Papa Grows Funk – Needle in the Groove (2012)

Papa Grows Funk returns with its most collaborative effort yet, as Needle in the Groove boasts a whopping three producers — including Louisiana legend Allen Toussaint — and a set of songs composed together as a group.

The hope is that the album would take on an attendant house-party atmosphere, like a group of folks playing music as neighbors drift onto and off of the porch. The worry is that the result might become disjointed, a jumble of styles with no overlapping sense of momentum. Happily, Papa Grows Funk — drummer Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, keyboardist/vocalist John Gros, saxophonist Jason Mingledorff, bassist Marc Pero and guitarist June Yamagishi — strike just the right groove-tastic balance. Their first album since 2007’s Mr. Patterson’s Hat, and this is saying something considering its genesis, just might be this thumping jazz/funk-jam band’s most cohesive yet.

There remains a strong sense of grease-popping propulsion on Needle in the Groove, set for release March 27 via Funky Krewe Records, but the project also boasts a tight, pop-influenced narrative focus that hasn’t always been there for Papa Grows Funk. Tracks like “Make It Right Now,” which have become wide-open vehicles for these titanic solos in the live setting, are harnessed here into sharp shocks of cunning wit.

Credit there probably goes to initial producer Tom Drummond, bassist with the college-rock band Better Than Ezra. You certainly hear that group’s whip-smart bar-band smarts at play during stand out cuts like “Do You Want It,” with its sizzling drum signature; and “Needle in the Groove,” as Papa Grows Funk bops over a fiercely coiled rhythm. At the same time, though, Gros got his start playing alongside Meters legend George Porter Jr. as a member of the Runnin’ Pardners. Working later with Meters producer/svengali in Toussaint on Needle in the Groove, it’s perhaps of little surprise that tracks like “Red Spark” (dedicated to New Orleans saxist Red Tyler) and “Out of the Mud” are cut from a similar cloth.

None of it works, of course, without a solid songwriting base. In the past, Papa Grows Funk has arrived for its sessions with individual songs in hand, then learned one another’s tracks before recording commenced. This time, they composed collectively — and this tight-knit underpinning (not to mention a valuable late assist from third producer Tracey Freeman, best known for work with Harry Connick Jr. and Kermit Ruffins) helps smooth out any sharp edges that may have remained.

What you’re left with is an album that retains the best qualities of its individual parts, even as they are melded into something that’s brilliantly, ass-shakingly brand new.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.