There really is no appropriate musical genre to classify the virtuoso, multicolored group known as Ghost Note. Sure, they have impeccable jazz credentials, the members have collaborated with funk, R&B, rock, hip-hop and gospel legends, and yet the impressive assembly can’t be singled out by any of these labels. or industry pathways.
The band of badasses commandeered the San Francisco jazz haunt The black Cat last week, dropping four searing sets over the course of two nights. Artistic ambition, an abundance of chops and a daring spirit of defiance were on full display as Ghost-Note performed in front of a crowd of die-hard Bay Area music fans.
Ghost-Note was originally conceived in 2015 as a percussion-focused moving parts collective. The co-founders are the gifted Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy, Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar) on drums, and his longtime rhythm co-pilot, Nate Werth, (Snarky Puppy) over a wide range of percussion. The duo set out to break rigid rules and color far beyond established lines. Soon after, the idiosyncratic bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas (Prince) and keyboardist/singer Dominique Xavier Taplin (Prince, Toto) joined the crew, each injecting their own flair and style into the equation. The boys haven’t looked back since.
Although some members have come and gone in recent years, the rest of the band has solidified over time: guitarist Peter Knudsen; Sylvester Onyejiaka (Prince, Quantic) on baritone sax, tenor sax and flute; Jonathan Mones (Funky Knuckles, RC & The Gritz) on alto sax and flute; and Mike Jelani Brooks (Kirk Franklin, RC & The Gritz) on tenor saxophone. This entire contingent crowded onto the very small Black Cat stage and set the sold-out venue on fire.
The venue is a traditional jazz club with seated tables and limited standing in the back. Sput was perched on his drum throne on the floor of the hall, in front of the stage, essentially in the laps of the customers at the first table, with the horns and Knudsen at his side. MonoNeon sat behind him, next to Werth’s vast assortment of instruments, with Taplin buried in the far corner behind a grand piano and its keyboards. The cramped nature of this affair allowed for an energetic and dynamic exchange between the band and the audience over the course of 75 steamy minutes.
Ghost-Note focused on unveiling unreleased material they meticulously crafted and recorded during the pandemic. Sput noted that the band had around 40 songs in the box, slated for up to four new banger albums. The band coalesced into a well-oiled machine, evolving into something super fresh and quite remarkable.
the Swagism The era saw a group of incredible musicians take to the stage with fierce fury, but in 2022 Ghost-Note come together as a cohesive, congruent group with distilled vision and focused intent, making compositions and performances even more powerful than before.
One can capture the myriad of influences that inform this project. Blaxploitation films swagger, synth-bass and electro-funk of the early 80s, jazz fusion grooves, elastic P-Funk articulations. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Teddy Riley and a guy named Prince all reared their funky heads, but Sput, Nate, Xavier and MonoNeon imbued the sound with their own musical personalities, as Ghost-Note proved. that they were there to carve their own slice of the pie instead of just paying homage to their Yodas.
Opener “Sputnik” was brimming with frenetic energy and spastic grooves. In the 2-slot, a whole new vibey number was reminiscent of Ayers’ proto-acid-jazz Ubiquity time. The stunning “Lonely Run” was a math-funk flex for “jazz nerds,” filled with wild time signatures and seductive polyrhythms. Paisley Park was always present with deft nods to The Time, as well as Prince’s Crystal ball and Musicology eras, as Ghost-Note sonically approached the sound of The New Power Generation many times, always with their own twist.
At times, MonoNeon would take the wheel and demonstratively drive the music with its kaleidoscopic low-end theories. Other times, Taplin grabbed all the attention with synth magic and sultry vocals. Mones delivered scintillating solos on both alto sax and flute, and Brooks burned, went along with the tenor, holding him down at the dead center of the set.
Sput repeatedly reminded the mostly seated audience that it’s a “known fact” that when musicians place a melody over the beat, “it makes a booty move”. Onyejiaka’s explosive baritone sax paired with the ferocious rhythm section made the lows bounce, whether in their seats or in the aisles. Eventually, science won out over decorum and just about everyone in the sultry jazz joint got up to boogie for the final part of the show.
“Sugarfoot” unleashed sultry conga riddims and good East Bay grease, revealing a fat native San Francisco funk that resonated with the crowd. “Bad Knees” was smooth, jubilant R&B, followed by a song dedicated to James Brown– inspired by his famous “Out on Love” interview – which continued the stomping, hard-hitting funk, whipping people into a frenzy.
Werth and Sput reminisced a little about the early days before admitting how much they regularly missed touring and the amount of recorded music they reserved for their fans. Even better, the group has teased an upcoming documentary which is also in the works. Clearly, 2022 is shaping up to be an exciting time to be a member – and a fan – of Ghost-Note.
After introducing the esteemed band members for the umpteenth time, Searight ordered all Black Cat patrons to “finish your drinks, then get up and dance!” Ghost-Note’s final composition, “Five Alive”, ensured that every last Black Cat funkateer consumed his remaining drinks and got off his ass to jam.
words: B. Getz