Dating back to their halcyon days at the Berklee College of Music in mid-90’s Boston, Lettuce has forever been an improvisational band. But in this current era of Lettuce-funk, the trajectory of their jamming has launched skyward; a trend that began with 2015’s mammoth LP Crush and has continued steadily ever since. It is readily apparent on this winter’s Beyond the Clouds tour that Lettuce’s hive-mind dynamics and fierce, fearless improvisational mojo have cross-pollinated, creating an alchemy that has the band plugged into and transmitting from an entirely new portal.
After standout January performances on the annual Jam Cruise and at Arizona’s Gem & Jam Festival, Lettuce has been in the midst of a grueling run, sometimes teaming up with the likes of Galactic, The Motet, and Chali 2na for dates across the US. At each and every stop, Lettuce has been leaving their proverbial mark, crushing rooms from Atlanta to Austin, NOLA to Las Vegas, California and the whole way up through the Pacific Northwest. This leg of the tour ended with a bang: a sprint through St. Paul, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland with their NOLA-based funk brothers.
Reminiscent of Type-II jamming, Lettuce’s newer approach to collective improvisation allows them to depart from the parameters of a song’s structure, key signature, chord complexes, and tempo, offering free-form, free-wheeling, freestyle jam excursions that are composed as they happen in real time. A concept first embarked upon onstage by jazz artists in the post-Bop era, this sort of thing is commonplace the jam band world, first crystallized by the Grateful Dead for the better part of thirty years. This approach was later perfected by Phish in the late 1990’s—it’s artistic implementation has been referred to as Type II jamming in the resulting improvisational diaspora for two decades since.
Forget taking solo after solo and wearing out chords and grooves for interminable amounts of time. That is not (and never was) this squad’s identity; though historically Lettuce does take funk songs for thorough calisthenic workouts, each player in the group is a virtuoso so they are decidedly not immune from supernatural soloing either. But in recent times, a focus on a collective “move-as-one” approach has served to spark this revolution in LETT jamming aesthetic and prowess. The focus on dynamics, or “making the space”, has had a dramatic effect on the band’s modus operandi. The proof and the truth lies in the music.
Consider the multitude of influences that inform Lettuce’s craft; the thrusting funk of Herbie’s Headhunters, the powerful bombast of Tower of Power, the head-nod grittiness of Pete Rock and DJ Premier, the dubby bass tombs of Kingston’s King Tubby, the emotional R&B thrills of Earth, Wind and Fire. The laundry list goes on, as Lettuce are among the deepest-schooled and woodshedded cats in the game. Unless they are outright covering another artist’s song, Lettuce simply does not sound anything like their influences whatsoever. Instead, they reformulate their spiritual DNA through individual and collective musical voices. In doing so, Lettuce may have given birth to a gumbo genre by creating their unique sound, styles made of fabric and colors all their own.
In addition to upping the ante on the jamming, Lettuce has spent the Beyond the Clouds tour unveiling slab after slab of hot new music. Having put nearly two albums worth of original, new material down on tape for their (still untitled) album due sometime in the next year, the band was anxious to take a bunch of these new compositions out on the road for some test runs. Naturally, fans have been flipping out online and on the dancefloor; soaking in bangers “Moksha”, “KHRU”, and the appropriately-titled “4th Dimension”—the latter song best representing the band’s magnificent new colorways. Add still-hot-off-the-press joints from this fall like “TRAP”, “House”, and “Shmink Dabby Kane”, and the band has dropped merely a few doses of the forthcoming interplanetary joyrides.
Beyond devouring the tour soundboards that the band has fortuitously made available on Nugs.net, this writer was blessed to take in two shows on the Beyond the Clouds tour: the Bay Area stop at The Fox Theater in Oakland and a raucous affair at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Oregon. After the second gig, we got a few minutes with founding members Ryan Zoidis (sax and synths) and Jesus Coomes (bass). Clearly excited and vibe’d up, the duo known as DJZJ pulled back the curtain on the LETT magik just a little bit, giving us a peek into just how these cats continue to drive the lane and elevate the game in 2018.
[Photo: Brad Hodge]
B. Getz: The band is firing on every cylinder! This new music is exciting. Was there a concerted effort to unveil a new era of the band on this tour?
Ryan Zoidis: More like we have a lot of new music to play—so much new music we are bringing out. On this tour, now we are starting to flesh it out live, and it’s enabling us to have a lot more fun every night onstage. We can, you know, be free, improvise more, and vibe more.
BG: The catalog is so deep, even without the new shit. You have a large canon of material to mine from when creating the setlists, which are different each and every night with Lettuce.
Zoidis: The more songs and albums you have to choose from makes the whole thing way more fun. It keeps it fun for us, keeps it fun for you. Because we have a lot more to choose from, out there, you don’t know what to expect from us. You have to be excited, right?! We are excited. We have to be comfortable and excited as shit to be there. You can’t be like… [shrugs and backs away]
Jesus Coomes: “You can’t be like [makes face], ‘Oh, Whatever…’ You got to be stoked! And we’re very stoked right now. Playing all this new shit makes us happy and excited. That translates onstage and out there to you guys. Now, that’s not saying you can’t play an old song and make it brand new, just to throw a couple changes into the set to make it fresh. So by constantly doing that—playing new music and changing up the old shit—it makes us put some of our other songs down, put them on the shelf for a long time. And then when we bring them back, they are fresh again. So yeah, we are definitely stoked on that.
BG: I noticed that you guys are constantly re-working and rearranging old stuff. What makes you decide you’re going to work out an old tune and rewire it?
Jesus: What was the one we did the other day? ‘Chief’? No, ‘Rule the World’. We did it like Dilla style. [beatboxes a bass line to the new “Rule the World”] I dunno, man. We just hear shit, get inspired, and something new comes out of it. It’s just our flow. It’s organic.
BG: You know what comes off organic? This new frontier, new portal of jamming you guys have reached in 2018. It’s been a steady ascent starting with the Crush material, but the improvising is really confident right now. What did you guys lock into recently that has affected the improv excursions so markedly?
Zoidis: The vibe has been soaring on this tour. We are looking for that zone, and I think we all have embraced group improvisation. Those are our favorite moments, and now we realize that.
BG: Loving this heavy focus on a “move as one” approach to the jamming.
Zoidis: Yep! Exactly. Other than just a featured solo or just one person soloing—those moments can be great too—but we are also inviting the group improv into those solo moments as well. One person is featured but the group is also coming together in that space, in that zone.
Jesus: Yeah, making the zone… trying to find the place… and then going there.
Lettuce – Wiltern Theater – Los Angeles, CA – 2/15/2018
[Video: Pat Myers]
BG: Ryan, let’s step into the “Zoid Void” for a second and talk about what you’re doing on sax, specifically with the Korg X-911 synth rig and the various sound patches you are working with. I mean, space is the place, as far as how all that sounds to us on the dancefloor. It’s fascinating. Very psychedelic.
Zoidis: Yea man, I’ve been working on my sounds and creating some new things for a long time now, so I just have some textures to pull from, you know? Textures that as a sax player I wouldn’t have if I didn’t put this whole synth rig together. I’m just learning more and more where ‘the place’ is for it, you know what I’m saying?
Like, now I can play higher than everybody, so now I’m not getting in the way of Benny [Bloom]’s solo or anybody else’s. I can actually comp like a keyboard player with it. But also just with psychedelic textures, I can create a mood with just a few notes, like only three or four notes. And the breakdowns and the hip-hop sections are just more lit because I don’t have to play sax; I can just chill out on the synth and vibe out.
[Photo: Brad Hodge]
BG: You can see the other cats onstage get inspired when you really blast off with that thing. You can hear the stoke.
Jesus: Really, if you think about it, the X-911 has been a freeing, liberating, “let-go” thing for Zoidis to step out of the box that’s just calling yourself “a saxophone player.” Because now you are taking a sax, and you’re using it to trigger an analog synthesizer, and the sounds are crazy. Now what we are talking about is really undefined territory.
Zoidis: And I’ve always been a knob turner. I’m just a guy who loves turning knobs. I love being in the studio, making sounds, and creating different textures. That creates a ridiculous palette of analog sounds to use on the gig—and I’ll tell you, it works! You know, [Adam] Deitch can sing me something on his little mic into in-ear monitors and I’ll play it, you know, with Portamento! Up two octaves, you know, whatever. And then it’s gets crazy when me and Jesus will throw down double bass lines—
Jesus: —When we start doubling bass lines, that’s when I know the vibe is going on. I mean, he’s playing bass on the saxophone, but there’s a lot of times I’m in the zone just freaking out from what I’m hearing over there. I don’t know what he’s playing. I don’t know where or sometimes even who the sound is coming from. I’m hearing a lot of stuff, and I don’t know what the hell is going on. And that’s dope to me!
BG: Fellas, the future is looking mad bright. And let me tell you, so are the lights! You know, I’ve got shades on but your lighting designer is really going “beyond the clouds” too.
Zoidis: Yep! Thanks, I wanted to touch on that. One thing that’s been really fueling the shows is Blake Addington, our lighting director.
Jesus: Also known as Blazer Beam! [laughs]
BG: During the Vegas show on Mardi Gras, on the live stream, people were commenting about his lights nearly as much as they were the music!
Jesus: That’s what I am saying! We are heavily influenced by visual artists these days. It is starting to inspire me musically. Heavily inspired by lots of paintings. We love museums and shit, and then there are painters who have come into our lives—a lot of artists doing cool, cool visual stuff. All those shapes are in music. The music is colors; if we could look at music, we could see that. So a lot of that shit Blake is doing with the lights and lasers, he is working with us also playing “live” and spontaneously creating. He can hear the jams and knows where they’re going, he knows where to take it, and sometimes, we vibe off what he’s doin’—
Zoidis: —Blake, he just will sit on a look for a long time while the band sits on a vibe for a while. And he’s really listening, he’s really involved, and technically, the guy just a genius. He can do anything. He is a part of the team. Blake Addington, [shakes head] he’s ridiculous.
[Photo: Brandon Weil]
BG: What kinda tunes are you guys bumpin’ for inspiration? Where’s your head at musically as far as what’s hot in the LETT city streets? Or on the tour bus for that matter?
Jesus: The Attention KMart Shoppers shit is the shit. It’s made by Juicy the Emissary. All the shit from Street Corner Music with Houseshoes. We’ve been fans of Houseshoes for a long time and supported him since the beginning. I love that Derty Dan Cheap Thrills, also on Street Corner Music.. Nah, mean? And then our friends Khruangbin too. They have a hot new record out.
BG: I saw a bunch of vinyl on the bus, and a little portable turntable too. Do tell.
Jesus: Between hunting for cheese and hunting for records, hunting for wine, that really takes up all our time.
Zoidis: Now, we have a 45 collection with us on tour—just a stack of vinyl that me and Nigel have just gathered on the road. We were in Nashville and hit all the good record stores. We are just getting 45s: James Brown, The Isley Brothers, mad reggae records. All over the map!
Jesus: I gotta mention my brother’s music too. Ty Coomes (Tycoon Beats) has really influenced me my whole life, and he’s influenced all of us. Deitch’s beats too, of course. But, mainly I listen to my brother Tycoon Beats. Probably seventy-five percent of what I listen to is Ty Coomes—he’s the shit. He’s my big brother, you know, I don’t get to change the radio! [laughs] That’s what I get influenced by. Then the rest of the shit I’m listening to is that Street Corner Music, that’s also my shit. And then these dudes on the bus are always playing everything from 1941 to 1978.
[Photo: Brad Hodge]
BG: I’ve noticed the natural wines have been prevalent in the mix on recent tours. Is that how you like to prepare for these sonic explorations into outer space?
Jesus: Well, it’s more of a celebratory thing. We usually drink them after the shows. But yes, lots of natty wines!
Zoidis: It’s really just treating ourselves to premium stuff, and we are learning about it too. Learning is a big part of why we love it. And it is fueling the music too, and you know, the hangs, man…
Jesus: It’s just interesting to have muses and to have female energies with male energies—just heady motherfuckers coming through and saying crazy shit to me! The random stuff, like last night these dudes were calling down from the tenth floor in the parking lot. They were going “‘Jesus! It’s going to be an awesome show!” Just those really good vibes—that shit helps a lot! Right before that, I was a little tired, being on the road so much, but then after hearing that, I got a rush of energy, I just started getting stoked for our show!
BG: You know that there’s a LETT Army now. There are people all over the country getting hype, and new peeps steadily getting hip to what you’re doing. The fan club online is jumpin’ too.
Jesus: Yeah, we’ve been really noticing. It’s coming together, it’s coming together.
Zoidis: I think the next big step ahead of us, our next goal is being able to curate a real party for every show we play. Like when we play these rooms, we bring on our favorite bands like JAW GEMS or Khruangbin. And if we know we’re going to sell out the room, we are going to be able to bring a cool opener, somebody we vibe with—we are going to turn people on to them, you know what I mean? Then, we are going to play two sets and take our time and hold that room. When people walk into the lobby of the place, there’s going to be a dope art installation and the merch booth is going to vibin’. We’ll be hangin’ out there, meeting people. There’s going to be dope art everywhere. Vibes, everywhere.
Jesus: It’s going to be like when someone throws a dope-ass festival, like Hulaween or Electric Forest in the woods. But, we bring all the cool shit they want to have available from city to city.
Zoidis: You know, there’s gotta be natty wine available and really good food options, healthy ones. Plus, we want to have tea service. Just imagine if we could just post up in each city for two nights and create that and have an afterparty set up outside the gig for something we might be playing with—a side project.
BG: Like say, maybe, a DJZJ?
BG: Sounds like a field of dreams. If you build it, they will come.
As told to B.Getz on February 18, 2018.
In addition to on the road with Lettuce during their Beyond The Clouds tour (tickets and tour dates available here), you can catch Ryan Zoidis down in New Orleans during the highly anticipated musical mecca that is Jazz Fest. On Sunday, April 29th, he will team with members of the Disco Biscuits, Brazilian Girls, and Break Science for J.E.D.I. (Jazz Electronic Dance Improvisation) at Maison (tickets available here). On Sunday, May 6th, Zoidis will return to Maison along with members of The Motet and Snarky Puppy will join forces for Joey Porter’s tribute to Herbie Hancock (tickets available here).