named for Whitby’s teenage son and begins and ends with Ellington-like acoustic piano sandwiching rollicking roadhouse riffs, featuring Burnham’s wah-wah fiddle effects and Loftis’ tenor. “Make Somebody Happy,” aside from Redbone’s vocal chorus, is mostly a funk exercise featuring Whitby’s Fender Rhodes, Loftis’ sax, and Cash’s driving bass.
The title track pays homage to John Sayles Afrofuturist film classic Brother From Another Planet with Whitby sense of himself as an immigrant doing musical justice work within his adopted core communities of indigenous and Black America. It has Whitby’s most energetic piano work. We get several dramatic passages and more mix of the acoustic and electronic in “The Invisible Man Breathes.” The lengthiest track, “Mrs. Quadrillion” begins as a ballad before the ensemble work kicks in, leading into a vocal turn by Burnham and punctuating lines from his violin, Whitby’s piano, and Loftis’ sax excursions. Hancock’s tune is a mash-up of his acoustic Blue Note period and Headhunters with the accent on funky. Jerome Harris shines on the acoustic bass and Loftis, Burnham, and Holmes offer incendiary spots as well. There are some moments where Loftis seems like he’s headed for the stratosphere. The closer, “Escape Route” brings us back to the glory days of jazz-rock fusion and prog with several percussive rhythm changes capped off by Whitby banging away at his Rhodes.
Whitby and band take us on one exhilarating ride. Jump in and buckle up. It’s joyous, bumpy, and fun.