God almighty! It's the most unlikely gospel album of the year. You'd think the stained-glass windows would leap from their frames at the very idea of this bunch of jazzy funk rockers invading a church. Led by improvisational jazz/rock deconstructionist John Scofield on guitar, the Piety Street Band boasts a who's who of A-list players from a cross-cultural array of genres. Meter man George Porter Jr. (Meters, Funky Meters, Porter/Batiste/Stoltz) is on bass, Absolute Monster Gentleman and Bonnie Raitt sideman Jon Cleary handles vocals and keys and former Beach Boy and current Raitt drummer Ricky Fataar does percussion duties.
Piety Street is the name of the record as well as the New Orleans studio it was recorded in. "I'd describe the décor as a cross between an elegant Cajun fishing camp mixed with a turn of the century Storyville bordello or maybe your favorite grandmother's living room," Piety Street Studio owner Mark Bingham says of the funky studio located in New Orleans Katrina-decimated 9th ward, by the Mississippi river.
That funky flavor comes across in the recording. Scofield initially said he wanted to do a blues record in what he called the "cradle of soul," New Orleans. But bassist Porter says that when he first heard of the project, it was definitely a gospel record. That was fine with Porter, who is well aware of where his funky roots are anchored.
"I would assume that it all began somewhere in the church," Porter said by phone last week from his home in New Orleans. "There's a fine line pinpointing which parts of what came from where, but I've always been one of those people that like to say the hell with labels."
You'd have a hard time putting a label on this one. The outcome defies containment in one musical genre. While the original arrangements were traditional gospel tunes, by the time Scofield and the Piety Street Band got through with them, the end result was a mix of soul, blues and funk, backed by a bouncy N'awlins second line.
It's a glorious, rockin' record. Cleary, an Englishman with the soul of Ray Charles, is the voice of praise on most cuts. He transforms Dorothy Love Coates' hymn "That's Enough" into a funky soul anthem. Thanks to Porter's rollin', N'awlins-flavored funk bass, the gospel standard "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" sounds like it came from the Meters' back catalogue, almost too funky for church.
As usual, Scofield is all over the place, draping jazzy, blues-drenched riffs over the shoulders of the traditional gospel tunes. On the Rev. James Cleveland's "Something's Got A Hold On Me," Scofield stomps heavily on his wah-wah pedal to add a funky, bluesy feel.
It's obviously Scofield's show, but he's generous with his sideman. "He didn't nail us to the wall and say, 'Don't play this or that.' He kinda let us pick our own places and bring our own input to the parts we were playing," Porter says. "He was trying to be very honest to the actual songs, at the same time allowing them to breathe."
"The Old Ship Of Zion" is helmed by Scofield's guitar, but it still comes across as an ensemble piece. This is a great, tight band. The guitarist dips and soars with a B. B. King feel underwritten by Cleary's gospel organ with Porter carefully laying the foundation and Fataar slapping the mortar in place.
Scofield has rearranged some of the tunes almost beyond recognition. "Just a Little While to Stay Here" is a totally different song, as is Scofield's jazzy take on "I'll Fly Away," with Porter playing country style bass as Scofield dribbles Allman Brothers riffs on top. But on all the cuts, the spirit and fire of the originals still shine through.
"When John plays, automatically it's gonna be different 'cause he has a totally different approach to playing rhythm parts than the original parts of the original music," Porter says. "The original music was more strumming parts, more guitar parts, and John was playing a more syncopated part on most of the songs."
But when vocalist John Boutte steps up to the mike, you forget everybody else. It's a real "who the hell is that" moment. Voted Best Male Vocalist repeatedly by New Orleans' Offbeat Magazine, the 7th generation Creole singer's slightly hoarse, creamy soul voice is a blend of Harry Belafonte and Sam Cook. Although Boutte only sings on three cuts, his voice is the call to worship here.
Dorothy Love Coates' "Ninety Nine and a Half" is the basis for the Wilson Pickett soul classic of the same name. Scofield turns it into lowdown blues when he solos, but Cleary takes it back into soul territory with his vocal.
The record just came out in the States on March 31, but the Piety Street band tried it out in Europe last year. "I had mixed emotions when we first got over there," Porter says. "The first couple of gigs were in nice theaters, then all of sudden we were playing in little barrooms, people drinking and partying and we were playing gospel music. So I just got the feeling, man, John Scofield can do any damn thing he wants."
So can Porter, a founding Meters member universally recognized as one of the baddest bass players on the planet. With drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and organist Art Neville, the Meters set a standard for funk that has never been equaled. He continued that tradition with Neville drummer Russell Batiste guitarist Brian Stoltz in the funky Meters, then without Neville as Porter/Batiste/Stoltz.
Unlike many bands that often perform under the original band's name even if it contains only one original member, Porter is specific about the billing for his various groups. "I ain't gonna be shamming nobody, especially the people that care and supported us all this time," the bassist says.
"I shoot straight. I don't give you any bullshit. I try to be as up-front with people as I can and that means even in my personal life as well in my musical world. When I do something, I'm gonna put forth 100 percent," Porter adds. "I'm not gonna take the money and run. I'm coming on your gig and I'm gonna play my butt off."
John Scofield and the Piety Street Band featuring Jon Cleary, George Porter Jr. and Ricky Fataar play the Neighborhood Theatre on April 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $25 on the day of show.