You know a musician has it goin’ on when critics just can’t agree on which other, more famous artists to liken them to. Such is the case with Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding, a New York-based singing guitarist who’s spent the past several years developing his own unique approach to soulful, jazz-influenced funk/pop.
A perusal of the overwhelmingly positive press both he and his Lipbone Orchestra (actually just the ace rhythm section of standup bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Rich Zukor) have received finds journalists name-checking everyone from Sly Stone to Jack Johnson and from Dizzy Gillespie to Tom Waits — all in an effort to easily encapsulate the smorgasbord of styles Redding and company blend together.
That’s a compliment to the versatility of what Lipbone’s puttin’ down.
Each of those artists —along with such other obvious musical touchstones as Spearhead’s Michael Franti, inspirational groove pioneer Curtis Mayfield and the almost unimaginably sublime crooner Little Jimmy Scott — have all left their mark on Redding, but rather than slavishly nicking their signature licks and mannerisms, he’s chosen to combine them into a powerful, beguiling persona that’s both comfortingly familiar and decidedly different.
So, what’s so different, you might ask?
Well, for starters, the former NYC subway busker travelled for a couple of years throughout South America, Europe and India, studying classical ethnic musics and Eastern philosophy. However, it’s his devotion to the art of “voicestrumentalism” that is perhaps most striking: a gift that’s easy to brand a novelty, but which is far too well-developed to be dismissed as shtick.
“Voicestrumentalism” is the art of imitating actual musical instruments solely with one’s vocal chords. A close cousin to “vocalese” —the time-honored jazz tradition of transposing horn, guitar or keyboard solos to the human voice— it’s a little-known approach that has adherents worldwide, but is rarely heard outside of the insular world of avant-garde jazz.
Redding (who’s also been known to toss in some ultra-low register Tuvan throat singing on occasion) is capable of simulating a variety of instruments, from percussion to brass to keyboard to strings (including his trademark “mouth trombone” or Lipbone). And we’re not talking about childish mimicry, either. His interpretations are as serious as though he were actually playing the instruments himself — something he’s quite incapable of.
“I wouldn’t even attempt to,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to approach one properly! I just kinda go with what I hear. I listen to lots of Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, and Miles (Davis). People like that — and Satchmo, for sure. I have no idea how they mechanically operate their horns, but I can make the same noises.”
“Sometimes, I’ll do the Lipbone at gigs, and the crowd’s looking around, confused. It takes ‘em a while to grasp where the sound’s coming from. Once they understand what’s going on, their eyes light up. It’s like a wave moving around the room.”
When Redding speaks, it’s in the same lazy, conspiratorial, hipster drawl one hears from Southerners like Dr. John or Levon Helm — a by-product of his upbringing in the N.C. backwoods. He also peppers conversation with occasional asides that hint at a bawdy sense of irreverent humor, something which comes out in his songs.
“I notice while I’m playing and singing that I kind of slip into a character of some sort,” he admits. “I tend to do a lot of talking during shows... Flirting with the wait staff. (Laughs) You know, improv. Whatever it takes to get everyone involved.”
While the band plays to packed houses in NYC (“there’s always a line around the block and a lot of champagne,” says Redding), this will be their first trip this far South — although his bandmates have played here before to great acclaim in the sultry pop-jazz combo Dave’s True Story.
“A lot of people say our music reminds them of New Orleans,” he comments, noting the group’s sassy mix of swing and attitude. “It’s a happy, fun sound to me. Dave and Rich say Savannah’s like that, too, so I’m really lookin’ forward to the show.”
He also says prospective audience members should be aware that he and the band aren’t shy about having a good time.
“You know, we’re not above getting into the crowd for some fun. That’s what I do a lot in NYC at our Sunday afternoon gigs. Walk around and give ‘em a little Lipbone. Girls love it! But for some reason, guys never ask me to do that in their ear.”
The Lipbone Redding Orchestra plays Jazz’d Tapas Bar at 9 pm Saturday. No cover charge for this 21+ show.