Music Column: In the marriage of funk and jazz, Vulfpeck are savvy orchestrators

Music Column: In the marriage of funk and jazz, Vulfpeck are savvy orchestrators
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My infatuation with drummers stems from an incredible, almost unreasonable, overindulgence of the movie “Whiplash.” Andrew Neiman, Whiplash’s main character, is an underappreciated jazz drummer under psychological attack by his cruel instructor as he practices at the risk of severe injury, and death, creating a thriller movie centered around the arts.

At the age of 15, Vulfpeck’s drummer, Jack Stratton, underwent similar scrutiny and pressure as a member of Berklee College of Music’s summer program, making him question his enthusiasm in regards to the music industry. Now, Stratton is defining what it means to be a modern-day funk drummer, drawing upon the ideas of syncopation, also known as displacement of the beat in regards to what the listener expects, and the use of the displaced snare drum.

Stratton is a master sound engineer and a wiz on the drums, bass and keyboard. His band, Vulfpeck, and those that comprise the funkified group, allow for the utmost exploration of these instruments and their unconventional use. The quartet is the definition of the phrase “playing in the pocket,” which can be understood as a cohesive groove between members of the rhythm section. 

The group’s cohesive nature and funky-jam appeal make sense, as they have played together since college. I’m going to delve into some background info here on each member of the band. I think it’s wildly important and an underrated practice to understand the influences and histories of the individuals, so humor me.

To begin the brief histories of the Michigan jazz program students, let’s start with keyboardist Wooly Goss, writer of Vulfpeck classics like “Fugue State” and “My First Car,” purely instrumental tracks. As with the band’s other members, Goss began his career with piano lessons, at the request of his parents, but did not truly gain his footing until he began his flirtation with jazz and funk stylings. Through working at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Goss began to become acquainted with other musicians and found a home with Stratton.

Theo Katzman plays guitar, drums and bass for the band, another master of funk. Katzman’s father was a jazz trumpet player, influencing his son’s musical tastes from a young age by toting him to rehearsals. While his father introduced him to jazz, his mother helped him gain his footing in rock. However, his biggest influence was his high school band, which, naturally, drew influence from Phish, and the burgeoning Phish scene that was defining jam bands at this time, and still does, depending on who you ask.

Previous dabbling in the Phish realm was not unique to Katzman, bassist Joe Dart also got his start in a Phish-inspired jam band while in junior high. Having picked up the bass at the ripe age of 10, Dart was a professional, somewhat famous among other jazz students because of work in previous bands. Dart played bass with Clyde Stubblefield, funk drummer for James Brown, following his success with Vulfpeck.

Dart is a master of the “bass face,” depicted differently depending on the individual with the bass at the ready. “Bass face” is a phenomenon seen most readily in the player, but listen to Vulfpeck and a nasty groove will inhabit your face that is near impossible to shake.

Vulfpeck is a funk band that brings an air of intrigue and excitement to the listener as they play with the musical stylings and capabilities of the their instruments and, also, objects that are not typically seen as instruments (i.e. pancakes). There is a sense of remarkable childlike wonder when listening to the band. Their willingness to experiment in every aspect of the music industry and continuously shock audiences can be gently correlated to Phish, the hyperactive fanbase is definitely a similarity.

In 2014, Vulfpeck promised their fan base that their tour would be free in a video posted to Youtube. In the video, Antonoff details how this will come to fruition: fans must listen to the band’s newest album, “Sleepify,” all night on Spotify, earning the band $4 each time you do. The “Sleepify” tour would then occur in those cities that streamed the album the most. The entirely silent album result in $18,000 for the band. 

Though the band's practices are unconventional, their classically stunning jazz, funk and soul make Vulfpeck an undeniable troupe of artists and inventors. Their experimental nature is so broad that they could never be bound or stifled in creativity, an art easily lost by most popular artists. 

The group’s newest album, “Mr Finish Line,” is easy-listening that transports the listener to a jazz club with black and white tiled floors with seating pushed to the side as a quartet dressed in black improvises on the stage. With a multitude of featured artists, it is clear that Vulfpeck has a universal understanding of the jazz and funk genres and the modern-day artists that have come to define the quality and standard of these genres. 

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