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Funk, jazz and soul take flight with Khruangbin at the Palace

They will play a two-night stand at The Palace Thursday and Friday night, with saxophonist Nubya Garcia as the noteworthy opener.

Khruangbin
Khruangbin
Courtesy of the artist

“So We Won’t Forget,” the lead single on the Texas trio Khruangbin’s third and most recent album, “Mordechai,” released last summer, begins with an interlocking snare drum and bumpity bass riff reminiscent of the intro to “Brick House,” the classic late-summertime funk jam from 1977.

But instead of the whistles, horns and saucy vocals that the Commodores memorably brought to the party, Khruangbin layers in a gliding, winsome guitar line and some cooing that almost sighs with joy. You don’t have to know that the guitar is influenced by highlife music that originated in Ghana and was further popularized in Nigeria – in fact the tone and tenor of the groove gradually acquires a brittle, higher-pitched quality that sounds like a calliope, even as the drum-and-bass continue laying down the beat. It’s merry-go-round music undergirded by “Brick House.”

If you learn about Khruangbin more often than you actually hear their music, their far-flung inspirations can come off as hipper-than-thou, an esoteric pass code into the cool kids stream and mixtape. But their seductive juxtapositions of the exotic and the familiar inevitably and organically marinate into what has become a signature sound, one that coheres even as the trio continues to evolve. They will play a two-night stand at The Palace Thursday and Friday night, with saxophonist Nubya Garcia as the noteworthy opener.

Khruangbin guitarist, Mark Speer and drummer DJ Johnson first played together nearly 18 years ago as members of the St. John’s Methodist Church gospel band in downtown Houston. A few years later, Speer and Laura Lee Ochoa struck up a friendship over a shared interest in the music and architecture of the Middle East. Speer taught her to play bass and they performed as a duo until Speer asked Johnson, who had gone from gospel organist to hip-hop producer, to provide the live break-beats that completed the Khruangbin recipe beginning in 2010. Ochoa eventually named the band after her favorite word in the Thai language she was studying — Khruangbin (ker-RAUNG-bin), or “airplane.”

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There were no grand ambitions. The group broke through when the British musician Bonobo included a Khruangbin song, the celestial “A Calf Born in Winter,” on his “Late Night Tales” mixtape in 2013. The resulting global acclaim compelled the trio to release the EP “History of Flight,” which covers compositions by the Italian soundtrack artist Ennio Morricone, the “Siamese soul” of Teun-Jai Boon Praraksa, the French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (a favorite of Ochoa’s) and the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Khruangbin’s first album of original material, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” was released in 2015. Because of its name and the fact that many of the songs were influenced by the Thai funk music that had become Speer’s recent fixation, the band was overly identified with Thailand. In fact the album’s lush, languid mix mostly conjures the English trip-hop of Morcheeba. Johnson stays deep in the pocket with spare, unerringly-timed beats, Ochoa hints at the Jamaican dub that would become more prominent on later records, and Speer’s spools of guitar shout out the desert blues of Mali and the global currency of melodic pop to sew the enterprise together as a dreamy psychedelic jam.

There is more space in the mix and thus more definition among the three instruments on the group’s second album, “Con Todo El Mundo,” from 2018. Although it is as airily permeated with Iranian funk and pop music as “Universe” had been informed by the sounds of Thailand, what comes through are how well all the disparate sources become intertwined. “Maria También” teaches you that the surf guitar of Dick Dale, with a dash of Duane Eddy, are a kindred spirit to Iranian guitar riffs. “Como me quieres” variously reminds me of the shambling grace of Ry Cooder and the vintage West Coast psychedelia of Quicksilver Messenger Service; “Evan Finds The Third Room,” is an irresistible disco-funk workout that begs for a Soul Train line dance; and the closer, “Friday Morning” sounds like a setup for a Delfonics ballad like “La La La (I Love You).”

The continuity in Khruangbin’s music stems from the patterned way it is composed. Johnson goes first, laying down a succession of beats and breakbeats, sent in a music file to Ochoa, who adds the bass riffs and lines inspired by the drums. Last in line is Speer, who thus has the most initial influence in structuring the tone and tempo to fit his guitar parts.

“I am always surprised by what comes back,” Johnson said with a chuckle when reached by phone last week. “Mark will edit things, chop things up, move them around; sometimes we’ll build something around just one section, so you are working with that one part instead of the entirety of what I sent. We toss things around and eventually all come up with a feel of how it works. Then we go into the barn together and record a live version of that arrangement.”

The “barn” is just that, a cavernous structure in the isolated location of Burton, a town of less than 400 people in east-central Texas. Originally used as a cheap option for an impoverished band, it now offers the advantages of unhurried time, unique space and ongoing familiarity that helps unify the Khruangbin process.

Johnson agrees that the primary impetus for the trio’s cosmopolitan source material is Speer, a listener of omnivorous curiosity who always has music playing, to the extent that it filters into the work of all three members. But if Speer is dominant, he guides in a manner that doesn’t diminish the passionate appreciation for vintage funk and soul that Johnson exudes, or the subtle way he executes it.

“I like to think that my personality works well with the band’s style going in because I have always loved music from the ’60s and ’70s and appreciate the way it formed the foundation of hip hop and breakbeat,” he said. “I have always tried to emulate those grooves on those records I grew up hearing.

“I have never been a top beat or a flashy drummer. I’ve tried it, but I don’t think my brain is wired that way,” he continued. “One thing I do understand is space. I tend to spend most of my time working on the spaces where things line up and makes the groove feel right.”

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That’s readily apparent in the subtle but indelible grooves, which pay legitimate tribute to his idols such as Al Jackson (timekeeper for Al Green and Booker T and the MGs, among others) and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, the legendary session drummer known for his soulful precision. Presumably, the band also goes out of its way to respect the idiosyncratic throb and riffs of Ochoa, who often further deepens Johnson unmistakable pocket. And although Speer gets the final say the first time through, Johnson notes that when it comes to decisions about the ultimate arrangement, “the good thing about a trio is that there is always a tie-breaker. But by the time the record comes out, all of us have signed off on it.”

Songs with words

Released in 2020, “Mordechai” was the first Khruangbin record to feature lyrics and narrative vocals. “The music always comes first,” Johnson stressed. “At the time ‘Mordechai’ was recorded we were touring heavily, without much time to craft things. We went into the barn and recorded a bare bones approach to these songs, with the idea of coming back later and addressing them melodically. When we went back and listened we decided, ‘Hey, maybe this time the songs need words.’ It doesn’t mean that everything we do in the future will be that way.”

Musically, the Khruangbin sounds remains easily recognizable and the vocals are other ethereal. Standout tracks include “Time (You + I),” which sports a slinky funk similar to collaborations between Talking Heads and Brian Eno; an arty “Connaissais de Face” tribute to French cinema and Gainsbourg, with talk-sung conversational lyrics, the peppy Latin and Spanish grooves of “Pelota,” and that Commodores on the merry-go-round jam, “So We Won’t Forget.”

Khruangbin now has a fairly impressive catalog of songs upon which to build its live set. The group has also been known to throw in a cover song or two, most often Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” The Palace is a large space, the kind of venue Johnson says encourages some of the spacious slow jams that can resonate around the hall. And visually, he promises that a band known for its costume changes and occasional light show “will live up to the standard you have come to expect from a Khruangbin concert.”

Nubya Garcia joins the bands for two shows

The cherry on top of this two-night engagement is the presence of a headlining talent like Nubya Garcia as the opening act. Garcia, whose first name is pronounced Nu-BYE-ah, adds another layer to the cosmopolitan sophistication and sense of adventure that will be on the Palace stage. Born in London to Trinidadian and Guyanese parents, she is a fixture in the increasingly influential London jazz scene and heralded for her ambitious album, “Source,” which appeared on many “Best of 2020” lists compiled by jazz publications.

Beginning with the violin at the age of 5, Garcia became adept on a variety of instruments, including viola, clarinet, and then alto and finally tenor saxophone. She performed with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and eventually crossed the ocean to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Over time, she became an integral member or associate of a variety of ensembles that variously blended jazz, soul, indigenous African grooves and sound-system production flexibility, including the female-heavy collective Nerija, the Afro-centric jazz band Maisha, the heralded supergroup Sons of Kemet, and works by Chicago-based drummer-producer Makaya McCraven. After two fledgling albums under her own name, she released “Source” in August 2020, before her 30th birthday. It is a glorious musical memoir filled with fire and ice that spring from her musical roots.

Nubya Garcia
Photo by Adama Jalloh
Nubya Garcia
Garcia’s “Source” album has an unexpectedly thrilling willfulness. The title song alone is a 12-minute journey that has dub flourishes and a mixture of acoustic and electric interplays before Garcia cuts loose with long, beseeching passages. Not many young tenors get compared to legends like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, but all were name-checked over the course of “Source” reviews.

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While the early material on the record ratifies Garcia’s jazz bona fides, songs toward the end of the record broaden her scope by reflecting her heritage. Recorded in Bogotá, “La cumbia me está llamando” (“The cumbia is calling me”), blends the folk dance rhythm of cumbia that are so fundamental to music throughout the tropical islands and countries of South and Central America, with an added dollop of soulful funk and jazz improvisation.

Garcia hopes to perform all the material from “Source,” although some of it may be taken from “Source # We Move,” in which a variety of prominent artists, including McCraven, remix the original album. In other words, Garcia will remix the remix live onstage with her quartet.

“When a piece of music gets decapitated or reimagined, it gives them a whole new lease on life,” she said, adding that she will likely revisit “the reimaginations where you can still hear the original in there.”

Garcia also hopes to premiere at least one new piece of music from her germinating, composition-heavy project, which seems like it eventually could be symphonic.

“It feels much bigger than ‘Source,’ which at the time felt huge too,” said Garcia. “You try and push yourself and this is omnidirectional. I am going to be bringing in some of my younger musical experiences in terms of the instrumentation. It’s an exciting time, to be at the beginning of creation, building an idea.”