Since its formation as the Len Paterson Trio in 2000, Bay Area funk-jazz outfit Flowtilla has been going against the grain when it comes to funk. Whereas most outfits add slabs of horns or synthesizers (or both), this band keeps it very lean and mean with only guitarist Len Paterson and bassist Ellen Schoenwetter as permanent members, and a revolving cast of drummers (including a beatbox that’s handy for those sidewalk shows, as in the video for “Effervescence” below).
Paterson is very adept at knowing when to improvise and knowing when to just ride the groove. He never over dwells on either and that helps to keep the songs worth listening to well after you figured out the chord progression., and is a very diversely skilled guitar player, too. Schoenwetter isn’t the Stanley Clarke/Marcus Miller type bassist who aspires to be a lead guitarist, her job is to lay down fat lines, keep the harmony nailed down and provide Paterson a steady structure to work around, and she does that quite well. Though there’s some overdubbing of guitars and even a little keyboards, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t make playing the songs the same way live difficult, they keep things clean and fuss-free.
For their latest release Waves and Particles, Jan Jackson (Will Bernard) serves as the drummer, with guest percussionists on nearly every track. The fourteen originals—all written by the two linchpins—are in the “groove jazz” template but they put something different into each song to keep things interesting. “The Aspirant” with its tight groove and Indian percussion reminds me a lot of Garaj Mahal, spotlighted by the snaky thematic line on which Paterson and Schoenwetter double up to play in unison. Their experiences in both out jazz and punk are hinted on “Forever.” “Deadline” deals in the James Brown kind of tough funk, contrasted by the breezy Latin grooves of “Hi Life.” “Waves and Particles” brings in the instrumental surf music of Dick Dale and the Surfaris to modern fusion.
Just elaborate enough to hold interest, but never threatening to hurt your head and always beckoning your body to sway, Flowtilla has found the right mix for jazz-rock that’s fun listening over and over again.
Waves and Particles was released on their own Acorn Sonata label March 8, 2011. Visit Flowtilla’s website.