Ben Frock and Love Unit’s danceable music: Good for brain, body and soul

by Liz Fixsen

In all the periodic hand-wringing about the state of jazz in the twenty-first century and the moaning about its loss of mass appeal, one factor repeatedly comes up—that jazz began to lose its audience when it became detached from dance. As Marc Myers writes in “What Killed Jazz” (a 2008 blog post on the JazzWax website), “The moment jazz decided it was an art form that required listeners rather than dancers, its mass appeal was in jeopardy.” In the vacuum left by the departure of jazz from its roots in dance, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B rushed in to satisfy a “beat-hungry” generation of youth who were becoming a dominant force in the music market of the 1950s and 1960s.

Before going any further, I first must define what I mean by “jazz”—another whole can of squishy and elusive worms. So I’ll just create my own definition: jazz has harmonic density (OK, well, modal jazz can slip in under the wire on this point); jazz has improvisation; and jazz has a groove. Besides the traditional swing, the big tent of jazz brings in all kinds of beats, from funk to waltz-time to bossa nova. Jazz can be played by a variety of instruments, but at its heart are the horns, the piano, the bass, and the drums. In this definition, there is nothing that precludes jazz from being danceable music.

There are signs that in at least some sectors of our jazz community, danceable jazz is on the way back in. The Love Unit band, conceived of and directed by a Baltimore native, thirty-two-year-old trumpet player and composer Ben Frock, is one such sign.

The ensemble first performed in 2010 and includes many of Baltimore’s best and best-known jazz musicians, including Todd Marcus (bass clarinet), Russ Kirk (alto sax), Alex Norris (trumpet), Mike Kuhl (drums), and Jim Hannah (percussion). Others in the band include exceptionally talented young musicians who play in a range of genres but particularly at the frontiers of cutting-edge improvisational music, including Mazz Frazeo (guitar), Jon Birkholz (keyboard), Derrick Michaels (tenor sax), and Jake Leckie (bass).

In a December 2011 interview with Michael Byrne (in the City Paper), Frock says, “I want [the band] to be a party onstage . . . for the audience, I want to give them something fun that feels good to listen to and dance to, but I want to challenge them.” Turn that formula around—Frock offers music with greater complexity and challenge than mainstream popular music but that still invites dancing.

I recall a show years ago at some derelict little place on the east side of downtown. Ben Frock was leading a band of some eight or ten members that was perhaps a precursor to Love Unit, playing to a crowd of primarily twenty-somethings. They were mostly standing to listen to the music, and there was a tangible vibration of suppressed energy as they grooved with bobbing heads and knees. The band launched into a highly spirited rendition of the jazz samba standard, “I’ll Remember April,” and a couple of girls began hesitantly to make some real dance moves. Then Frock leaned into the microphone and announced with some fervor, “If you want to dance—then dance!” and immediately, as if just waiting for permission, the whole crowd sprang into joyous action.

For music to be danceable, there must be space for dancing—and here is where the venue is critical. It must provide an open space where the protocol is that you stand to listen. Go to any show at the 8×10 (in Federal Hill), and even though the crowd may not be doing much formal partner dancing with recognizable steps, they are standing and grooving to the music, some quite energetically. The point is, they’re on their feet.

In contrast, most jazz venues seem to be places to sit. Go to Bertha’s in Fells Point on a Tuesday or Thursday night, and the jazz aficionados are sitting at tables and on barstools. Go to a concert an An die Musik, and you’re sitting in a large, parlor-style chair. Go to any Baltimore jazz club, and you’re sitting at a table—not standing—and maybe having dinner while the musicians play. The point is, you’re sitting. And you can tap your toes and bob your head all you want, but to dance, you have to be standing.

And that’s what happens at Love Unit’s performances at the Wind-Up Space, on North Avenue near Howard Street. This quirky, youth-oriented club, with its displays of striking, unusual artwork on the walls, provides a large open area in front of the stage. To be sure, there are some clusters of small tables and chairs, even a few sofas, where the hip college-age crowd can socialize with friends over drinks. But once the music starts, most listeners are standing and facing the stage. And if they’re not exactly dancing, they are definitely grooving to the music.

No, this is not your grandfather’s big-band jazz. As found on the Love Unit’s Facebook page: “Love Unit combines influences ranging from Michael Jackson to Igor Stravinsky with a 16-piece horn section, and an extended rhythm section including Afro-Cuban percussion playing spiraling overlapping ostinatos that result in one of the wildest danceable live music experiences you could ever imagine.” You might also compare it with Tower of Power, the American R&B band formed in 1968 and still performing. Love Unit has much the same groove, and Frock even provides a high-energy falsetto vocal lead, with a couple of young ladies providing some doo-wop-y style background vocals. The music is hot, it’s energetic, it’s sexy—but it is also complex and intellectually stimulating. Good for the brain, good for the body, good for the soul.

Jazz is always morphing, always shape-shifting, embracing tradition but yet transcending it. In its more danceable manifestations, it is sure to find a renaissance among the young that will keep it alive for decades.

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