The Philadelphia-based ensemble Wabi Sabi is aptly named. For a group of four recent graduates of the Temple University jazz program, the name for the Japanese art of "finding beauty through imperfection" neatly sums up the organic soul that is their sound.
On a relatively quiet summer evening in New Hope, funk can be found next to the well-stocked bar of New Hope’s Triumph Brewery in Union Square. At the stroke of nine, the first lick of "Suzy’s Strut" filled Triumph to its high ceilings with the group’s expertly balanced sound.
Microbrew-sipping young professionals chatted at the bar as an enthusiastic cluster of Wabi Sabi fans, dressed in everything from T-shirts to sequined club gear, made their way up the stairs to dance, literally, on the ceiling. Suspended above the floor is a catwalk, an unexpected architectural element that adds to the industrial-yet-cozy pub feel of the central room at Triumph.
A perfect fit, then, for Wabi Sabi, a self-described "rock funk fusion jam band," whose warm, natural groove anchors a complex musical conversation that is both interesting and accessible to those of us without a BA in jazz performance.
The members of Wabi Sabi, each an accomplished musician in his own right, met in Philadelphia through the jazz department at Temple University’s Ester Boyer College of Music. Their youth combines with loads of experience to create a sound that is both fresh and timeless.
On his modest drum kit, Brian Duffy creates soulful beats as he establishes a conversational relationship with listeners and players alike. A veteran of the music world, this eclectic drummer is a former math-rocker and a lecturer on Celtic music. No doubt, his wide range of experience contributes to his elasticity in an ensemble that seeks to let "music evolve." Damon Hunnicut contributes a mean electric guitar that speaks of his varied list of musical influences, which includes everything from folk and classical to rock and avant-garde. Having played all over California and the east coast, his vibe is that pf enlightened garage band – complex blues riffs with the middle frequencies jacked way up.
Next we have Dan Friel on alto sax. An elementary music teacher by day, his rich melodies flow over the rest of the band’s sound, "tying it all together," one audience member gushed. Indeed, the bright timbre Friel contributes adds just the right blend of warmth, depth, and energy to the sound that Wabi Sabi produces. Pete Chiovarou, on bass, grounds the ensemble with a sound that’s melodic and easy, a warm, spicy groove. Wabi Sabi is his creation, and he embodies its mission, which is to "allow imagination to be the guide."
Like its music, the band can fill many roles at once. They are a pleasant backdrop for those sampling the interesting, hearty fare at the bar (I wholeheartedly recommend the Dip Trio, a trio of pesto, bacon-cheese dip, and sweet almond hummus served with grilled pita wedges. Order a pint of the house favorite, Honey Wheat, to go along side and you’re set.) Wabi Sabi’s music is also universally danceable. Over the course of the evening, the group served as both late-dinner music and funkadelic dance machine.
I left the Triumph that evening with a belly full of fantastic food, a new list of favorite brews (do try the hand-pumped Scotch Ale), and Wabi Sabi’s self-titled CD.
Wabi-Sabi, www.wabisabius.com. Upcoming performances include:
Thursday, August 25, 9 p.m., Plush, 256 North Keswick Avenue, Glenside, Pennsylvania, 215-576-9501
Thursday, September 29, 9 p.m., Tritone, 1508 South Street, Philadelphia, 215-545-0475.
Friday, September 30, Triumph New Hope, 400 Union Square, New Hope, 215-862-8300.
The setting is a hot early evening in July, in front of the Soma Yoga Center on Raritan Avenue in Highland Park. In the alleyway between the buildings, John Bianculli and his group are performing to help promote Bianculli’s girlfriend’s yoga center. An information table beckons passersby with information on yoga classes, massage, and a range of other holistic activities offered seven days a week at the Soma Yoga Center.
Temperatures reach well into the mid-90s, yet Bianculli barely breaks a sweat as he sits at his keyboard, entertaining a crowd on the sidewalk with his spry original compositions, taking time to talk to his audience.
Bianculli’s original, jazz-flavored compositions blend in a bit of Latin, Brazilian, rhythm and blues, funk, gospel, Afro-Cuban, and world music. These tunes are so good you swear you had heard them before on the radio, or you think they were perhaps tunes written in the 1920s and ’30s when so many other tunes from "the Great American songbook" were composed. But no, the band ends a tune and Bianculli says, "That was an original called ‘The Jester,’" and still later, "that was an original of ours called ‘Headin’ Out.’" In the course of an hour-long set on the sidewalk on busy Raritan Avenue (Route 27) in Highland Park, the only cover Bianculli and his group perform is Sonny Rollins’ classic, "St. Thomas."
Like the VooDUDES – whose charismatic leader, Andy Bernstein, lives in Highland Park – Bianculli’s group are also veterans of the New Jersey club circuit: Chuggy Carter on percussion, Angelo DeBraccio on saxophones, and Dave Mohn on drums. Together, this group breezes their way between pop tunes, jazz standards and Bianculli’s unheralded, Latin and Brazilian-flavored originals. The versatile Bianculli performs with a trio, quartet, quintet, and sextet, depending on the performance venue and type of event.
A self-taught, accomplished, and versatile musician, Bianculli was born and raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village, across from the Village Vanguard. He got much of his experience playing the jazz circuit from New York to Washington, D.C., including Birdland and the Blue Note in New York to New Jersy’s supper clubs and coffeehouses to African-American churches and outdoor jazz festivals.
Aside from his long residencies at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick and the New York Hilton, Bianculli has worked with a short who’s who in the jazz world: vibraphonist Steve Nelson; vocalists Jeanie Bryson, Cassandra Wilson, and Christy Baron; trumpeter Terence Blanchard, among many others.
While he prefers to think of himself as a jazz man, the reality is, with this group, Bianculli can play anything. Since the music is for the most part instrumental, with no vocals, Bianculli and his group are well-suited for almost any kind of audience.
John Bianculli’s upcoming performances:
Sundays (ongoing), 11:30 to 2:30 (except for August 28), the John Bianculli Trio performs during brunch at Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, in Hamilton on . 609-584-7800.
Fridays, August 19 and 26; Saturday, August 27, 6 to 9 p.m., John Bianculli solo piano, Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. 609-584-7800.
Wednesday, September 21, 7 to 10 p.m., John Bianculli Trio, Mediterra, 29 Hulfish Street, Princeton. 609-252-9680.