Aaron Whitby on the Cousinhood of Man
Keyboardist Aaron Whitby may be best known as the musical director for Martha Redbone's band. But beyond originating "native soul"—a blend of African American and Native American traditions—with his wife, the acclaimed singer, Whitby also leads his own group. He calls that wildly danceable project Cousin From Another Planet. They play a shapeshifting mix of funk, classic soul, postbop jazz, psychedelia, and even African music and will be bringing all those sounds to a free concert at the David Rubenstein Atrium on September 5 at 7:30 p.m.
The name of the band carries several levels of meaning, the London-born Whitby explains. Film fans will notice the reference to John Sayles's 1984 sci-fi movie Brother From Another Planet. Beyond that, "the first is that I'm an immigrant, not only to the U.S., but also an immigrant to Black American music." Whitby reveals. "I'm grateful to have spent so much time with Junie Morrison [the longtime musical director for funk legends Parliament and Funkadelic], and Martha, and bassist Fred Cash, and the late Mike Campbell, and other Americans who have schooled me in this music and made me feel at home."
"The other reason for the title—and the epiphany that brought it to me—was when I was watching sea lions hanging out on a dock in San Francisco. They were sunning themselves, laughing, and playing much like we do, and I was thinking how closely we’re related to them. We have the same heart, lungs, kidneys, et cetera. Really, it was a spiritual connection, and the more closely related I felt to these mammals, the more I felt that all us humans are really cousins. We may not be ‘brothers,’ but we’re definitely cousins. We are all related—mitayuke oyasin, as the Lakota say. And in these times of nationalism and division, I think it's a pertinent message. I'm an immigrant, but we're related."
"All us humans are really cousins. We may not be ‘brothers,’ but we’re definitely cousins. We are all related—mitayuke oyasin, as the Lakota say."
Whitby credits his early exposure to New Orleans jazz—through Disney films—as a formative influence: "That really put rhythm into me." From there he immersed himself in soul and funk music: Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown, to name just a few. As a young pianist in London, reggae was everywhere, he recalls, and he asserts that he can still bubble all night when required! But more important to his development, Whitby played with a zouk group and then caught on with a West African band, the Super Combo Kings.
At the time, being a jazz artist, solos over simple major or minor chords were a challenge, and Whitby couldn’t help but play more complex patterns and felt he was doing something wrong. But the group offered encouragement: "They showed me that it's okay to be yourself, instead of just copying what you hear," Whitby recalls. "They weren't just blowing solos over the changes, either: they were really listening to each other, and how everything was working," he marvels. "This was when I really learned about time!"
Whitby caught another break when a colleague introduced him to Junie Morrison, who would become a mentor and major influence. Morrison listened to a demo by Redbone and Whitby and was amazed at the variety of sounds they’d been able to come up with using just a keyboard and drum machine; he decided that he wanted to collaborate. The deep immersion in American funk that followed opened many doors for the British musician, notwithstanding that Morrison "had become a recluse, more or less," as Whitby remembers. It was Redbone's offer of genuine American-style pancakes that finally lured Morrison out of his studio.
When Morrison returned to the United States, he not only gave Whitby a prized Roland JD800 keyboard, but he ended up giving the young couple an entire studio. "That was major," Whitby says soberly. "It's a subtle form of racism, but one nevertheless, that most people who fall in love with, say, music from India or West African drumming would never dream of learning that music without a guru and a trip to the source. But people the world over think they can get African American music straight off records without learning from the creators themselves."
Whitby's debut album, also titled Cousin from Another Planet, is just out from Ropeadope Records and is even more colorfully textured than the demo that had so impressed Junie Morrison all those years ago. "I wanted to write some jazz for people who think they don't like jazz," Whitby grins. "We did this record in between the cracks, when Martha and I weren't writing for plays, developing a musical, or setting William Blake to music." The result draws as deeply from classic soul and funk as it does from Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock, the latter of whom Whitby covers on the album.
"People the world over think they can get African-American music straight off records without learning from the creators themselves.”
"I had come up with a few bars I liked, and whatever I tried, I kept hitting these chord stabs and realized, 'That's Herbie Hancock!' So I decided to play 'Eye of the Hurricane,' from memory—i.e., wrong!—and that's why I call it 'Eye of the Hurricane 2.0.' It's a mashup," he explains.
The rest of the tracks are all originals. "Sleeping Giant," an allusive populist anthem features spoken word from actor and director Rome Neal. Whitby drew the inspiration for "Walking with Z," a multicultural, multistylistic downtown Brooklyn panorama, while out walking his son to school.
Cash's wiggly wah-wah bass, Charlie Burnham's violin, and Keith Loftis's sax join with Whitby's keys to create a sophisticated West African vibe in "Make Somebody Happy." Rodney Holmes's sharp, emphatic drums propel the album's title track, which brings to mind Ennio Morricone's Taxi Driver score along with the psychedelic film music of Isaac Hayes and Roy Ayers.
The album's most deftly gorgeous number is the brooding, glistening ballad "The Invisible Man Breathes," with its moody Latin allusions and neo-romantic piano. Then the band picks up the pace with the upbeat funk of "Mrs. Quadrillion," a coy dedication from Whitby to his wife. They wind up the record with "Escape Route," a percolating clave disco nocturne. At the David Rubenstein Atrium show on September 5, Whitby will be bringing the core of the band, with Gintas Janusonis on drum duty plus exciting VJ Lady Firefly, who will improvise video art in reaction to the music. Redbone will be contributing lead and harmony vocals, Rome Neal re-creating his spoken word cameo, along with guitarist David Phelps (of Peter Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphics). "I didn't need guitar on the album," Whitby relates, "but live in concert, to get all those textures, I don't have twenty fingers!"