"We invented this style called disco-bebop," one of the Macpodz tells the crowd during a Blind Pig show not long ago. There's a lot more to it than that, but if you have to sum up the Macpodz, you could do worse than that description. The name points to the group's unique accomplishment: they've gotten people dancing to jazz again, and that hasn't happened for quite a while.
The Blind Pig crowd dances, bobs, and claps, led into the music by long introductions that add layers of rhythm as a piece develops. The beat can go from disco to rock to funk to the place where soul and rock rhythms met in the early 1970s in the music of Sly and the Family Stone, and some of the music veers into irregular meters. The crowd isn't fazed. "If
you can get the time signature of that, you win a prize," says one band member, keeping the crowd physically engaged with funk bandleader calls like "I want everybody in the place to get real low."
Over the rhythms go jazz lines from trumpet, keyboards, and occasionally flute. The harmonies are dense, the rhythms angular, the tone sharp and edgy. The jazz element is serious: this isn't jazz improvisation slipped in around the edges of dance music, but fast, furious stuff. This band challenges its audiences while making them dance, and that hasn't happened for a while, either.
To pull that off, the group inserts doses of retro sounds. A parade of 1970s effects goes by in the music, awakening immediate recognition in anyone who was around to hear them
the first time. Jesse Clayton's keyboard array is loaded with vintage instruments of the era, and there's a lot of Miles Davis's jazz-rock fusion in the music. In fact, with those big dance beats, the Macpodz seem to be trying to pick up where Davis left off when death cut short his attempt to reconnect jazz with popular dance music.
But this is not a retro act or a group of fusion revivalists. I went to hear the Macpodz again at the Neutral Zone, where the young people dancing and crowding the stage were more than a decade away from being born when some of these sounds came around for the first time. The high energy level, the driving quality of the music is of today, not of the cosmic-quest 1970s, and the strong following the Macpodz have among local kids makes a good reason to check them out all by itself.
Surprises keep on coming in a Macpodz show, and no two pieces are alike. Trumpeter Ross Walker blows a blast on a giant seashell, and the celebratory mood of the crowd gets deeper as the evening turns into morning. The music of the Macpodz has the feeling of something limitless, as jazz ought to when it's good. And there are very few places other than Ann Arbor, with its strong tradition of jazz playing among young people, where the band could have arisen. Something uncommon and valuable is happening here.
The Macpodz are at TC's Speakeasy on Saturday, February 3; at the Blind Pig on Friday, February 9; and at a benefit for the Behnke family at the Pittsfield Grange on Friday, February 16.
[Review published February 2007]