After more than twenty years together, Lettuce is the preeminent funk band on the scene today. Starting with their friendship at Berklee College of Music, they’ve shaped their sound from classic funkers of yesteryear like James Brown and Tower of Power but put their own new fresh spin on things. Going back 10 years or more the band did not tour very much and released a studio album every few years. For the last several years, the band has been touring non-stop (pre COVID-19) and has become much more prolific in jam-funk-jazz improvisation and in recording albums. Resonate is the second in a trilogy of albums the band worked on with producer Russ Elevado. It follows on the heels of Elevate which came out under a year ago and was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
As with Elevate and some of the previous albums, Lettuce has played and refined many of Resonate’s tunes on the road. Since I’ve been fortunate to see the band several times a year over the last few years, I’ve “previewed” some of the album material live as follows:
- Blaze (Hula 2017)
- Good Morning Mr. Shmink (Birmingham 1/3/20)
- NDUGU (Atlanta 1/26/19)
- Checker Wrecker (Greenville 1/2/20)
- Silence is Golden (Greenville 1/2/20)
- Moksha (Hula 2019)
- House of Lett (Hula 2019)
- Resonate (GroundUP Music Festival 2020)
All of that had my expectations high and I can happily say they were exceeded as I’m blown away by the expansion of their repetoire. I originally got into the band because of their super funky vibes which they still have but they’ve evolved there sound into trippy funk with a darker edge. On this album they extend into Indian sounds (Moksha), house music (House of Lett), classic funk (Good Morning Mr. Shmink), and some very chill trance funk (Resonate).
You can purchase the album and related merch here: https://merchandise.lettucefunk.com/
My track-by-track rundown augmented by some comments from the band during the album premiere listening party on May 8th release day follows.
- Blaze – Blaze, was written by Adam Deitch, starts with a guitar-drum punch line before the horns take the lead with a sharp main theme. The horns drop it down a bit with Nigel coming in big time on the organ. The horns then pick right up where they left off accompanied by swirling keys sounds. That changeup is one of the highlights of this tune as they use again a little later. Cue some claps, cowbell and some punchy horn licks. Midway, Zoidis takes a clear toned alto solo with Jesus’ heavy bass support here. Zoids takes it to the next level with a synth tinged sax section with a trippy tone. Nigel sets the mood with a super extended tones in the background. The main horn line, tight as a fist, closes out.
- Good Morning Mr. Shmink – The title made me think it’s a companion or bookend to Shmink Dabby. In actuality, the tune penned by Shmeeans is a great homage to Tower of Power with a super Squib Cakes feel. We know by now the band’s fondness and connection to ToP so it’s logical. The opening is a nice keyboard backdrop with Jesus playing those 16th bass notes like Francis Rocco Prestia. Shmeeans is adding that punctuation for the horns to pop in with Zoidis on soprano!) with some super intricate playing. Nigel starts channeling Chester “CT” Thompson on the B3. The drum & bass next section has Jesus. Nigel, Jesus, and Deitch lay down a super tight groove for the horns to start pumping again. Nigel definitely stretches out on his solo midway through and Jesus then hits with some hypnotic base with Deitch pounding the shit out of the skins. Just love the pocket when Nigel, Shady Horns and Deitch hit together. Nigel’s second round solo on B3 is superb here. The pairing of the staccato horns with extended organ is masterful. This is a definite top tune for me.
- NDUGU – NDUGU, penned by Deitch, kicks off with like a march procession between Shmeeans and Deitch with some clever slide bass work from Jesus. The horns sound a distant fanfare and this definitely gives the impression of an older Afro-beat tune. There’s a nice bridge intro from Shmeeans before Nigel comes through with some floating keys and the horns come back in. This one is definitely an instant favorite, pretty different to me than a lot of prior Lettuce work. Somehow the horns sound impossibly like more than just two players. Benny takes a well timed slightly muted “vocal” extended solo on the trumpet. He’s another that has raised the bar for funky soloing. I can’t say enough about the foundation that Deitch and Nigel are laying down for Benny. The bouncing between horns and ching-a-ling line from Shmeeans is a distinctive head to this song and closes out that way.
- Checker Wrecker – This one features Big Tony from Trouble Funk on vocals and Tyrone ‘Jungle Boogie’ Williams of Rare Essence on bongos/congas, in the D.C. go-go style blend of hip-hop and funk. Checker Wrecker written by a combination of Deitch, Jesus and Big Tony, starts with a quick horn intro just bouncing along with some slick rhythms and a bah-bah-bah-da-ba-dah horn line that carries throughout the tune. Big Tony’s lyrics are classic drawing from a long history of rhyming and timing. It’s definitely funkifized throughout with lyrics like “What do you know about this, homeboy?” Jungle Boogie Nigel again has a short space funk solo and “somebody told me there’s a party going on in here” Then there’s some conjured up some very interesting scratch-like effects. Big Tony and the band call “put you hands in the air y’all, let’s do it for Shmeeans” who lays out some well spaced blues like notes. The bass line here is sooo strong. Big Tony then has Nigel lay it out and “let It ride.” The horn bridge take us out to the end.
- Silence is Golden – The double punch of the horns with the gentle keys is a distinctive opening and a little softer than some Lett starts. The main melody has a latin flair especially with Nigel’s keyboard work. Jesus’ bass line is spot on. The smooth horn line is a nice clean chorus. Zoidis comes in with a nicely spaced, flowing solo next. It’s reminiscent of some of the best Grover Washington Jr. work for example on Live at the Bijou. For sax lovers, like me, this could be a highlight of the album. Nigel comes on next with a very chill sparkling keys solo. It’s somewhat unique to my knowledge because it’s largely electric piano with not a lot of synth effects that you hear in most other tunes. After complete song break (silent 4 count), the song comes back with an anthemic horn refrain. Overall, Silence is indeed Golden, very well arranged and a joy to hear.
- Moksha – Moksha, written by Adam Deitch, starts with an old school spacey feel like Return to Forever and great sitar work from Indrajit Banerjee throughout. The lead definitely has an Eastern vibe to it and the buildup is super cool. The slow percussion, sitar, guitar intro continuously builds up anticipation until the full blast band comes in with an indescribably deliciously head. Next there’s great sax synth interplay between Zoidis on the Korg x-911 and the full band before the main melody comes back. After the main section there’s a wonderful duo between Shmeeans and Indrajit playing off each other masterfully. It’s definitely a standout for Shmeeans and his trading with Indrajit on sitar carries the main melody. The return of Nigel on keys with Zoids is a great crescendo to the end of the tune. Now that I’ve seen this a couple of times live, the anticipation builds tremendously and it’s one of my favorites.
- Mr. Dynamite – Of course, James Brown is another strong influence on the band and this is an homage to the Godfather. Mr Dynamite was collectively written by the band and the first one to come from a band jam turned into a song. It breaks out kinda chill with a heavy guitar/bass/drum retro funk line. Ryan hits with a highly synthed alto solo and Benny plays some great wah-wah tricks on this one (made me think it was flute-like). Jesus lays down some heavy bass. Then Ryan comes back on tenor a funky Maceo line, more deep and mellow. Shmeeans also teases some Silence is Golden guitar licks back into this one. Ryan comes back a third time, on alto, to close it out with sizzling on top of the groove.
- Remember the Children – Lettuce doesn’t record many covers (although they play some live) but this Earth, Wind & Fire tune from the 1972 album Last Days and Time is an exception. This version is actually much more vibrant than the original. The horns on the Lettuce version are more in the forefront than the original and all of the instrumentation on this version is more pronounced whereas the original is generally more chill. This is as good as it gets – Nigel’s vocals are spot on – he’s one of the best at the old school soulful funk. The bass-guitar-drum back line is locked in and for Nigel’s singing and the horns accentuate the mood. The horns hit the break with a whinny sound before Ryan hits with a solid effects solo. That one is so good – looking forward to seeing it live.
- ‘Lude – Here’s an interesting side factoid – “Last Days and Time” had three interludes No. 1, 2, and 3. This one fades in with a cool acid jazz feel and fades out to….
- House of Lett – You want a burner? House of Lett, Deitch’s stated favorite, is a super funky, dance tune and probably my favorite horn line on the album. The keys and guitar intro from Nigel and Shmeeans sets the tone. The drum-bass combo is so damn deep and funky. The horns play off Nigel who again takes us to a place in space and Shmeeans is showing some tasty timed licks throughout. Benny takes another terrific solo here and similar to ‘Ndugu the horns sound like a whole bunch more than reality. Benny said during the live stream “I’m trying to sound like a trumpet player would on a 90’s house jam.” The bridge of Nigel-Deitch-Jesus is terrific and then Zoidz shows how is the master of sax effects with Benny sliding in sideways to take a bow. Benny comes back a second time with a nice accent short solo. This one is how Lettuce does house big time. This is another favorite to see live (can’t wait to see it again) as it’s impossible to stand still.
- Resonate – This one has such a bright tingly opening with Shmeeans picking vibes that actually sound like vibes with Nigel playing similarly bright making me envision a waterfall. The horns come in sounding like a full orchestra. This song was written by Shmeeans, Jesus and Deitch! The main chorus is just gorgeous and fully worthy of the album title. The horns accompany the band with some excellently spaced bars. Benny takes another slower but beautiful muted solo. The whole tone is dreamlike and cruises with many layers in many directions. Could this be the most beautiful Lettuce tune ever?
Elevate, nominated for a Grammy, was hard to beat, but after just one listen this album feels like a masterpiece and bring Lettuce their second nomination.
Adam Deitch (drums, percussion)
Adam ‘Shmeeans’ Smirnoff (guitar)
Erick ‘Jesus’ Coomes (bass)
Ryan Zoidis (alto, baritone, tenor sax, Korg X-911)
Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom (trumpet)
Nigel Hall (vocals, Hammond B-3, Rhodes, clavinet, keyboards)
Big Tony from Trouble Funk on vocals and Tyrone ‘Jungle Boogie’ Williams of Rare Essence on bongos/congas on Checker Wrecker
Indrajit Banerjee on sitar on Moksha