Fresh from an extended Easter break we’ve returned to find the RGM inbox groaning under the weight of cool music. With literally hundreds of emails to consider where do we start? Lettuce are an acclaimed US act originally formed at the Berklee College of Music in Boston back in 1992. ‘Elevate’ is their sixth studio album set for release 14th June 2019 via Regime Inc / Membran. The first taster from the record ‘Krewe’ is very cool and a great funky way to start the week. This looks like the tip of the iceberg for Lettuce as the guys aren’t bound by genre classifications so we can expect some cool grooves when the record drops. More about Lettuce and a link to ‘Krewe’ follows:
LETTUCE is (a) the prime ingredient in a salad, (b) slang for cash, (c) a green herb that can be smoked,(d) a genre-busting six member funk/jazz/soul/jam/psychedelic/hip-hop/art-rock/ambient/avant-garde/experimental collective formed in 1992 by four students at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston, Massachusetts or (e) all of the above.
If you answered ‘e’, then you are on to the ever-changing musical palette and all-inclusive goals of ‘Elevate’, the sixth studio album by Lettuce and its ongoing re-interpretation of their name as ‘Let Us’. In their early days as students they would roam the cities of the north eastern US and implore others to ‘Let Us Play’. The phrase was also affixed to the band's first four albums : ‘(Let Us) Outta Here’ (2002), ‘(Let Us) Rage!’ (2008), ‘(Let Us) Fly!’ (2012) and ‘(Let Us) Crush’ (2015). ‘Elevate’ is their first studio release since 2016’s ‘Mt. Crushmore’ and the follow-up to a 2017 live recording entitled ‘Witches Stew’.
Recorded with legendary engineer Russ Elevado (D’Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu) at Colorado Sound Studios, close to Denver and near the home of New York transplants and band co-founders Adam ‘Shmeeans’ Smirnoff (guitars) and Adam Deitch (percussionist), ‘Elevate’ shows Lettuce touching on its past while moving full force into the future. The band explores its funk roots in the Tower of Power like punch of ‘Ready to Live’ (a cover of a song written by Lydia Pense of Cold Blood), the Prince-like swagger of ‘Royal Highness’ and the OG blues-soul of ‘Love Is Too Strong’, while the expansive sounds from the space age heard on ‘Trapezoid’, ‘Gang 10’ and ‘Purple Cabbage’ show off the influence of the vintage synthesizer played by saxophonist Ryan Zoidis and the Rhodes keyboard of Nigel Hall.
The more progressive/spacey vibe, with elements of Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Eno and Miles Davis, also comes naturally to the band, according to bassist Erick ‘Jesus’ Coomes, whose father Tommy is also a successful musician with a number of albums to his credit. “We’re big improvised music and arts fans, ”he states. “We consider them part of the same world. It’s like painting live with five other people, one arm and a single brush.”
Nigel Hall, the band’s resident singer, takes vocals on the album’s two diverse covers, ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ by Tears For Fears and ’Ready To Live’ by Lydia Pense of Cold Blood. “As long as you listen, play your part and remember where the ‘one’ is, you can thrive in this band,” he offers. Trumpet and horn-player Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom, who has been a full-time member of Lettuce since 2011, adds “this isn’t just a funk band anymore. We’re playing every style of music in every song. You can’t categorise it. We have the freedom to do whatever we want that’s appropriate for the song.”
Much of the futuristic, yet warm and analog feel of ‘Elevate’ can be attributed to sax player Ryan Zoidis, who continued to explore the almost limitless options provided by his vintage Korg X-911 synth. “I was still figuring it out on the last album, troubleshooting how it would work,” he explains. “It’s responsible not just for the ways the band has changed musically, but it has also improved my life in general. It’s great to hava lot more options with my sound rather than just relying on the one standard timbre of the dry sax.
There are now a bunch of different voices I can pull up.” He points to ‘Trapezoid’ as a piece for which he recorded himself playing the synth over a click track and then sent to Deitch, who turned it into the song on the album.
Other album highlights include Smirnoff’s nod to Carlos Santana and Trey Anastasio on the playfully named Latin-flavoured ‘Shmink Dabby’, the spaghetti western meets ‘60s Ethiopian funk of ‘Krewe’ and the Marcus King cameo vocal on the B.B. King/Al Green gospel blues of ‘Love Is Too Strong’. The latter is reminiscent of other guest spots on previous Lettuce albums by the likes of John Scofield, Fred Wesley and Dwele.
“There’s always something new to be learned as musicians and as people. We’re trying to get a little bit better every day,” summarises Shmeeans, while Ryan conclues: “We realise more and more that this band is a gift we’ve been given. Everyone contributes, like in a successful sports team. We’ve really become family over the years. We’ve known there was magic in this from the moment we first got together.”
That magic continues to grow with this new album by a democratic ensemble in which there is no leader, but a complete unit that functions as a single entity, with plenty of moving parts. All together now…Let us Elevate.