By Christopher Hess
AUGUST 11, 1997: It's a brotherhood -- these are my brothers," explains drummer Brannen Temple. "What else can I say?" Originally organized as a means for Temple to surround himself with musicians who share a common vision (and who just happened to be good friends), the six-piece Hot Buttered Rhythm have quickly established themselves as the hottest jazz-funk fusion act in town. But this, as well as every other label attached to the group, becomes increasingly insufficient with every passing show. Though the broad funk beats are undeniably at the heart of their music, their rhythms are guided just as much by traditional jazz and modern hip-hop. Beyond that, it's a brotherhood. It's six guys onstage who communicate absolutely and at all times without having to speak a word. Temple and fellow drummer J.J. Johnson, with styles differing as much as those of Max Roach and Jeff "Tain" Watts -- Johnson curled slightly over the kit, pulling at the forward-tilted snare and sliding deceptively quick hands across the cymbals at all times, and Temple, upright, sharp, slammin' -- meld their sounds until the two play as one. "I think at one time we actually kind of sounded alike," says Temple of the days before HBR. "We've evolved our own styles, but I think that honestly, we don't have to say anything to understand each other."
Together, Temple and Johnson drive one of the most effective and non-traditional band arrangements to be found: Two drummers, two basses, two keyboards. It's a musical philosophy as much as an aesthetic, one that all members of HBR adhere to enthusiastically. The commitment is an easy one, as each member of this band knows that at least on a local level, his musical counterpart is one of the best to be found at his respective instrument. While this knowledge provides a huge degree of confidence, more importantly, it forms and perpetuates their style.
"With this band, somebody else is playing what you play," says Temple. "Even though, like Edwin [Livingston] plays an upright [bass] and Yoggie's electric, it's the same tonal perspective, the same range. So, you have to learn how to deal with that."
"It's like that for me and Yoggie," says Livingston. "When he's got something going, that forces me to do something else -- I have to do something to complement it, something that won't take away from what he's doing or distract anybody else from what they're doing. I'll just hang back and watch for a bit, see what's going on, then try to add to it."
Both bassists are equally animated in discussing what they do, how they interact onstage, as they are doing it. "This band, it pushes me," says Yoggie (just Yoggie). "It makes me think, and that's important to me -- being challenged. I have no preordained idea of what's happening. I try to get up there in the best space that I can be so we can all play together. It's hit-and-miss, but everyone is in touch with each other enough, and the support staff is really good, so we hit it. It's truly a blessing to be in a situation like this, no questions asked. We just get up there and play, and by the grace of God, it so happens that people like it."
If their appearances at the Mercury Lounge are any indication, the grace of God must be in full effect; the sound approaches the immaculate and the crowds are ever-growing. At their recent CD release party, keyboard player Fred Sanders waded through the full house, yelling out "Hot Buttered!" Every call was greeted with a resounding "Rhythm!" This spontaneous connection is indicative of the powerful groove the band lays down in every performance.
The self-titled CD, recorded mostly live at the Mercury and partly at the Fire Station studio in San Marcos, is a good representation of HBR's sound. It captures the polished and rehearsed originals as well as the completely spontaneously generated grooves they build into live. "I have no problem showing this CD to anyone," says Temple. "I don't have to say, `Oh, this is okay, but we're so far beyond this now,' even though we are."
Every member of Hot Buttered Rhythm has a resumé that would make a publicist's head spin, a fact which would seemingly point to an abundance of clashing egos and never-ending solos. The tight-knit nature of this combo squashes that possibility, however, allowing no place for it onstage or anywhere else. Temple knew this from the outset. "I knew it would be easy to deal with -- personality wise, most importantly -- and musically, chemistry-wise, because everybody has the understanding of how to lay back on the beat and stay out of somebody else's way when it's called for. It's more a concept of how to play. Everybody is experienced enough and supportive enough not to be that kind of person, that kind of player. Nobody's attitude is like that, so it doesn't come off like that when we play."
Much of this deference is due to the fact that the whole band, essentially, trained and versed as members of a rhythm section, and there's a different attitude that comes from holding that position. And while this combo seems fertile ground for guest appearances or featured artists toting, say, a guitar or a horn, Hot Buttered Rhythm provides not only a creative outlet but also a sanctuary for the back line.
"My biggest problem is when you get a horn or a guitar player," explains Livingston. "They tend to have a front-line mentality. They wanna just come in and try to dictate and lead certain things. Which is cool if that's what you want to do, but in this situation, I don't think that would be wise. The whole thing would be more like I'm backing up this person, which I do pretty much all the time. But in this situation, I don't. We're all accustomed to being both in a support group and also being a front person to take a solo. If they don't have the mentality to play how we play, if they are more used to playing ahead and getting out, playing a solo and getting out, they don't have the approach we have, and we know what it's like 'cause we see them doing it from the back line."
Livingston tells of a J.J. Johnson Trio show at the Victory Grill when featured New Orleans sax player Fred Jackson couldn't make the gig. Fred Sanders was there, however, and the show went on, though in a completely different vein. (Coincidentally, this ad hoc trio became one-half of Hot Buttered Rhythm, further proof that the "front line" doesn't always have to be exactly that.)
"After that gig," says Livingston, "somebody said it's too bad the horn player didn't show up. A horn player said this, that it was cool that we went ahead and played without him, like we couldn't go on to exist and create without his enlightenment, you know? It was happening anyway. Sometimes I get bent out of shape with things like that. I've had bad experiences with people who have an attitude when they come in, or like a cat don't know how to pace himself, and he just plays chords and chords -- it's just like either play something or stop playing. We [in the back line] are playing the whole time, trying to make things happen, and these people out front don't have that experience of being a support group, of playing for any length of time."
This bond of the back line is what makes HBR move, what keeps the shows a relentless extension of a groove and not an exhibition of chops. They've all got it, but what is unsaid (or unplayed) is just as important as what is.
The sixth spot in the lineup has been one of rotation. Mark Rubinstein and Ollie Jones have been sharing time, but Rubinstein will be leaving for a studio gig in New York the beginning of September. Since Jones, for reasons personal and spiritual, refuses to play club gigs (though he has made an exception for the Victory Grill, which is as much community project in the works as it is club or venue considering its history and its lack of a liquor license), this impending vacancy could pose a problem. Their recent trip to the North by Northeast festival in Toronto saw a five-piece HBR, which Temple described as "killin'," but what of the symmetry, the funked-up duality, the triple dichotomy of rhythm?
A Mercury show from a couple of weekends past seems to have provided the answer to that question in the form of James Simpson, a California transplant and recent member of Kyle Turner's band. Though he plays drums with Turner, his role as keyboard player with HBR went off without a hitch and with many an ovation. It only took Simpson a short time to become acclimated to the band's back-line mentality, but once he did, they were on. Simpson was yelling, smiling, and whooping across the stage, and all other members had their eyes glued on him when he took a lead. Again, the communication had been established.
The sense of brotherhood these guys share is something you can't miss, whether in conversation or at a show. For this, Temple is grateful, though he also recognizes the ever-present possibility of its dissolution due to career decisions.
"Everyone in this band is a good enough musician to play with anyone -- anyone. Mark's leaving has shown me that it can happen. I'm gonna miss him, you know? It could happen again, and it would be a blow. But we're all working musicians and there are things we all wanna do. The world doesn't revolve around Hot Buttered Rhythm for any of us, though we all love playing together. I would hope that no matter what, we could return to this -- pick it up again without losing anything.
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