Funk music, the story goes, celebrates carnality and ecstatic revelry to the exclusion of all other values. But these are just stubborn cultural associations, and dubious ones at that. Proper funk is, in its own way, technically demanding music, requiring of its players a gross motor conditioning and flow as well as the acute, bouncy, snap-back touch necessary to generate the syncopations of a slap bass or Clavinet part. In funk, note length is everything – the difference between got it and not-it. It ain’t Rachmaninoff (well, some Stevie Wonder is), but there is an undeniable neurological readiness and refinement to the funk arts.
Mostly, however, funk flies because of a subtle and selfless ensemble awareness, a respect for the spaces in between and how one part propels the other. Funk creates motion – ecstatic motion – out of a territorial counterpoint that is a communal expression of physical joy and the neurological sophistication of the human body. Perhaps this is why circus, big family and other cultic, communal and Dionysian metaphors attach themselves so easily to the genre.
But funk logic is genre-agnostic. You can hear it in the Band, who were organic masters of ensemble space and the negotiations of feel. You can hear it in the almost-laughably spacious grooves of Little Feat songs such as “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” or “Down the Road,” in which not a single performer seems to be playing an incessant rhythm part, and yet the whole moves with the authority of a very agile and whimsical ocean. You can hear it –surprisingly, perhaps – in some of the wiry, brainy ultra-contrapuntal prog music of Gentle Giant.
So lots of music is funky (I swear to God that Bach is, half the time), but Funk-the-Genre is music given over entirely to the ecstasies of ensemble groove-makery. As such, funk often seems like background in search of foreground, a setting in search a subject. Songs come off like afterthoughts, the standardized cardboard boxes required to introduce the funk to the marketplace. Funk lyrics tend toward the minimal and exhortative. Forms typically amount to little more than a dynamic arc: additions and subtractions, buildups and breakdowns. It’s not that these players and composers couldn’t be tending to the other dimensions of music; it’s that they’re taken, literally swept away, by that wild feeling of grooving together, and all else pales for them. It is, in other words, fundamentally live music.
Funk is your uncle, not your father. Funk is a bit squirrelly and capricious and may not have your best interests in mind. Enjoy him, learn from him, but keep yourself grounded, else you end up in the carnival for life. Uncle Funk – a collective of heavy-hitters fronted by guitarist Joe Beesmer, but featuring the name value of Pete Levin, Jesse Gress and T. Xiques – stages a funk clinic at the Bearsville Theater on Friday, March 14. This is a fine group of chopsy players who excel in multiple musical settings, but in this context, expect them to demonstrate the sublimated, selfless musical values that are at the core of real funk (death to false funk!). They will make funk of you, but it is for your own good.
Uncle Funk, Friday, March 14, 9 p.m., $10, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.