Members of supergroups sometimes compare their united efforts to greats who came before them. In this respect, the members of H-Town Collective are no different than some of their talented peers and predecessors. They even have an idea of the famous group they most resemble.
"We have kind of a Scooby-Doo chemistry," says James Wilhite, the band's guitarist and vocalist.
"It's a unique group sound, for sure," laughs organist Barry Seelen.
"Do you feel like you're part of the TV show?' Wilhite asks the band's young drummer, Gavin Moolchan, who replies, "Yeah, I guess."
Saxophonist Alisha Pattillo gives Moolchan an assuring nod and adds, "You can be Scooby-Doo."
This is all off-the-cuff and fun, and the group excels at this sort of improvised riffing. It's a Thursday night and we're meeting with H-Town Collective ahead of their pair of EP-release shows this week: tonight at Karbach Brewing, hosted by Houston Blues Society, and tomorrow during the band's usual Thursday-night gig at Chillum Lounge and Grill in far west Houston. Any album release is a momentous occasion, but these will be especially sweet since they almost never happened.
Wilhite has played in numerous acts since arriving to Houston by way of Austin in 2000, most notably as bandleader for the James Reese Band. He’s been a member of The Fab 5 and played with the late Tommy Dardar, among others. More recently, he and Seelen revved up an act called The Eazy Three, which held court Mondays at Shakespeare Pub. Pattillo, who has called Houston home since the mid-2000s, explains she hung around on Monday nights long enough to get an invite to join the group. Adding her took the unit in a different direction, Wilhite notes.
"We just kind of developed a new sound. It wasn't as rock as it used to be, it became swingier and jazzier and Alisha added a lot of songs and it became a group,” he says. “And then last year, we did the Houston Blues competition and we kind of had a supernova of sorts and I quit the group."
The implosion was the result of a snafu in the Houston Blues Society’s annual Houston Blues Challenge. The band describes the whole matter as past history, a series of unfortunate events that resulted in some temporary harsh feelings. Describing the fallout as a supernova is appropriate since it scattered bits of matter across Houston’s music universe to form something new.
"They got John Calderon in the group and, so after a couple of months of doing that, we decided to get me back in the group and call it something else," says Wilhite. "So now, it's basically The Eazy Three again, but it's called the H-Town Collective. That was a long, kind of around-the-bend way of changing the name to something a little more digestible."
"We have a special chemistry," he continues. "I think that's kind of what made us come back together and want to keep doing it. Something about me and Alisha and Barry, when we play together we know how to kind of give space to each other. There's some of our songs where we have like a collective improvisation and that's kind of true to the [band] name. The sound is the sound of all of us."
“All of us” may include other area artists, in the truest sense of a collective, but Pattillo considers this version the group’s “A-team.” Seelen is an accomplished organist who studied at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music under the directorship of the legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean. He got his affinity for the B3 organ by listening to Deep Purple songs and gigging with rock bands even as he was learning the Great American Songbook. He's toured with Matt "Guitar" Murphy, soul crooner Mighty Sam McClain and Roomful of Blues' Greg Piccolo. On one of those tour nights, at The Big Easy, he met his wife. When they decided to put down roots, they chose Houston; Seelen has been part of the musical landscape here since 2004.
Pattillo holds a music degree from Australia’s Queensland Conservatorium of Music and is a multiple Houston Press Music Awards Best Jazz nominee, whether fronting her own groups like Alisha’s Quartet or Billabong Island Sound, or starring in other acts such as the Ezra Charles Band. She met Seelen while playing in a group with blues guitarist John McVey. Moolchan is a freelance musician with a standing church gig and lots of corporate work on his slate. At only 22, he auditioned for the group at Seelen’s request. He knew Pattillo from Houston’s jam scene, so he was a comfortable fit.
"It was definitely a learning experience. When I first got the music I really had to put in some time to learn (the songs), learn the beats for all of them and get the feel right,” Moolchan says. “There were actually very few songs I'd played before. It was like a whole new book for me, but they were pretty patient with me."
"Gavin is the right guy for the sound we're trying to get," Wilhite adds. "It's hard to do; very few drummers can do the sound because it's old-school but it's gotta be funky, too. And, it has to have a certain amount of energy. Some drummers kind of fall asleep when they're playing with us because it gets loungey and you've got to have the right mindset for that."
The other members say he's good at interacting and building solos and praise his clean sound and dynamic range. Best of all, Seelen says, he pays attention to what's going on around him. Pattillo says this is essential for everyone in the band.
"At the end of the day, this isn't a pop band, this isn't a cover band," she says. "The whole point is interaction and creating and trying to enjoy the communication amongst us all."
The EP’s five songs, four covers and a Wilhite original, were recorded live last October at Emmit’s Place by Jody McCormick, who also mixed and mastered them. The group had several tracks to choose from, but these five give listeners a quick read into the Collective’s musicianship.
“We hope people can hear we enjoy playing together,” Seelen said.
Pattillo recommends listeners check the Collective's “range of style — like, we start with a funk tune, then it goes into a reggae tune, then it's a shuffle and then there's a slow blues and then we're back into an instrumental funk.”
The recordings testify to the players’ skills, but there’s nothing quite like watching them perform live. Seeing the show, you catch the nuances of these artists at work. For instance, Pattillo says, "I think what also makes this band somewhat unique is the fact that Barry's playing left-handed bass on the organ, too. Normally, that's a job that two people do, so the fact that we have that communication in one person, it helps the band be tighter."
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Seelen says, "I keep the bass real simple because I have to, I'm doing two things at the same time." Pattillo in turn says, "It creates a space that's lots of fun to play over. There's room to build, no one's stepping on each other too much."
They all agree it’s a nice break from the gigs they take as working musicians to pay the bills, a respite from “weekends of playing ‘Uptown Funk,’” as Pattillo puts it.
"I really like it because we don't do any kind of pop music, it's all just rooted in blues and jazz and swing music, and that's really all I wanna do,” Wilhite says. "I only like playing with the best musicians and, I mean, it just happens that I've always done that. Now I'm at the point where I wanna cut away and just play with people that know exactly what to do and when we just hit, we click just right.”
H-Town Collective celebrates the release of its debut album from 6 to 9 p.m. tonight at Karbach Brewing, 2032 Karbach, and from 8 to 11 p.m. tomorrow at Chillum Lounge and Grill, 12102 Westheimer. Copies of the new CD are available online at houstonbluesband.com.