Music Reviews

posted: July 15, 2015

The Word Soul Food

Vanguard, LP or CD
The Word

After a 14-year absence, the jazz-jam-band-meets-sacred-steel group the Word is reunited. The group sounds like it’s shrugged off whatever changes occurred in popular music since then, just as much as they did in the late 1990s. And even as the annual Jam Cruise continues to set sail around the Caribbean—while the Trey Anastasio-fronted Grateful Dead commands top dollar for concert tickets—the Word’s succinct songs and pronounced soul/gospel bent keeps it apart from its counterparts.

Soul Food still reflects the different, if complementary, points of origin among the group’s members. Guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer Cody Dickinson, and bassist Chris Chew convey the power chords and stomp of the North Mississippi Allstars while keyboardist John Medeski knowingly draws from vintage R&B chord progressions and free-jazz harmonies. Pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph now mainly plays the festival circuit with his Family Band, yet here, he’s also retained his sanctified roots.

Most of Soul Food is consistently upbeat, especially the opening “New Word Order” (inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oratory) and Luther Dickinson’s extroverted chords on “Play All Day.” The band supplies a somewhat riotous take on country (as filtered through a Parliament-Funkadelic lens) on “Chocolate Cowboy,” with fuel from Cody Dickinson’s rapid tempo shifts and Medeski’s lines. Other historic reference points abound, such as Chew’s bass part on “Soul Food II,” which sounds built from Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up” and becomes the basis for different multilayered solos. And while Medeski’s “Swamp Road” takes inspiration from New Orleans piano great James Booker, it’s not too much of a strain to hear Booker T. Jones within its phrasing.

His colleagues’ talent aside, Randolph is the standout here. Along with his electrifying attack on “You Brought The Sunshine,” he gets into some ominous, if not flat-out weird, tones on “Early In The Moanin’ Time.” His distinctive textures also keep some posturing electric guitar lines in check during “Come By Here.” Randolph turns around to sound ethereal on “Soul Food I,” featuring a nimble exchange with Medeski. And he does not seem to mind when the band mixes up the religious and secular on “Come By Here” and “Glory Glory.” After all, it worked for Jimmy Smith on The Sermon, one of countless examples.

Undoubtedly, all of these tunes will be considerably stretched out when the Word hits the stage. On record, however, the band says a great deal within concise spaces.

–Aaron Cohen