Groove Lines
by Jessica Novak - Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
Soule Monde brings their funk to Onondaga Community College

The Legends of Jazz series, part of Onondaga Community College’s Arts Across Campus initiative, has brought in many traditional names and well-known jazz pioneers. But starting on Friday, Nov. 22, the Onondaga Hill campus will host artists who are “slightly off the beaten path,” according to Frank Malfitano, founder and director of the program, as well as the M&T Jazz Fest.

Soule Monde, featuring Ray Paczkowski and Russ Lawton of the Trey Anastasio Band, will perform at OCC’s new 150-seat Recital Hall on Friday at 4:30 and 7 p.m. And on Friday, Dec. 6, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood will appear at the campus venue.

The afternoon shows will focus on the scholastic goal of the series, which started in 2009. “The overall goal for the series is to reintroduce jazz to college campuses nationwide so students can be exposed to their heritage music,” says Malfitano. “It’s the first step toward creating a multiple-day residency that will bring artists into campus and into the community for two or three days in the future, so they can schedule even more classroom activities, more community outreach activities and more media appearances.”

The artists in this season’s Legend of Jazz series are participants in the student performances and seminars, including previous guests Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter, and the upcoming musicians Medeski, Don Byron and Cyrille Aimee.

For the afternoon shows, students from OCC and surrounding middle and high schools, as well as local musicians and interested members of the public, come to hear intimate concerts from these artists, sometimes with amazing moments.
“Something happened with the Dianne Reeves band in September that was unprecedented,” Malfitano says. “During her clinic, she invited a high school vocal jazz musician and brilliant jazz saxophonist on stage to jam with her and the band. It was a ‘pinch me’ moment. Goose bumps. It was the kind of thing you dream about but can’t plan for. All the barriers between artists and audience were eliminated and there was no separation between teacher and pupil. That was the ultimate.”

When Soule Monde visits, they also hope to break down barriers and impart knowledge to the students.

“I was mostly self-taught,” says drummer Russ Lawton, who also teaches privately at Middlebury College in Vermont. “But I went to this teacher at this little drum school and he helped me with technique and rounding out different styles. He taught me how to play music simply, how to build a song from the drums up. And I learned on the bandstand. You learn from people better than you. It really kicks your butt: I want to be better, man.”

Lawton started his career in Boston, but found himself drawn to the music scene of Burlington, Vt. He eventually moved for a band, Zzebra, and connected with bassist Tony Markellis. Although the two never had a group together, they were fans of each other and when the time came, the collaboration was just right.
“The bass and drums relationship is really important,” Lawton emphasizes. “We laugh now: What took us so long {to play together}? It took 20 years!”

The sparks flew when they played in the Trey Anastasio Band starting in the late 1990s.

The group also introduced Lawton to organ-magician Ray Paczkowski. When Anastasio rejoined with Phish, Lawton and Paczkowski started playing on their own.

“There was this club in Sugarbush with a Hammond B3,” Lawton says. “They’re tough to lug around, and we do and it’s fine, but this was there, so I said, ‘Hey, Ray, you wanna play this club sometime?’”

They went in with very limited material, but ended up putting on a brilliant show. “Three-quarters was improvised,” Lawton says. “It was really fun. We didn’t know we were gonna do this. Now we’re like, ‘What the hell? Eight gigs this month? What?’ You never know what’s gonna happen.”

In 2012 the duo released a self-titled album on Cornmeal Records and they’ve been heating up on the circuit, bringing their fresh organ-driven, percussion-backed, funk-jazz grooves to audiences. Their sound is expansive, especially given their size, with Paczkowski dominating both melody and bass lines and Lawton never faltering or skipping a beat, but never overplaying or filling, either. His touch is sensitive to the groove, sympathetic to the funk.

“I don’t want to be a show-off drummer,” he says. “I want to be a musical drummer. Time and feel can be big. It’s not always bang-bang, it’s in the pocket. It can be tough.”

When it comes to naming his favorites, he lists drummers who tackle tough stuff with ease: Charlie Watts, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Steve Jordan, Lenny White, Steve Gadd, Billy Martin and Questlove.

“I just love the way Questlove plays,” he says. “He gives me faith in the style that I like to play. We played on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this time last year and I was lookin’ over like, it’s Questlove! I went over and said hi and he says, ‘Wow, I love your playing!’ It was amazing. I have so much respect for his {playing}. Simplicity. Those are my guys. There are tons of them.”

Lawton’s playing is worth talking about, too, and the chemistry between him and Paczkowski is palpable. The combination is natural. And the goal for the duo is simple.

“We just want to keep playing,” Lawton emphasizes. “I’m still trying to be a better musician all the time. I’m working on it every day. It’s not just fancy licks. It’s time and feel. It’s being a tasteful drummer, keeping active as a drummer, because I love playing. If someone says, ‘That’s a great feel,’ that’s what’s important to me. Every day I wake up and that’s pretty much what I do {play music}. I’ve been doing it a long time. I’ve had my first set for 40 years and was playing before that. I moved to Boston in 1976 to get serious.”

Lawton pauses, then laughs an endearing giggle: “Thinking about it, I should be an amazing drummer by now!”

Just the Facts
Who: Soule Monde
When: Friday, Nov. 22, 4:30 p.m. (student and musician performance and seminar) and 7 p.m. (public show)
Where: Recital Hall, Onondaga Community College, 4585 W Seneca Turnpike
Information: 498-2772; soulemonde.com; srcarena.com.

Advice from the Artist

“If you wanna go for it, really go for it. Do it every day. Meet people. Keep moving forward. I hate the word networking, but you gotta network. You gotta keep working on your art. It’s so important to put in that time every day, that study. Work with other musicians. Keep chipping away. Work hard at it.”

–Soule Monde’s Russ Lawton