"We're like the Voltron of live soul music, fighting for the right to groove," says Ozeal Debastos when asked about the relationship dynamics of his namesake project.
In its current five-piece configuration, "Soultron" (as we've chosen to dub Ozeal's group) consists of vocalist and front man, drummer Mike Duncan, bassist Noe Espinosa, keyboardist Brandon Herron and saxophonist Issac Munoz. Ozeal formed the group around his soulful vision when the prior incarnation, Ozeal & the Eulypians, split.
Ozeal's new band got its formal unveiling at last year's Houston Press Music Awards, and quickly proved itself a tight, agile, dynamic unit. Although Ozeal and Duncan had worked together in a project that predates even the Eulypians, the band itself was fairly young at that point.
"My bassist, Noe, was [brand] new to the band and had to learn the set list a couple weeks prior to the show," says Ozeal. "Fortunately, he's an amazing bassist and nailed every part at the showcase."
He's not lying. The band was like a crack squad of synchronized funk sharpshooters, and that tightness remains a hallmark of Ozeal's sound.
Fronted by Debastos's silky-smooth vocals and sex-poet flow, Ozeal and company represent a genre unto themselves, which has shifted in subtle but interesting ways in the three years Ozeal has been on the Houston music radar. Ozeal's early work with the Eulypians bore the hallmarks of soul, funk and hip-hop in fairly equal measure: Guitar, bass, drums and a turntable laid out the background, while Ozeal sang and rapped over the top.
As a crooner, Ozeal falls somewhere in the blue-eyed soul camp of artists like Jamie Lidell, and his rap style is heavy on poetic license. It's philosophical and sexual in equal measure, but takes its heat from seduction rather than vulgar description.
Coupled with the inclusion of sax and keys, the lack of a turntable is noticeable both in Ozeal's current sound and the overall feel of the band. While deep funk remains the band's booty-moving backbone, it's frequently wired through some very jazzy underpinnings.
As unlikely as it sounds, those elements manifest themselves as something very close to smooth jazz. Against all odds, it works.
Ozeal recently put a couple of new tunes up on his Web site, and they highlight the shift in the sound. "Jazzy" is smooth, deeply funky and very sultry, with Ozeal channeling his best Isaac Hayes as he melodically half-raps an infatuated ode while shimmery-smoky jazz organ and sleepy sax set the fantasy mood.
"Diggin'" is a bit less laid-back, mostly by virtue of Ozeal's pacing and sense of urgency. The band hangs back, allowing its subtle groove to infiltrate, rather than dominate, the proceedings.
"'Jazzy' and 'Diggin' are definitely laid-back, take-a-sip-of-wine kinda tracks. Those two songs were written during the beginnings of the band, so the songs were more jazz-based," says Ozeal. "Wait till you hear the new stuff. I think some people will be surprised."
Regardless of the relative smoothness of his tunes, it's really Ozeal's live shows that set him apart. He's a showman at heart, preferring to work a room rather than just occupy a stage. Any given show could find him running through the audience, climbing on things, dancing with anyone he can get close to, and developing a sense of excitement and involvement that is rare in a city full of noted wallflowers and overly talkative audiences.
Nobody talks through an Ozeal show, and everybody dances.
"Personally, I love watching soulful performers engaged with their delivery, words and connecting with the audience," he says. "Music is most powerful when people can feel the music and believe what the artist is trying to express. It's the essential element that's been lost in today's music.
"When you listen and watch Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, 2Pac, Bob Marley, etc....you're visually and emotionally stimulated by their artistry," he adds. "'Connection' in every aspect is needed in music."
Ozeal's philosophy shines through in his songs and in his performances. This connection has a lot to do with how he manages to meld such seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and engaging sound. He feels like he means it, and he manages to draw his audiences into that feeling.
He's not a performer up on a stage, singing some songs for an audience. He's a force of will and emotion, bleeding into the people surrounding him. He manages to create the sense that, for the course of a show, audience and band are part of one organism.
Of course, the symbiosis of the band itself has a lot to do with that. If there are tighter, more cohesive musical units in Houston, they are few and far between. Ozeal's band pulses like it is its own heartbeat, every part in perfect alignment with the others. It's an organic interlocking, with the sound never falling victim to mechanized perfection.
While the kind of music Ozeal makes could easily lend itself to programming and sampling, it's that live feel (in both senses of the word) that makes it what it is.
"I've always performed with musicians so it's the most natural setting for me," explains Ozeal. "Bouncing ideas from each other, and hearing the sounds of live instrumentation is what inspires me the most. I wouldn't have it any other way."
As for how the band manages to sound as if it had been birthed fully formed, with each member acting as a Voltron-like appendage, Ozeal doesn't exactly overthink it.
"One thing I've learned about musicianship, which can also be applied to any relationship, is chemistry," he says. "Either it's there or it isn't. Plain and simple. I got it with these guys."
As far as where he's going with those guys, Ozeal has high hopes for 2011.
"Well, 2011 will definitely be the year of content. I'm recording much more this year. I'm currently writing new material with my band, and plan to release two EPs," he says. "The first EP will be upbeat and progressively funky. We wanna make you dance and sweat a little. The first one drops in mid-spring. Can't wait to share it."
When pressed on how that progressive funk edge will affect the smooth and sultry side of Ozeal, he guarantees that the group "won't abandon the slow jams totally, 'cause I really enjoy writing songs about fantasies, love and seduction."
Let's hope Ozeal holds true to that promise, because he's really damn good at it.
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