There was a much higher percentage of people than usual milling about downtown Ventura on Saturday, lured by the ArtWalk. Some art walkers, though, found themselves seduced away from the art by a musical source.
There, literally playing on the street corner at California and Santa Clara streets, was the band Domino Affect, pumping out polished, sophisto-funky sounds. Keyboardist Terry Murphy and saxophonist-vocalist Craig Thomas, co-leaders of the group, were on the case, slithering through groove-lined instrumentals or underlining Thomas’ soulful vocals on “Play Me or Trade Me,” replete with supple, scat-like singing at the end.
Between songs, Thomas was half joking when he told the crowd, “We’re local guys. Terry lives in Oxnard; I live about five minutes from here. We’re a well-kept secret. So please, don’t tell anyone about us.”
To some degree, the secret is out. Five years old now, Domino Affect has built up a good following, playing in clubs and other gigs from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara--including this weekend’s Jazz and Blues Festival at Ventura Harbor.
But while the group’s R&B-oriented; contemporary jazz format is popular on radio, venues are limited. Strictly defined jazz clubs tend to lean away from the band’s funky brand of musical goods.
Clearly, one of this band’s calling cards is Thomas’ voice, a powerful soul instrument that really is one of Ventura’s best-kept secrets.
As Thomas commented, in an interview before the ArtWalk, “One of the things that they hit the contemporary jazz artists with is ‘bring in a guest vocalist'--the obligatory guest vocalist. We don’t have to do that. It’s already built into the group. One of the ideas with Domino Affect was to establish it as an instrumental group, and then sneak the vocals in the back door.”
Like many musicians, Thomas was inducted into musical appreciation by an older sibling, his brother Richard. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Thomas recalled, Richard “used to bring home all records by these classic R&B; artists from the birth of the music. I was basically a captive audience, because he was baby-sitting me. I just developed a taste for that kind of music. He brought home James Brown records before any white person around had ever heard of him.”
Thomas began playing in bands when puberty struck. “When I grew up there was one faction of teen-agers who really liked soul music, and they dressed a certain way. Another faction was into the post-British Invasion music. It was like the Mods and the Greasers, and I always liked the music of the greasers--the R&B; artists like James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and then the Motown groups, the Temptations, the Four Tops.”
While Thomas was based in Santa Barbara during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, his triple talents--singer, saxophonist and songwriter--were tapped by various groups, including Jimmy Messina, the Beach Boys, Captain & Tennille. Around these parts, Thomas has been heard in numerous bands during the last 20 years, including his own soul-pop group, Oasis, and the R&B; Bombers.
When Thomas relocated to Ventura in 1985, his free-lancing career and involvement in the R&B; scene began to take off as he worked with producers Preston Glass and Narada Michael Walden on albums by Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Jackson and Smokey Robinson, and as he sang in the film “Maid to Order.”
He looks back fondly on those days: “It was great fun and there were some real nice paydays.” Still, the scattershot, work-for-hire lifestyle left something to be desired. “It always seems like I should have some sort of a creative project going, one that’s very much what I want to do.”
Hence, Domino Affect was born in 1990, when Thomas linked up with drummer Kenny McDougal, who wrote the tune “Champagne” for Kenny G’s career-launching “Duotones” album. Domino Affect built up momentum and original repertoire. When McDougal moved back to his hometown of Seattle a few years ago, Murphy stepped in.
Murphy is a player whose soul roots are akin to Thomas’. Murphy’s resume includes performing and/or writing credits with the Gap Band, Della Reese, The Brothers Johnson and Evelyn (Champagne) King. Together, and with a strong stable of bassists and drummers to call on, they make a solid team of groove architects who could easily work their way into the pop-jazz scene at large.
As Thomas said, “There’s a large amount of interest in the kind of music we do.” While much of the jazz world is split between the bebop and funk camps, Thomas has no time for purism. For instance, he admires the dual programming of KCLU, the Cal Lutheran station that alternates between mainstream and contemporary jazz, almost from song to song.
“There’s no reason to keep the two apart,” Thomas said. “I enjoy them both. I’m not really a bop player. I definitely come from the R&B; school. That works best for me. I love straight-ahead jazz. I certainly appreciate it, and recognize the great musicianship. I’m not the best interpreter of it, though. But I can play standards all night, and enjoy doing that.”
Armed with a demo tape, Domino Affect is bucking for a record deal, and Thomas says that they may release an album independently, if necessary. In the meantime, he supports himself by teaching, doing free-lance work, playing sessions, and working with the vintage soul/dance group Uncle Slam, out of Santa Barbara.
Recently, his studio workload has included playing for the soundtrack of the film-in-progress “Steal Big, Steal Little,” directed by Andy Davis (“The Fugitive”) and shot almost entirely in Santa Barbara. Thomas also recently played on a Mazda commercial, where his bandmates-for-a-day were noted bassist John Pattitucci and keyboardist Terry Trotter.
“It’s a mad obsession, I guess,” Thomas figured. “I tried to get out of this business a few years ago, but I couldn’t do it. I’d turn the radio on and start to cry. ‘What am I doing? I’ve got to play music . . .’ ”
* WHAT: Domino Affect.
* WHEN: 1-4 p.m. Sunday.
* WHERE: Ventura Harbor Jazz and Blues Festival.
* HOW MUCH: Free.
* CALL: 644-0169.