There’s a new party emerging from the eclectic music scene in Los Angeles. Keyboardist, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin has gathered some of alternative rock’s finest musicians to form the new band, Action Figure Party. Kurstin, who has recorded with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (on their smash album Californication), Matthew Sweet and other heavyweights of the pop and alt-rock worlds as well as his own critically acclaimed band, Geggy Tah, has been an important part of the alternative rock scene for years. At the same time, Greg’s roots lie in jazz, groove, and soul music. Action Figure Party steps outside of the more traditional formats, blending Greg’s diverse background to create funky, grooving music that is decidedly unique and captivating. With their first Blue Thumb release, Action Figure Party, the band shows just how well jazz and rock can hit it off by combining the intensity and energy of the latter with the improvisations and harmonic complexity of the former. It’s a blend with an unprecedented sound.
The impressive guest list for the Action Figure Party includes: bassist Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Sean Lennon (turntables), Incubus’ Jose Pasillas (drums), and Cibo Matto vocalist Miho Hatori. The Party also boasts trombonist Gabrial McNair (who plays keyboards for No Doubt), David Ralicke on trombone and sax (from Beck’s band), Buckcherry’s Yogi on guitar, and bassists Daniel Shulman (plays with Garbage), Fima Ephron (a Gil Scott-Heron associate), and Mike Elizondo (who has played with Dr. Dre and Eminem). Drummers Yuval Gabay (from Soul Coughing), Gary Novak (Chick Corea, Alanis Morrissette), and Brian Reitzell (from Air and Redd Kross), along with percussionist John Molo (Phil Lesh and Friends) kept watch over the Party’s beat.
"The energy was electric," Kurstin says. "This was the first time that this group of people had been in a room together and it was intense. It was the perfect marriage of being relaxed and being on edge." For many of these musicians, it was an ideal opportunity to show their creative versatility and passion for improvisation.
The music will prove truly revelatory to listeners who only know these rock musicians from their other work. "The guys on this album love jazz and are great improvisers, but their audiences don’t necessarily know that side of them. We got to collectively explore, and, in some way, we all stretched beyond what we might normally do." Kurstin composed all of the album’s selections (except for Pamelia Kurstin’s "No Sleep"). "I attempted to write these songs with each particular musician in mind," Kurstin explains. "To some extent, though, once you get into the studio you just see what unfolds, given how inspiring these players are."
Kurstin masterfully swirls soul, jazz, dub, and rock together in his palette: one style streams into the other seamlessly, and each flavor is layered densely on top of the others, creating a textured, funky blend. Most people I’ve met respond best to the simplest of grooves," Kurstin notes. "Most of the jazz we relate to comes from that place. I wanted to point out the familiarity in this music: a simplicity that draws you in along with the energy of the funk."
"Everybody Ready," which opens the album, establishes the Action Figure Party concept, bouncing between infectious feel-good choruses and jazzy solo turns. The catchy title track is pulled largely from the world of alternative rock, with Kurstin’s vocals bursting through a brightly colored landscape. "Pong Baby" hearkens back to the heyday of soul with David Ralicke’s horn providing a backbone to Kurstin’s sinuous keyboards—which leave no doubt that he is the latest in a line of great soul-jazz keyboardists. Kurstin’s keyboard heroes include Herbie Hancock, Augustus Pablo, McCoy Tyner, Ramsey Lewis, and Alice Coltrane.
The pulsating energy of "Action Figure Party" returns in "Clock Radio," which also features Kurstin on lead vocals. Kurstin’s singing lends an infectious and catchy dimension to the record with his engaging voice and humorous, poetic lyrics. "Gettem" is a rush of jazz and pop’s kaleidoscopic colors, all seen through Kurstin’s unique prism. The hugely enjoyable, upbeat "The Clapper" rollicks along, channeling the album’s mood to a more jazz-centered focus.
Sean Lennon adds some truly modern sound effects to the driving energy of "Gamera." The title of "No Sleep" gives an idea of its mood: a spacey, laid-back spirit overlaid on a wash of rhythm guitar and percussion that will no doubt appeal to fans of ambient and dub music. The closing track, "Flow," the most traditional, jazz-oriented track on the album, "might point ahead to the next chapter in my career," says Kurstin.
As a young jazz pianist, Kurstin studied with the iconoclastic Jaki Byard at the New School in New York City and at Cal Arts. Even as a very young man, Kurstin could pinpoint exactly what he wanted to achieve musically. "Jaki Byard was the whole reason I went to the New School. In high school, I was a big Charles Mingus fan, and Byard, who worked with Mingus, was one of my favorite pianists. I wanted to learn from him, so I tracked him down in New York." Kurstin has gone on to perform and tour with such noted artists as vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, as well as with his own popular jazz quartet in Los Angeles.
Kurstin, who plays organ, synth, piano and guitar, is a remarkably versatile musician. He scored great critical success with his previous band, the genre-busting duo, Geggy Tah, which showcased his cutting edge soundscapes and quirky compositions. His skills as a top-notch keyboardist are clearly no secret; he has also appeared on countless sessions with some of today’s biggest artists including the Chili Peppers and Sheryl Crow.
What are Kurstin’s hopes for the album? With Action Figure Party he has provided these alternative-rock players another musical arena to explore ("I love interacting with these innovative musicians in the world of improvisation."). "I want the young listeners of punk and alternative rock to see the commonality between jazz and the music they love," says Kurstin. "I really love what happened with the emergence of hip-hop–how the samples offered a glimpse and introduction to classic jazz. The potential to entice new fans into the world of jazz has been an inspiration and driving force for my music."
With its funky beats, driving rock rhythms, flowing improvisations, and catchy songs, Action Figure Party will surely become a favorite of fans of rock, jazz, hip-hop, and jam bands alike.