On “The Dogfather,” the Rhythm Dogs’ first album in seven years, the Portland band returns with an unusual blend of groove-based jazz, funk, ska, blues, Latin, and Afrobeat.
The band is made up of saxophonist Mary-Sue Tobin, trombonist Greg Scholl, keyboardist Chris Azorr, drummer Mark Burdon, percussionist Chuk Barber, and bassist Mark von Bergen, who together with the recently deceased John Rink (to whom the album is dedicated) founded the band in 2000.
Critical listeners usually approach a work sequentially, but one may want to start with the opener “The Big Up” and then jump to “Respect Bossman.“ These tracks feature guitarist Jennifer Batten, who toured the world and recorded with both Michael Jackson and guitar master Jeff Beck. She tears through both cuts with aggressiveness and impeccable taste adding incendiary solos and exquisitely funky rhythm work. Another highlight are the three cuts featuring Jamaican legend Scientist, one of the most influential figures in dub and roots reggae music. Here he mixes Pharoah Sander’s spiritual anthem from the 1970s “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” given a clever ska arrangement by the band, and launches that tune and the reggae-tinged “Sapphire” into the outer circles of dub. He uses the same echo-drenched treatment that he has applied to recordings of the most important figures in Jamaican music, Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Sly & Robbie among them.
While Batten’s and Scientist’s contributions add undeniable power and dimension to the disc, there is plenty more here.
Other than the Pharaoh Sanders tune, the album is made up entirely of strong originals ranging from the funky “Weetie” and the Fela-meets-Ornette “Afro-Funkolodics 3000 AD” to a pair of stunning ballads, “Mimi in the Country” and “Song for My Mother” (the latter incorporating the rarely performed changes of Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) – and plenty in between.
While the compositions are well constructed and creative, the interplay and soloing also stand out.
Tobin’s work on tenor and alto soars especially on some well-developed and inventive solos on “The Big Up,” in which she handles the challenging task of following Batten’s burning guitar work, and on “Mimi” where she takes Azorr’s stunningly beautiful melody and makes it her own. Azorr’s keyboard work is always thoughtful and inspired especially his grand piano on “Mimi.” Scholl’s trombone, present on all four Rhythm Dogs’ albums, is stronger than ever; his tone is clear and powerful and his soloing often tests the outside parameters of the music’s harmonic structures. von Bergen, who penned most of the tunes, provides an elastic and muscular bottom, with nods to funkateer Bootsy Collins, reggae’s Robbie Shakespeare, and free-funk pioneer Jamaaladeen Tacuma. The rhythm section – which often steals the spotlight – is composed of Barber of the iconic Latin funk band WAR (Low Rider, Spill the Wine, Slippin’ Into Darkness) and Berklee-educated Burdon. Together provide a solid and rolling undercurrent and are featured on a couple of fiery percussion duets.
This is the Rhythm Dogs’s finest effort to date and must be heard. Very highly recommended.