The City Champs

The Set-Up

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This Memphis-based instrumental soul-jazz trio is already pushing boundaries on its second album in two years. The Booker T. & the MG's style, led by keyboardist Al Gamble and guitarist Joe Restivo, is firmly in place as evidenced by the peppy "Rigamarole" and the opening title track, which also hints at a subtle Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western angle. But the addition of horns and a fuller sound on the ballad "Crump St." and a more intricate arrangement of the soulful "Chinatown," which finds the guitar and organ weaving and darting between each other's lines, shows that the somewhat limited description of "organ combo" won't constrict the members of the City Champs. These are not just groove-oriented jams but full-blown, often melodically complex tunes. They find their heart in the classic Memphis Stax style yet push at the borders of that genre to create memorable instrumental music that doesn't need a vocalist or frontperson to connect. The band's firm grip on dynamics and especially arrangements makes the music sizzle with a power and intensity lost on other instrumental acts without this intuitive talent. Other contemporary bands such as the U.K.'s New Mastersounds bring the funk, but the Champs' strong ballad sensibilities expand out of the party-dance arena and into something more sonically substantial. The disc's only cover is a sly, Latin-tinged version of "Theme from Mad Men" (the TV show) that adds bubbling congas to the mix with a jazz-oriented, full-bodied approach that percolates like steaming coffee. The stripped-down lineup yields a remarkably vibrant and meaty vibe, unusual for a three-piece. The closing "Comanche" is a deliberate, moody, and somber example of how this trio uses its expressive songwriting chops to enhance its veteran musical ones.

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