The group Mama SpanX was assembled by singer/songwriter Nikki Armstrong, putting together some of her favorite musicians from the East and West Coast’s R&B, rock, and funk genres (the late soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks gave Armstrong her distinctive moniker). Sparks would definitely be pleased with the collective’s first release, State of Groove, a ferocious nine-song set of blues, funk, and soul that pays tribute to pioneers like James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Sly & the Family Stone.
Ms. Armstrong and the band (Steve Johnson – guitars, Harlan Spector – B3, piano, Moog, Julie Sax – alto/baritone saxes, flute, Steve Sadd – tenor/soprano saxes, David Abercrombie – bass, Ben Beckley – drums, piano/musical director) rip through a strong nine song set with eight originals and one cover….well, make that a half-cover since it’s Lou Donaldson’s funky soul-jazz instrumental “Alligator Boogaloo,” supplemented by new lyrics from Armstrong.
The opener, “Rocket,” is a horn-driven mid-tempo funk number that is reminiscent of Tower of Power’s catalog, “Wild Emotion” sounds like a long-lost late ’60s/early ’70s R&B single, while “Crawl” mixes a little bit of the blues with greasy funk. The blues ballad “Wrong Side of the Garden” arrives mid-album and Armstrong give a fine vocal performance with subtle guitar backing from Johnson and smooth backing vocals from the band.
“Thinkin’” brings to mind James Brown, especially those tasty horns and Johnson’s Jimmy Nolan-esque guitar work, while “Anywhere You Are” is a lovely soulful ballad with a tender vocal from Armstrong and soft backing from Spector on piano. The irresistible title track closes the disc on a funky note with the band getting ample room to strut their stuff.
State of Groove will bring a smile to the faces of those music fans who dig the old school sounds of jazz, funk, and soul of the late ’60s and ’70s. There are still a few bands who play it like they used to, and Mama SpanX does it like few others do.
--- Graham Clarke