This album presents a band charging back into the pocket, back into the groove, after an extended time out. A band that burned brightly, and sadly, all too briefly, some 20 years ago. Pocket Jungle was the solo project of bassist Phil Bowler, a Grammy winning veteran sideman of the bands of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Wynton Marsalis, Toninho Horta, Mario Rivera, Hilton Ruiz, and Steve Turre, to name just a few.
When drummer William “Beaver” Bausch decided to record a new Pocket Jungle album in the summer of 2013, intended by the band's members to pay tribute to their mentor, my excitement rose up like a shot of adrenaline. It was the same rush of anticipation I felt so many years ago. Because I was there back then, through good times and bad, as the band's manager, rehearsal host, de facto "5th Beatle" and all around champion for the cause.
This music comes from a place of deep love for Phil from his acolytes, but it's so much more. Together for the first time in over 10 years, playing freshly minted tunes and a couple of numbers from the old band book, their sensitivity to one another, telepathic communication, and compulsive need to push through conventions continues the work they started long ago. A decade apart and not a single beat missed!
Back in the 90s, when I was first introduced to Phil Bowler, without having heard him play, I thought I'd met just another journeyman bassist. What I found instead was a hyper-articulate spokesman for the music that I was so deeply immersed in at the time. We developed a friendship through late night hang sessions at a local diner, and I discovered how much I really didn't know about this music that had become my religion.
Eventually I got the chance to see him play live in New York City with drummer Ralph Peterson. What struck me from the first note I heard (once I picked my jaw up off the floor), was his sound. This tone coming from the bass! Big, woolly, and dark, but with a light touch and articulation at the same time. And a driving beat, married to something much more unusual in a bassist: an emphatic lyricism.
Not long after, I began to hear Phil talk about starting his own group, with me as its manager. Excited and flattered, I wondered why Phil hadn't had his own group before, but it was clear he had been waiting for the right time and the right players. He soon gathered around him the original lineup of Pocket Jungle, young musicians all--trumpeter Bill Dowling, guitarist Pete Smith, and Bausch on drums. The name we came up with for the band summed up Phil's musical vision and philosophy: staying true to the pocket, the groove, while retaining your individual voice and being willing to take risks, to stay wild. Phil understood that these young players were still developing their own sounds, but through his experience, guidance and example, they worked towards developing a group sound, something much more powerful than any one individual contribution.
After the band's initial run, Dowling left to take a touring gig, and was replaced by saxophonist Paul Carlon in the second lineup of Pocket Jungle. As Carlon tells it, "The rhythm section had put a lot of time into playing together, and they had really developed their own thing, so it was like jumping onto a moving train". Pocket Jungle 2.0 started to play regularly, and Carlon found his way into this tight inner circle. "I began to have some familiarity with the swirling maelstrom these three guys were throwing down and it sank in how truly deep Phil's playing was, and is. The way he seemed utterly fearless musically. It was like taking lessons without even realizing it".
From left: William "Beaver" Bausch, Phil Bowler, Paul Carlon, Scott Latzky, Pete Smith.
As time went on, the group's members followed their own paths. Bill Dowling's career has taken him around the globe countless times. Bausch, Smith, and Carlon formed the Afro-Cuban jazz band Grupo Los Santos, along with bassist David Ambrosio. Clearly Pocket Jungle had a deep impact on these musicians; the lessons learned through playing with Phil continue to bear fruit in all of their current projects. Drummer/percussionist Scott Latzky, a longtime friend of Beaver, is often a part of these projects. Scott had played with Phil in guitarist Sal Salvador's band, an experience he remembers fondly.
"Phil really expanded my playing and my whole approach. Playing with him was always an exciting trip … you were just not allowed to bring anything but a sense of adventure and recklessness to the bandstand.” Latzky has become an extended member of the Pocket Jungle/Grupo los Santos family.
On to the music on this disc. I can only say it was worth the wait. I could enthuse over all the selections, as they represent the journey of the band from past to present so succinctly, but to my ears, two tunes stand out.
Old Devil Moon has been in the band's book since the beginning, and was the final song recorded for this album.
Right away, the group's looseness and familiarity with the material is felt. The rhythmic interplay between Beaver and Phil is a perfect example of their commitment to both support and push each other. Listen to how they slip and slide around each other during Beaver's many offbeat fills and accents. Contrast that with the way Pete comes in on the guitar during the swing sections, while Phil seamlessly lays down a deep, monstrous groove. Pocket Jungle personified!
The Steve Coleman-penned Wights Waits for Weights, a funky odd metered number, also harkens back to the band's original lineup.
The beautiful, mildly exotic tabla/drum intro and outro fleshed out by Scott and Beaver sets the stage. Phil goes all dark here, putting lots of space in all the right places. Pete gets to channel his inner Jimmy Page (something I always wanted to hear more of!), and Paul digs into a muscular solo, indicative of his fiery contributions to Grupo Los Santos. You just know that when the band plays this live, the roof's coming off!
So here we are almost 25 years later, with Pocket Jungle. Is this the beginning of a new chapter? A return to form? An opportunity to complete some unfinished business? Who knows. Perhaps it's something much more. A chance to continue on a path begun long ago, with the benefit of experience and some hard knocks. With a new kind of confidence, fully earned. So, hats off to all my old friends. Here's to paying it forward, second chances and continuing to take risks in order to evolve your art.