The Study of Funk: Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, “Sometimes I Wonder” (2002)

The point of funk, I take it, is to funk it up, to alter a groove from what the hacks perform and the chumps expect—above all, delivering the rhythmic punch not on the usual schedule but, probably, after, on a later beat (though James Brown also gets you by punching on the one-beat, as in “Cold Sweat” )—possibly way after (like in the delicious delay of the bass when Little Feat’s “Fat Man In The Bathtub” restarts after the bridge)—and on the back edge of any major beat, as though yeah I’m coming after all (but now that I’ve arrived it’s definitely happening).[1]  This contrariness always implies some thought and free decision-making about where to come down beatwise, and since the decision is delivered with vehemence (by the bass player if no one else) there’s an element of the willful “nasty”:  “Take that!”

I’m stressing a volitional definition of funk over against the stanky-nasty body-odor definition you might find elsewhere.  Of course I recognize, as we’re talking about groove here, that the effect of funk is visceral.  But the source of funk is reflection.  As reflective, funk must be post-something; I’ll say, post-pop.  It’s cool, therefore, as well as hot.

Since I don’t think of funk as stripping music down to earthy basics, I find no paradox in the thoughtful and refined version of funk served up by Jon Cleary, the studious Englishman-in-New-Orleans.  I find fulfillment.  Consider the opening statement of purpose on his first album with the Monster Gentlemen, “Sometimes I Wonder.”  It comes on as silky R&B, but it has a funk foundation in what Cornell C. Williams is playing on that Modulus bass.

“Sometimes I Wonder”

The bass makes a series of surprising demands (just this, and this, are what I’ve decided to play, so WAIT…POW! and POW! NOW WAIT…), especially in the chorus, but it doesn’t sound impulsive or as if it’s spilling from some natural font.  On the contrary, it represents layers and levels of wondering about music.

By the way, funk’s connection with the staggering willfulness and counterpunching of Dixieland comes out magnificently, studiously rendered, in “Been And Gone” on the same album:

“Been And Gone”

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[1] This way of taking charge of the musical proceedings is the opposite of going slightly early as in the signature phrasing of Aretha Franklin or B. B. King (discussed in an earlier post).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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