Lest there be any doubt that G.O! is music unabashedly by and for D.C. audiences, the first track puts it right in your face. You couldn’t pack more go-go energy into it with a compressor: the drums and timbales, the cowbells, the horns (including impossibly funky solos by trumpeter Brad Clements, trombonist Greg Boyer, and tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed, all veterans of The Chuck Brown Band), the background shout vocals, the lead guitar and vocal by Chuck Brown’s son Wiley. And, for the cherry on top, the song’s title and most frequent refrain is “I’ll Never Barry Marion.”
It sets the non-geographic tone for the album, too—not of go-go per se, but of the same variety that’s set by the band name itself: Groove Orchestra. The second album from multi-instrumentalist Samuel Prather, best known for his work in the D.C. jazz scene, is a tasting menu of polyrhythms of all varieties. Complex flavors, in other words, but with a simple through-line: soul.
It’s a bit of a cheat to blanket something as nebulous as soul with simplicity. Then again, to invoke the Justice Potter Stewart precedent, we know it when we hear it. It’s the thing that drenches Balbed’s solo on “I’ll Never Barry Marion,” for example. It does the same to Shacara Rogers’ vocals on the poppier funk of “Tear the Rufus Off the Chaka” (for which the punny names, not the Parliament allusion, are the lodestar), to Christie Dashiell’s contemporary R&B stylings on “Can We Talk,” and to Prather’s double-tracked acoustic and electric guitars and limber piano solo on the South African pastiche “Sugar Cane Enabled.” The latter also features Donvonte McCoy on flugelhorn, sounding uncannily like the late South African jazz giant Hugh Masekela.
As should be obvious by now, pastiche makes up a large part of G.O!. In addition to the above, there’s “Puttin’ on Ayers,” echoing the moody ’70s soul-jazz of vibraphonist Roy (“Everybody Loves the Sunshine”) Ayers with Baltimore’s Warren Wolf handling the mallets. One could be forgiven, then, for wondering if Prather and the Groove Orchestra establish their own identity, rather than just pursuing others’. The short answer is yes, indeed on this very track. A fourth of the way in, “Puttin’ on Ayers” goes into a double-time breakdown. Ayers’ atmospherics are still in the mix, but so is a post-hip-hop rhythmic and melodic language with acoustic bass (courtesy of Kris Funn), Afrocentric horn structures, and Wolf, then Prather (soloing on piano, though the drum track behind that solo is also him) in the solo spotlight.
It’s the same language that carries through to the two-part suite “Miss Timbo,” this time with a mood driven by ’80s-style synths (though of no specific reference) and, on part II, Motown-style vocals (on which bass vocalist Soloman Howard does a spot-on impression of The Temptations’ Melvin Franklin). The breadth of ingredients, and combinations thereof, is astonishing. By the album’s end, the fadeout on the neo-soul-ish “Love Always Wins in the End,” even the loose concept of soul seems barely sufficient glue to hold such sprawl together. Prather himself must have some adhesive qualities, too.