Who’s the max festival throwdown band in the land? Big Sam’s Funky Nation, with 5-stringer Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson and gregarious drummer Chocolate Milk rocking its foundation, made a solid case for themselves when they turned the classy SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium into a ruckus room on a very non-Irish St. Patty’s Day. Slide trombonist Big Sam Williams led the New Orleans-based Nation through a blistering set of modern funk-rock much more akin to Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue than the Mardi Gras music he used to play back his days with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Big Sam’s Funky Nation recently signed with Concord Records, and Henderson’s exceptional composition “Feet on the Floor” is the single heralding an upcoming album.
How did “Feet on the Floor” come about, and what does it represent regarding the Nation’s overall sound?
Our funk is mainly in the style of Prince or Morris Day & the Time. They are major influences, and we play tunes by both of them. We like to bounce the groove like Chuckii Booker, or D’Angelo. It’s driving, but still way funky. You can simply ride the root if you want, the groove is that funky.
Our previous album, Evolution, was more toward heavy rock. We normally don’t do “New Orleans music,” but “Feet on the Floor” is NOLA funk to the core. It’s more of a street beat—stabbing the one. We were trying to keep it home.
How did that happen?
I was working the main groove on upright, calling it “JBlakk Blues,” when Sam told me he wanted to do a New Orleans song. That’s when I took it from a Terrance Blanchard, contemporary jazz feel on upright, to more of a George Porter Jr. thing on electric, in the vein of “Just Kissed My Baby.” My electric style sounds more modern because I play a 5-string, and it’s more technically advanced from years of listening to Richard Bona. Andrew Gouché was influential as well—I’m originally a church guy.
The bridge changes are harmonically advanced and non-traditional.
I wanted something totally different from the main section, which is just Bb minor pentatonic, and I found them on upright as well. Essentially, the bridge consists of two turnarounds that are kind of unusual. [See Ex. 1 for the basic A-and B-section bass lines.]
You have a way of putting your own stamp on traditional styles and cover songs. Got any advice on how to do that?
It’s about having a concept. When we do “Let’s Go Crazy,” we go the other way and take the tempo down. Our general concept is always to milk the groove to the point where you’re thinking, “Maybe I want to have a drink or a smoke on this song” [laughs].
Big Sam’s Funky Nation, “Feet on the Floor” [2015, Concord], Evolution [2014, Hypersoul]; Jerry Henderson, “Horn Players” [2016, independent], “Pompano and Willie” [2011, independent]