An olio of jazzy, bluesy and funky styles, the Chicago-based quintet Soulio plays a type of groove-based music that commands a universal appeal. Call it “soul jazz,” to be exact, as their repertoire revolves around the kind of catchy, familiar tunes made famous by improvising artists like Cannonball Adderley, Stanley Turrentine, the Jazz Crusaders and other fearless old-school instrumentalists.
With the release of their debut CD, Soulio demonstrates just how likeable this greasy genre can be when approached with heart and conviction. In fact, it’s right up just about anybody’s alley — provided they have a soul.
Listeners who catch Soulio performing live at local haunts like Nick’s Beer Garden, Pete Miller’s Steakhouse or Katerina’s are often overcome with the band’s warm, inviting vibe and sexy growl to the point where they actually have to get up and dance just to cool off.
Led by trombonist Johnny Showtime (John Janowiak), Soulio includes saxophonist Matt Shevitz, guitarist Jay Montana, bassist Greg Nergaard and drummer Dan Leali. Showtime and Leali performed together in the Grammy-nominated acid-jazz outfit Liquid Soul from the mid-’90s through early 2000s. Before the acid-jazz buzz completely wore off in the Windy City, Showtime and Shevitz played in a local band called New Math, the brainchild of Nergaard and Montana.
Soulio boasts a repertoire that is unique among working bands in Chicago today. You’ll notice that some of their songs lean toward the jazzy side, while others offer a funkier feel. Indeed, there’s a nice variety here in terms of groove and style, but the common thread running through it all is a soulful, hard-hitting, funky and bluesy vibe that’s downright fattening.
Featuring a front line of trombone and sax, the group puts a slight twist on the classic soul-jazz combo. Showtime and Shevitz complement each other perfectly, the saxophonist’s harmonically advanced approach providing heady counterpoint to the trombonist’s funky and melodic musical persona.
This groovy and gritty CD also introduces us to Soulio’s extended orbit of regular subs and featured guests, “adjunct members” who include many of Chicago’s finest players. Drummer Xazavian Valladay, who often lends his gospel-influenced energy to the band’s live gigs when Leali is off performing with Poi Dog Pondering or Blue Man Group, is featured here on the Shevitz original “Three Buck Chuck.” Trumpeter Ron Haynes (also of Liquid Soul fame) charges up the horn section with his power chops on three of the selections. And keyboard whiz Vijay Tellis-Nayak (of the Chicago fusion band Kick The Cat) contributes vital piano, Hammond B3 organ, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer parts.
The pacing of the program is appropriately superb. It flows like one of Soulio’s live performances, with a variety of soulful grooves and exhilarating solos driving the music over the course of what feels like a warm, sultry summer’s night. The guest musicians come and join the core members after the proceedings are already underway. By the time we get to the third track, “Sunny,” Soulio has transformed from a tight quintet into a larger ensemble with background figures arranged by Shevitz to bring out the rich luster of the harmonies.
The genre of feel-good music that Soulio has publicly embraced since 2004 was once regarded by diehard jazz musicians as nothing more than a lowbrow form of commercialism. “You’d think we would be accused of selling out,” Showtime said. “To the contrary, we get blank stares when we mention Cannonball, Turrentine or even the term ‘soul jazz’ to many folks. So maybe the time is ripe to reintroduce this kind of material. The important thing is the music is timeless, and it draws people in even if they don’t know the history of it.”
Turns out that when it comes to playing jazz, just a little bit of soul goes an awfully long way.
—Ed Enright, DownBeat contributing editor