California Sounds: Jungle Fire, one of Los Angeles’ best live bands, has a new ‘tropi-funk’ album
Jungle Fire, ‘Jungle Fire’ (Nacional)
The 10-piece Los Angeles band Jungle Fire calls the music it makes “tropi-funk,” and the reasoning permeates its self-titled new album, a seamless convergence of Latin, Afro-Cuban, West African and American soul-funk sounds. Now in its ninth year as a project that started as a one-off, the instrumental unit has become one of the city’s best live bands, and the evidence of its tightness is all over its third studio album.
Recorded onto eight-track analog tape, the measures, beats and melodies across 10 tracks suggest some weird amalgam of “Superfly”-era Curtis Mayfield, Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti’s essential work with Africa 70, the conga-powered Cuban heavy Juan Pablo Torres, James Brown’s epic 1970s soul-funk, and boogaloo and salsa legend Ray Barretto. That is, an avalanche of polyrhythmic drive punctuated by brass bursts, tangled, oft-fuzzy guitar lines, the occasional human bellow and dubby bass patterns.
All those references are mere footnotes in Jungle Fire’s action-packed album, but they’re worth noting because the band’s cofounder, the ear-poppingly precise percussionist Alberto Lopez, has absorbed the lot of it through studies at institutions including the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory. As studio musicians, Jungle Fire members have played with acts including LCD Soundsystem, Celia Cruz, Stevie Wonder, Ozomatli, Natalia Lafourcade and Stanley Clarke.
Though wordless, “Jungle Fire” is powered by the energy of Los Angeles. One standout track, “Pico Union,” is named for the neighborhood just west of downtown where the band rehearses. Another, “Masa,” is drawn from the band’s passion for the tamales sold in the neighborhood and, according to release notes, is “dedicated to a Japanese masa-loving audio engineer friend of the band, Masa Tsuzuki.”
“Smash & Grab” is a chase scene of a song propelled by a bellowing brass line that recalls Kuti’s Africa 70 collaborations. With frantic congas calculating algebraic rhythms and everyone working in unison, it feels at times as if the band’s 100 fingers (give or take) are maneuvering at once. The track seems destined to score a heist scene in the next installment of the “Oceans” franchise.
As a whole, in fact, “Jungle Fire” plays like an hourlong action flick, with shifting tempos, competing narratives and a push-and-pull tension. By the time the band hits closing song “Consider This,” which it calls in release notes “a likely approximation to what would happen if [Jungle Fire] scored an episode of ... ‘Twilight Zone,’” the band has delivered the kind of dance-floor-stomping action that commands attention. It’ll celebrate the “Jungle Fire” release with two Southland shows: Alex’s Bar in Long Beach on Feb. 15 and on Feb. 28 at the Paramount in Boyle Heights.
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