There is really no appropriate musical genre to classify the virtuosic, multi-hued group known as Ghost-Note. Sure, they have impeccable jazz credentials, members have collaborated with funk, R&B, rock, hip-hop and gospel legends, and yet the impressive assembly cannot be pinned down by any of those industry labels or lanes.
The band of badasses commandeered San Francisco jazz haunt The Black Cat last week, dropping four searing sets over the course of two nights. Artistic ambition, an abundance of chops, and a bold spirit of defiance were on glistening display when Ghost-Note performed to capacity crowds of thirsty Bay Area music fans.
Ghost-Note was initially conceived back in 2015 as a percussion-focused collective of moving parts. The co-founders are the uber-gifted Robert “Sput” Searight (Snarky Puppy, Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar) on drums, and his longtime rhythmic co-pilot, Nate Werth, (Snarky Puppy) on a vast array of percussion. The duo set out to to break the rigid rules, and to color far beyond the establishment lines. Soon thereafter, the idiosyncratic bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas (Prince) and keyboardist/vocalist Dominique Xavier Taplin (Prince, Toto) joined the crew, each injecting their own individual flair and steez into the equation. The boys haven’t looked back since.
Though some members have floated in and out over the past few years, the rest of the group has solidified over time: guitarist Peter Knudsen; Sylvester Onyejiaka (Prince, Quantic) on baritone sax, tenor sax, and flute; Jonathan Mones (Funky Knuckles, RC & The Gritz) on alto sax and flute; and Mike Jelani Brooks (Kirk Franklin, RC & The Gritz) on tenor saxophone. This entire contingent squeezed onto the extremely small Black Cat stage and proceeded to torch the sold-out room.
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The venue is a traditional jazz club with seated tables and limited standing room in the back. Sput was perched on his drum throne on the venue floor, in front of the stage, basically in the lap of the patrons at the first table, with the horns and Knudsen to his side. MonoNeon set up behind him, next to Werth’s sprawling assortment of instruments, with Taplin buried in the far corner behind a grand piano and his keyboards. The cramped nature of this affair made for a vibrant energetic exchange between the band and audience over the course of 75 scorching minutes.
Ghost-Note focused on unveiling unreleased material that they meticulously worked out and recorded during the pandemic times. Sput noted that the band had around forty songs in the can, slated for as many as four albums worth of new bangers. The group has coalesced into a well-oiled machine, evolving towards something super-fresh and rather remarkable.
The Swagism era saw a group of incredible musicians showing out onstage with ferocious fury, but in 2022 Ghost-Note presents as a cohesive, congruent band with a distilled vision and focused intent, making both the compositions and performance even more potent than before.
One can pick up the myriad influences that inform this project. Swaggering blaxploitation films, early-’80s synth-bass and electro-funk, jazz fusion grooves, elastic P-Funk joints. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Teddy Riley and a fella named Prince all reared their funky heads, yet Sput, Nate, Xavier and MonoNeon infused the sound with their own musical personalities, as Ghost-Note proved they are here to carve out their very own slice of the pie instead of merely paying homage to their Yodas.
Opener “Sputnik” brimmed with frenetic energy and spastic grooves. In the 2-slot, a brand-new, vibey number recalled Ayers’ proto-acid-jazz Ubiquity era. The stunning “Lonely Run” was a math-funk flex for the “jazz nerds,” replete with wild time signatures and seductive polyrhythms. Paisley Park was ever-present with deft nods to The Time, plus Prince’s Crystal Ball and Musicology eras, as Ghost-Note sonically approximated the sound of the New Power Generation several times—always with their own twist.
Occasionally, MonoNeon would take the wheel and demonstratively drive the music with his kaleidoscopic low-end theories. Other times, Taplin would command full attention with synth wizardry and a sultry vocal. Mones delivered scintillating solos on both alto sax and flute, and Brooks was burnin’, goin’ toe-to-toe on tenor, holding it down in the dead center of the ensemble.
Sput repeatedly reminded the mostly-seated audience that it’s a “known fact” that when musicians place a melody on top of rhythm, “it makes a booty move.” Onyejiaka’s bombastic baritone sax, paired with the fierce rhythm section, made sure bottoms were bouncing whether in their seats or in the aisles. Eventually, science won over decorum and just about everybody in the stuffy jazz joint came to their feet to boogie for the final stretch of the show.
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“Sugarfoot” uncorked some sensual conga riddims and proper East Bay grease, revealing a San Francisco-native fat-back funk that resonated with the crowd. “Bad Knees” was some jubilant, uptempo R&B smooth, followed by a song dedicated to James Brown—inspired by his famous “Out on Love” interview—that continued the stomping, hard-driving funk, whipping the people into a frenzy.
Werth and Sput reminisced a bit about the early days before acknowledging just how much they missed touring regularly, and how much recorded music they have in store for their fans. Even better, the band teased a forthcoming documentary that’s in the works, as well. Clearly, 2022 is shaping up to be an exciting to time to be a member—and fan—of Ghost-Note.
After introducing the esteemed members of the band for the umpteenth time, Searight commanded all patrons of the Black Cat to “finish your drinks, then get up and dance!” The final Ghost-Note composition, “Five Alive”, made sure every last funkateer in the Black Cat consumed their remaining beverages and got off their ass to jam.