It’s been ten years since saxophonist Neal Sugarman, drummer Rudy Albin, and organist Adam Scone have released anything together under the moniker Sugarman 3, and even longer since the band was an actual trio. After emerging during the “Acid Jazz” scene of the mid ’90s with a resume that includes apprenticeships and sideman stints with greats like Ben Dixon, Eddie Henderson, Mike Longo, and Jack McDuff, Sugarman 3 broke from the pack by defining their soul jazz boogaloo sound around the funk of Scone’s Hammond organ. Their appropriately titled debut, 1998′s Sugarman’s Boogaloo, was filled with groovy organ and pounding break beats, capturing the essence of soul jazz while also crossing onto the dance floor. With additional guitar provided by the late Coleman Mellet, Sugarman’s Boogaloo also marked the beginning of the band evolving beyond a three-piece.
The band’s sound and lineup continued to grow and develop on their follow-up, Soul Donkey, which saw them moving slightly away from jazz and toward more traditional funk. Relying less on accoutrement, solos, and excessive arrangements, the songs were stripped down and the focus was put onto Scone’s basslines. The band’s migration away from boogaloo continued with its third release, Pure Cane Sugar, perhaps the group’s roughest and funkiest release, featuring vocals by Lee Fields, Naomi Shelton, and Charles Bradley. In the decade since Pure Cane Sugar, though, the band has been quiet. Sugarman has remained active as a part-time member of the Budos Band, a full-time member of the Dap-Kings, a guest session player, and a partner with Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth running Daptone Records. With the band’s fourth release, What the World Needs Now, rather than continue down into the mires of deep, dirty funk, the Sugarman 3 have returned, more or less, to their soul jazz roots. Along for the ride are trumpeter Dave Guy and percussionist Fernando Velez, as well as Joe Crispiano on guitar and Bosco Mann himself on bass, all members of the Dap-Kings.
What the World Needs Now opens with “Rudy’s Intervention” and a sharp set of horn blasts before settling down into a tight, mellow groove. As the song settles in, it’s easy to imagine an emcee from an old soul revue verbalizing over the rhythm section, introducing the show. On tracks like “Jealous Moon”, with its steady pace, and the blues organ drenched “Brother T”, the ghost of Jack McDuff makes such a strong sonic appearance through Scone’s earthy organ, it’s as if the Honeydripper himself was in the studio and Albin was still his drummer.
In the late ’60s, if pop and jazz crossed paths, it was often through the songs of Burt Bacharach. Bacharach’s songs, like those of the Beatles, were often used by jazz musicians as a way to cross over to the pop audience. Led by Sugarman’s heartbreaking sax, “What the World Needs Now” is hauntingly arranged, calling to mind The Professionals’ cover of “The Godfather Theme” or Mike Curb’s alternative “Mickey Mouse Club Theme”, almost antithetical to Bacharach’s original.
The title track is tied as the album’s centerpiece by “Got To Get Back To My Baby” (penned by Budos members Jared Tankel and Thom Bressneck), the shagadelic “Witch’s Boogaloo”, and “Mellow Meeting”, a bubblegum pop soul number that if released in 1968 would have been played on AM radio alongside Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut”. Reflecting the rare groove style of Reuben Wilson’s 1969 classic Love Bug (featuring Leo Morris on drums before he became Idris Muhammad), these four songs are an ebullient blend of smooth pop, slick soul, and grooving jazz.
Because we tend to want to connect something new with what we already know, on initial listen a desire to run to an artist like Booker T. and the MGs or someone from the Stax roster may be strong. That sound and style is certainly present, especially on the cover of J.J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright”, which should immediately bring to mind Sam & Dave (as well as Jackson and Eddie Floyd, who also had a hit with it). “Dirty Water”, an old E.C. Cobb track produces similar effects. But aside from both the MGs and the Sugarman 3 being well versed instrumental soul outfits, the MGs tended to stay on the pop side of the fence, whereas the Sugarman 3′s pedigree all but demands it encompass a larger scope. On “Your Friendly Neighborhood Sugarman”, Stax may be present, but upon closer inspection this track begins to take on the identity of a Bill Doggett tune with its jazz-laced early R&B, only arranged with the sturdy horns found on some of Al Green’s first records. With each additional listen, this album opens itself up to being more than just an instrumental soul album, but one layered in blues and gospel, sunshine pop and the rhythmic groove of soul jazz.
Essential Tracks: “Your Friendly Neighborhood Sugarman”, “Brother T.”, “Dirty Water”, “Mellow Meeting”