“Don’t clap yet, it might suck” band leader Rich Brown said as the audience applauded his entrance to the stage at the Horseshoe Tavern Wednesday night.
Brown dexterously picked up his six-string bass guitar and looked back out to the house.
“It won’t suck,” he said with a knowing smile.
For the first tune of the set, Brown plucked out an intricate and rhythmic West-African sounding riff on the neck of the bass. Eventually the pattern led into a funky descending bassline, and the rest of the band kicked in. Bright chords from Jeremy Ledbetter’s keyboards danced like sprinkles on top of the swing beat Mark Prince hammered out, with Luis Deniz on saxophone taking the melody.
The band filled an hour long set with a wide variety of sounds, from bebop sax solos to glitchy, digital keyboard stings, funk, two-step and more, sometimes all at once. Each musician took a turn, trading off long solos to flex their prowess and to add something new to the groove.
The MC for the evening said the band always fills the place, and its connection with the audience was visible: everyone in the crowd was nodding along and moving to the rhythm, applauding each solo and every new turn the band took. It takes a “something” to get an audience to sing along with a completely instrumental set, but the house was shouting back the lyrical melody the sax was pouring out all the same.
“If you think it’s hot in here now,” Brown said before their final song, “Ghost-Note is up next!”
After being thoroughly warmed up by Rich Brown’s Rinsethealgorithm, there followed a 45-minute wait that felt like an eternity with the agonizing anticipation in the room, but Ghost-Note proved well worth the wait.
From the moment Ghost-Note took the stage it was clear this was a group of players who knew what they were doing. Before the audience knew it the sound of a flute duet washed through like a mountain breeze, a tropical rhythm coming from the percussion section. A hammond organ joins the growing variety of sounds as each member of the band works their way into the groove. The flutes find themselves playing a lower, repetitive melody as the tune reaches a climax, and then Ghost-Note breaks out the funk. A piece that started out as tropical, exotic and mysterious gradually and seamlessly transitioned to something as funky as Sly and the Family Stone. By the end of the first tune they had shown themselves to be a funky powerhouse - and they were just getting started.
They played the title track off their 2018 album, Swagism, next, but as good as that track was on the recording, the live version was a different animal altogether, even considering the natural night-to-night differences that come with improvised music. The variations on themes the band went through and the energy, the tenacity with which they played made the song come alive.
It added greatly to the experience to watch the band really playing together and playing off each other, taking and giving cues, egging each other on, even cracking each other up on stage. Band leader and percussionist Nate Werth - of Snarky Puppy fame - as well as keyboardist Vaughan “V. Keys” Henry kept asking the audience if it was funky enough for them, only as an excuse for the band to get funkier with it.
While everything Ghost-Note played that night was funky, not all of it was straight-up funk. They weaved in elements of hip-hop, with old-school breakbeats or J Dilla-style staggering rhythms coming from Alvin Ford Jr. on the kit. They found a way to make reggae fast-paced without veering into ska territory: bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas kept it easy and groovy, holding it back while Werth’s rolling congas picked up the pace. Guitarist Peter Knudsen would sit in the background playing Nile Rodgers-esque rhythm, complementing MonoNeon’s bass with popping riffs or taking centre stage to solo, singing along with each note he played. With both alto sax player Jonathan Mones and tenor player Sylvester “Sly5thAve” Onyejiaka doubling on flute, there was no limit to the different flavours Ghost-Note worked into their set.
Ghost-Note closed off their set with a song called “Shrill Tones,” and the audience had no idea what they were in for. V. Keys leaned into the mic and warned the audience to “hold onto your partner, ‘cause this one’s a doozy.” The band flew into a groove so red-hot even they had to take their hands off it after just a few bars, but they brought it back in an instant, faster and harder hitting. The show-stopper was a visceral experience, with not only the band verbally inviting the audience to jump up and dance but the music compelling every bone in every body to move. Just listening to them play was a workout, and Ghost-Note made it look easy the whole time.