Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Soul Immigrants: Funky Sensation

The Soul Immigrants
The Soul Immigrants

Initially formed in 1992 by London vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Emrys Baird and Indian-British musician/producer Nitin Sawhney, Brixton-based funk/soul sextet the Soul Immigrants have survived numerous membership changes and setbacks over their near-20-year career.

All of which today has ultimately resulted in them now completing a new, as-yet-unreleased album ‘Deep, Sweet & Dirty (Fashionable Trends In Funk Vol. 1)’. Which - featuring occasional guest rhymes from revered British speed-rapper JC001 (who in 1992 was awarded the title “fastest rapper worldwide” in ‘The Guinness Book Of Records’ and has recorded with P-Funk icon George Clinton) finds their critically-acclaimed brand of intelligent’n’jazzy, deep-funk grooves continuing to pay homage to the past masters of funk, soul and jazz while lyrically often raising some topical, thought-provoking issues.

Indeed, with the seasoned outfit’s recording career having begun in the Nineties via their first two albums - 1995’s ‘A Healthy Vibe’ and 1998’s ‘On The Fly’ - the multicultural sextet (whose prominent influences include The J.B.’s; Average White Band; and Bootsy Collins) are also this month consolidating their comeback with a highly-anticipated show at Camden’s prestigious Jazz Cafe on March 18. Which will in turn showcase their impressive current line-up, which comprises the aforementioned Emrys Baird (guitar/vocals); Davide Bouet (drums); Ian Bailey (sax): Lady Dee (sax); Stu Ross (keys); plus Al Gibson (bass).

…Cue an affable and talkative Mr. Baird meeting up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over lunchtime drinks in a quaint, vintage-themed Vauxhall brasserie to discuss his band’s past, present and future…

The background behind how Emrys initially came to form The Soul Immigrants in 1992 with Nitin Sawhney

“Well, as a kid learning the guitar, it was always the funk rhythms of people like Nile Rodgers and early Ray Parker, Jr. that excited me. So round about the mid-Eighties I got a chance to do some gigs with the bass-player from Gil Scott-Heron’s band - Robbie Gordon - who’d put a go-go band together in the UK. And, though the band itself never really took off, at the same time the experience itself got me all fired-up to want to pursue a career as a guitarist. So, after that finished and I was squatting in Vauxhall with some other musicians, this trumpet-player called Haji Akhbar turned up, who’d just left James Brown’s band!.. So of course straightaway all of us were like ‘Wow, this guy’s the real DEAL!’ - and we ended up forming this band with him called The Soul Ambassadors... After which, once we’d eventually got quite well-known on the circuit, Haji had this idea of bringing (James Brown’s legendary former horn section) The J.B.’s over to the UK for the first time in their own right - which in turn led to The Soul Ambassadors becoming the J.B.’s’ backing band! You know, we ended up playing in London with them as well as touring the UK together. But then, because Haji was such a terrible band-leader - he ripped us all off - the whole thing eventually fell APART!... Which is when I decided to leave and start a new band with Nitin Sawhney - which ultimately became The Soul Immigrants!”

The early days of The Soul Immigrants and how changing trends have seen them ultimately evolve into the band they are today

“As I say, at the time The Soul Ambassadors ended I was knocking around with Nitin Sawhney. You know, I had an eight-track recorder in my squat; he’d come round to record his weird jazzy demos; we became friends… To where one day he was like ‘Let’s form a band together - what shall we call it?’.... So I thought about the band names that were around at the time - Young Disciples; Jazz Warriors; Jazz Defectors - and basically said ‘How about The Soul Immigrants:?’ - because we had Nitin on keyboards; an Italian rhythm section; a Trinidadian lead-singer… You know, it was quite an exotic blend!... So we became The Soul Immigrants and, not long after that, we got a record-deal with a small jazz label called Saxology Records. Which in turn led to our record being licensed in Germany, where we started to do a lot of live work - until the record-company there went BUST! So from there we then ended up returning to London, where at the time we couldn’t really get much of a look-in. You know, this was the mid-Nineties - the tail-end of the acid jazz era, when funk bands were basically going out of fashion… And so, though since then we’ve continued putting a few odds and ends together on CDs that we’ve sold at gigs, really it’s only in more recent times that things have actually come round full-circle for us. To where people are now starting to realise that there is actually longevity in funk music, and that it is a style of music that’s timeless. Which is why today - on our latest record - we’ve probably even gone a bit more rootsy than we were BEFORE, and kept it close to the authentic sound of classic bands like The Meters, The Gators and Booker T & The MG’s. Because as I say, there is a funk renaissance right now. And so - though these are tough times - we are definitely optimistic about getting this latest album RELEASED!”

The Soul Immigrants’ as-yet-unreleased, new album ‘Deep, Sweet & Dirty’

“It’s all ready to go - and it’s basically like a compilation of tracks we’ve recorded over recent years, along with four new tunes that we put together very quickly. And funnily enough, three of the tracks on there actually feature some RAPPING - from JC001, a well-respected speed-rapper who went on tour with us in Japan. So, while they’re not quite hip hop, they are basically like a blend of funk with rap - a vibe that’s a bit like The Roots... So yeah, overall it’s quite a mixture of sophisticated, well-produced tunes with the rough-edged, rawer live sound. Which is basically what inspired the TITLE! Because it has three FLAVOURS! The ‘Deep’ is the raw stuff; the ‘Sweet’ is the more produced, softer stuff; while I guess the ‘Dirty; is self-explanatory!”

The group’s current line-up

“Well, over the years we’ve had various people come and go. You know, we’ve had our ups and downs, our highs and lows… But now that we’ve weathered that and we’re still going, I honestly think we currently have one of the strongest line-ups YET! I mean, we’ve got a great keyboard-player from Australia - Stu Ross - who started out in little bands at home but has settled over here now. And the fact that he’s brought in the Hammonds has really consolidated or sound. Then we also have a great horn-section, with Ian Bailey - a fantastic baritone/tenor sax-player who plays with people like Noel McCoy - and Lady Dee, an alto sax-player who has a very sharp and raw sound - a bit like a female jazzy Maceo! Plus we have Al Gibson on bass - who helps with some of the arrangements - and a great French drummer, who I call Davide ‘Bam-Bam’ Bouett, because I’m always encouraging him to play the funkiest of break-beats!.. Then vocally another exciting new development is that, while one of the problems has always been I’ve done all the singing, in the current line-up pretty much the whole BAND are doing backing-vocals! Which I think has really brought us a new edge... So yeah, on this latest album we’ve really gone back to basics in terms of being more of a rootsy-type act. Which I think has also given us more strength in terms of our LIVE performances!”

What we can expect from The Soul Immigrants’ upcoming March 18 live date at London’s Jazz Cafe

“Well, to me it’s all about entertainment. So this upcoming show is definitely something we’re looking forward to! And musically, while we’ll obviously be pushing the tracks from the new album, there should also be some interesting cover versions - in addition to hopefully some special guests appearing on some of the numbers. You know, we’re really GOING for it, and it is going to be a big night! I mean, in football terms I look at it like us having been hanging around in the championship league for years and this is our chance to get to the next level - to show people that, while this band has been around all this time and been on an incredible journey, we are now back on form and riding on the crest of a WAVE, so speak! You know, though we’ve been floundering, this is definitely our COMEBACK - and so we are aiming to do the best show POSSIBLE! Because, while - as I said earlier - it is tough out there right now, The Soul Immigrants is definitely a fighting band! So, let the battle COMMENCE!”

Funky outfit Soul Immigrants will perform at Jazz Café, London on March 18

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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