The undulating performance by multi-keyboardist Aaron Whitby’s Cousin From Another Planet project at Lincoln Center this past evening attested to the psychedelic power of good funk music. It’s rare that an audience comes to listen to funk; then again, this was an unusually textured sonic confection.
Whitby brought an allstar cast of New York soul, funk and jazz veterans: Charlie Burnham on electric violin, Keith Loftis on tenor sax, Fred Cash on bass, David Phelps on guitar and Gintas Janusonis on drums. They opened with Escape Route, a twinkling Hollywood hills psychedelic bourdoir soul tune from the new Cousin From Another Planet record. Burnham’s wafting wah-wah riffs contrasted with Loftis’spare, incisive lines over Whitby’s echoey Fender Rhodes cascades.
Whitby’s wife Martha Redbone and actor Rome Neal joined the group for Sleeping Giant, a mighty, populist psych-funk anthem. “Wake up from this endless bigotry,” Redbone encouraged, then capped off a big, booming crescendo with a searing wordless vocal. Whitby’s chucka-chucka clavinova solo and Burham’s rapidfire lines wound up the song optimistically.
Walking with Z was a picturesque musical account of what it’s like tryng to get a hyperkinetic gradeschooler to his destination on an early morning in downtown Brooklyn. This time it was Whitby who had the wah going on, Loftis blending determination and wry wariness: somebody keep that kid out of traffic!
Eye of the Hurricane was New Orfleans through the prism of classic P-Funk: bracing violin/sax harmonies over a fat, distantly second line-tinged low end. Whitby is a funny guy: he explained that a new number, The Inverse of Nothing, was inspired by mishearing “the universe of nothing” on a youtube physics podcast. He kicked it off gracefully with gorgeous, Mad Men-era solo piano, then the band swung their way into saturnine midtempo funk with some oscillating Bernie Worrell keys from the bandleader.
Redbone returned to the stage for a vigorous, solo-centric detour into the classic 70s playbook: Whitby immersed himself in the stuff under the guidance of longtime P-Funk musical director Junie Morrison, so he knows where all the pieces go. For awhile, he blended with Phelps’ devious, tongue-in-cheek lines, then opted to just let the six-stringer shred.
The band went back to starry, nocturnal mode for a number where Whitby credited Redbone for having saved it from sad ballad territory. She did a good job: it wasnt’ sad at alll, with a series of playful echo effects filtering among the various voices. It was no surprise that Whitby would offer grateful payback with Mrs. Quadrillion, a snappy, no-nonsense strut.
Afer a lively detour into bubbly, classic 70s style clave disco, they closed with Make Somebody Happy, shifting subtly from a boombastic, Clintonesque groove to a spiky, West African-tinged melody fueled by Phelps’ bright, jangly lines., This wasn’t P-Funk, but in their own surreal, imaginative way, Whitby’s irrepressible crew of improvisers turned out to be just as full of surprises.
The next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thursday, Sept 12 at 7:30 PM with Texas-Colombian bandleader Kiko Villamizar playing oldschool 60s Colombian cumbia plus more psychedelic, electric sounds. People will be there to dance; get there early if you’re going.