.Polyrhythmics crafts its own genre

No Labels

The band’s name suggests a sound that draws from the complex and intricate rhythms of the Africa. But while Seattle-based Polyrhythmics began with Afrobeat as a musical starting point, the group has crafted a sound all its own. The group—perhaps better described as a collective—released its debut album, Labrador, in 2011. Today, Polyrhythmics have six albums, a pair of EPs and a half dozen singles. And the style and sound will confound those intent on pigeonholing the group.

Saxophonist/flutist Art Brown laughs when that conundrum is pointed out.

 “The whole ‘labeling’ discussion confounds us as band members, too,” he says. Noting that the original concept came from founders Ben Bloom (guitar) and drummer Grant Schroff, Brown says that Polyrhythmics did begin with musical touchstones that included Fela Kuti and Antibalas. “That’s how it was pitched to me,” he says. But as the vision—and the group—expanded, a horn section became an integral part. “And I think we’ve branched out significantly,” Brown says.

The sonic realignment was more a factor of exploring the unique collective character that the seven-man lineup brought to the music. And constant touring meant that the group’s style, strength, cohesion and versatility only grew.

Polyrhythmics’ first three albums were released by a small, Canada-based label specializing in vinyl releases of instrumental funk and Afrobeat. By 2017 the group had shifted to self-releasing its music, but a fortuitous meeting helped bring the band to a wider audience. “Ben had been a fan of the New Mastersounds for several years,” Brown recalls. And when Bloom turned his band mates on to the deep-groove boogaloo funk of the foursome from Leeds, England, they were impressed as well. “I thought they were just incredible,” Brown says.

secure document shredding

A mutual respect and friendship grew between members of the two bands, and when New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts launched his own label, Color Red, Polyrhythmics arranged for a pair of releases on the new imprint. 2020’s Man From the Future will appeal to fans of Roberts’ group, with the addition of complex rhythms and shades of James Brown, Maceo Parker and George Clinton.

Man From the Future’s sonic textures also took the music in a moodier direction; the group’s website uses words like “sinister” and “dark”. But that was only one of many sides to the band; at almost the same time, they released another disc. A five-song, 12-inch EP called Fondue Party showed Polyrhythmics’ playful side. It recalls classic genre-blurring releases like Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground and Push Push.

As bracing and high-energy as Polyrhythmics’ music is, there’s an undercurrent of urbane sophistication and subtlety on the studio cuts. And Brown concedes that getting that subtlety across in a live setting can present a challenge. He explains that his jazz background emphasizes improvisation, an approach in which “multiple stories are being told from soloist to soloist.”

But Brown says the longer, more groove-oriented approach employed by Polyrhythmics means that a more intentional approach is required. “There’s a lot of ego that needs to be taken away,” he says with a chuckle. “I have to take myself out of it and think more about the journey, the story that we’re telling as a group.”

Polyrhythmics plays with Floratura May 17, 9pm, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $20 advance / $25 day of show moesalley.com

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