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All for One

A pair of ace session men join up and call forth the Soul of John Black

If someone were to ask you, "What are you doing tomorrow?" how cool would it be to answer, "Oh, not much. Just going to hang out with Miles Davis at his house in Malibu, jam and talk about art." Pretty fucking cool indeed. And that's exactly what John "JB" Bigham did scores of times during the 1980s after auditioning for a guitar slot in Miles's band.

While he didn't get the six-string gig, a friendship commenced that resulted in Bigham's writing some material that Davis later recorded, and he eventually did get to tour with the quirky and intimidating jazzman as a percussionist.

"He was just the opposite of what you read, at least with me. He was a very nice guy who opened up a lot of doors for me," Bigham, speaking in a slow, Ladies' Man-like drawl, reflects today. "He had my back and I could talk to him about anything, from music to cubism. I mean, he was way past heroin at that stage."

Dr. Dre, Eminem, Fishbone and Miles Davis lurk in the 
musical past of the Soul of John Black.
Dr. Dre, Eminem, Fishbone and Miles Davis lurk in the musical past of the Soul of John Black.

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After leaving Davis's band, Bigham spent the better part of the '90s as a guitarist for funk rockers Fishbone, whose frenetic videos and crazed stage show belied a more severe reality. "There was a lot of ridiculous discipline going on there. We'd practice for hours and hours. But it was pretty chill, not as crazy as people think." Bigham says that the band was also a true democracy, so deciding on a set list or even whether to grab lunch at McDonald's became a drawn-out ordeal.

Bigham parted amicably in 1996, and the next year he was rehearsing in the band's studio. That's where he met bassist Christopher "CT" Thomas. The duo hit it off and started germination on a musical project that took years to flower: the Soul of John Black.

Consisting of the pair (with Bigham on vocals) and a rotating cast of friends/musical acquaintances, last year they released a stunning self-titled debut. Yes, it's a melting pot of soul, funk, jazz, and rock -- a pretty common stew these days. And yes, the game of spot-the-musical-influences is pretty obvious (Prince, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Cameo, P-Funk, Sly Stone and Otis Redding). But instead of simply ransacking those musical closets, The Soul of John Black creates a whole new walk-in. The Soul of John Black is a record that truly unfolds as a complete work rather than a collection of individual tracks.

"I love to listen to other music, but when I write, it's straight from the heart -- I'm not thinking about anybody else's style or formula. We just do it and then [dissect] it later," Bigham offers. "We don't think while recording, 'Okay, what would Dylan do?' We just run with the idea." (Hmm…perhaps there's a cottage industry in "W.W.D.D." bracelets to be explored…)

Tracks like "Scandalous No. 9," "Time (Losing My Mind)" and "The Bridge" are deep and lush. Harder numbers "Two Strikes" and "Supa Killa" mingle with the Twilight Zone interlude "The Odyssey," in which the late-night driving encounter with the girl "trapped inside the burning wreckage of her status symbol" could be literal, metaphorical, satirical -- or all three.

Not surprisingly, much of the material is about women and relationships, both steady and sour, but the lyrics are far from banal generalities. Contrast the ode to ideal girl "Joy " ("golden siren, my symphony / like an angel, serenade me") with the X-talking supa-freak "Carolyn" ("inseparable is how we used to be / I'd do her, she'd do me / Put some Fela on the stereo / Shake that thing and do it some mo'").

"Yeah, there is a difference in those two!" Bigham laughs. "One is the dream girl and the other is the one who lives next door, comes over, and, um, treats you nice."

Between them, Bigham and Thomas have played with a wide variety of acts, including Dr. Dre, Eminem, Joshua Redman, Macy Gray, Betty Carter, Harry Connick Jr. and Daniel Lanois -- and as can be detected by that eclectic list, it's difficult to pigeonhole the Soul of John Black. It's tempting to say "neo-soul" and be done with it, but lumping the Soul of John Black in with, say, Erykah Badu or D'Angelo is a disservice to the group, which took its cryptic name from the 1976 film J.D.'s Revenge.

"I listened to Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and Led Zeppelin II growing up! Not just soul music!" mock-protests Bigham. "I come from a line of loud-playing rock musicians." And it's not just critics who are flustered. So are fans, and, hell, even Bigham. At a recent gig in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a man who had stood by Bigham's side of the stage listening to his searing guitar all night walked up to him after the show and demanded, "Well, what kind of music is that?" Bigham, at a loss for words, had no answer.

Though Bigham is a decade older than Thomas, the Soul of John Black might not have happened had Thomas not assumed that the pair would work together.

"He decided that we were going to do this, whether I liked it or not -- I didn't have a choice," Bigham says. "The first time we got together, we jammed for an hour. And he's like, 'Man, that was cool! I'll see you tomorrow!' And I said, 'Really…well, okay.' " But it took three years -- including one year that found both men touring in Everlast's band -- between those first jams and when the duo began to get serious.

The Soul of John Black, released about six months ago, is still very much under the radar, despite critical praise. Bigham says that there are about 15 songs in the can for their next release, which he promises will sound quite different from the elastic grooves on the debut. "People are going to be blown away," he offers. "The bottom line for us is that you have to create music that keeps you interested. The record that's out now is just an experiment that seemed to catch on."

Which brings us back to Bigham's mentor. If anything, Miles Davis was unafraid of challenging people's perceptions of his music, whether it meant dipping into sentimental show tunes, cutting-edge bebop, fusing jazz with rock or embracing rap and hip-hop. Bigham hopes that his band can emulate Davis's wayward muses.

"I know that he intimidated a lot of people, but he also said a lot of hilarious stuff," Bigham remembers, before going into an approximation of Davis's distinctive raspy voice. "If you were bragging on yourself, he'd sit back and say, 'Okay, let's see what you've got.' He felt that you had to prove yourself, and that's what I hope that we do."

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