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The New Cool: Jazz Meets Funk For Mardi Gras

Justin Steyer
The funky drummer: Stanton Moore and his trio in the KNKX studios.

In 1971, Bobby Byrd asked his boss James Brown what he was going to play next. James famously replied, "I don't know. But whatever it is, it's got to be funky!", and the drums and bass kick in.

For me, that's the heart and soul of funk music right there, and most people would say it happened at the beginning. But funk wasn't born in the '70s, or even the late '60s, but back at the birth of American music alongside jazz in New Orleans.

It's all about the rhythm. The African drummers in New Orleans' Congo Square were playing the rhythms of their homeland, which blended with the sounds of the Spanish and Portuguese settlers, and just about everyone else who passed through America's cultural heartland.

The multiple rhythms became the setting for a new kind of music, a repeated pulsing that formed a perfect backdrop for showing off your personality in extended improvised playing.

This more undisciplined music simmered in the Deep South and finally found popular appeal with James Brown, Funkadelic, and others, while in New Orleans the drummers in the second line of Mardi Gras parades kept the original funk alive. In fact, the modern funk styles had plenty of innovators in the Big Easy.

Professor Longhair's blend of blues, Afro-Cuban rhythms and a bit of rhumba turned into iconic classics "Tipitina" and "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" from 1949.

He was followed by The Meters, Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint and others in the '50s, who added spice to early rock 'n' roll and inspired the soul/funk heyday in the '70s.

Today, a generation of musicians have grown up with hip-hop and electronic dance music, which were built on the foundations - literally, thanks to sampling - of African-American funk music, and many jazz musicians embrace the funk as a launching pad for improv with crowd pleasing, danceable grooves.

Most directly tied to New Orleans, check out drummer Stanton Moore's band Galactic on The New Cool this week, "Cineramascope" from their album Ya-Ka-May features a tasty solo from Trombone Shorty. Stanton's drum beat goes beyond the marching band swagger of his Crescent City youth to a back beat with a funkier sound.

I hope you'll also enjoy funky selections from Seattle trio McTuff, as well as The Sugarman 3, Lettuce, The New Mastersounds, and The Robert Glasper Experiment (with Ledisi singing!). You'll also hear a couple pieces of Latin funk from Mexican bands Los Dorados and Troker, and some Afro-beat jams courtesy of The Shaolin Afronauts.

A special treat on the show this week, the Lafayette Afro Rock Band, a '70s soul funk group from the U.S. who settled in France and had a few minor funk hits. This week you'll hear their classic "Hihache", which was sampled for rap songs by a long list of stars including L.L. Cool J., Biz Markie, De La Soul, Coolio and many more. The funk is hot on The New Cool this week - let's boogie!

The New Cool airs Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.