The future-funk pioneers of Lettuce have always identified as a New York City band. Sure, their embryonic roots can be traced back to teenage and collegiate years in Boston, studying at Berklee, slaying Comm. Ave house parties, and bum-rushing Wally’s Jazz Cafe. However, the very first Lettuce songwriting session took place at drummer/co-founder Adam Deitch’s parents’ house in nearby Nyack, the band’s seminal January 2001 residency at Wetlands Preserve put its name firmly on the map, and each of the group’s first four studio LPs was recorded in either Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Reverence, respect, lineage, and legacy were on lustrous display last weekend at the venerable Blue Note New York, as Lettuce returned to the famed venue for the first time since 2018. Blue Note has booked a tremendous slate of funk-heavy artists for its annual jazz festival held at the tiny traditional nightclub. The goal for Lettuce was to mine the voluminous well of its collective inspiration. To do so, the sextet called upon some treasured luminaries of yesteryear to collaborate with in the most intimate of settings.

First things first, Lettuce is—without question—dance music, which makes experiencing the band seated at tables in a cramped jazz club a bit of a new paradigm of sorts. Sure, it would be awesome to get up and throw down on a dancefloor with reckless abandon per usual, but in this instance, fans would trade that luxury for one of a different kind, a snug, cozy container with just a few dozen lucky souls and this incredible band, straight no chaser.

Thursday would welcome Buckshot of Brooklyn’s beloved Black Moon and the Boot Camp Cliq. Friday’s special guest was billed as Grand Puba, of Brand Nubian fame. All-world jazz fusion guitarist Mike Stern (Miles Davis), would join the squad live on Saturday night. Sunday would feature only the band itself, sans a special guest (or so we thought). Two sets were performed each night, as is the custom at Blue Note, with Lettuce unveiling different original compositions in each frame while exploring the catalogs of the artists who sat in.

Before bringing guests to the stage, Lettuce first performed original songs for about half an hour. Thursday’s early set strutted into motion with one of the band’s earliest compositions, “Reunion”, from 2002’s debut album Outta Here. The number was reimagined in 2023 style, which is to say it touched on everything from golden-era hip-hop to psychedelia to quiet-storm R&B, as these cats are wont to do of late. This vibrant color palette and fearless ambition would set the tone for the entire run, as nearly every song was approached and executed in such genre-blurring, intergenerational fashion.

The early frame went old-school/new-school with “Upper Nyack”, then chased that with a measured, beautiful “Breakout” that flirted with the dancehall, followed by the pulverizing “Relax”. Lettuce then welcomed Buckshot to the stage with Parliament Funkadelic’s “Mothership Connection”, as the emcee took lead vocals and spit rhymes too. Though short in stature, this man made it crystal clear he was adept at fronting a band, and he did so with relative quickness.


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Also known as the BDI Thug (from unreleased One Nation collaboration with Tupac Shakur), Buckshot did his thing with assurance and swagger, rocking Black Moon early nugget “How Many Emcees Must Get Dissed”. He took a run through Rakim’s iconic “I Ain’t No Joke” and returned to the Mothership for a romp on “One Nation Under A Groove”. Lettuce was golden in reproducing Da Beatminerz‘ dark, filtered boom-bap knock on classics like “Buck ‘Em Down” (remix), “I Gotcha Opin” (remix), and debut single “Who Got Da Props?”. The latter closed out what was an electrifying first frame.

After about 30 minutes, Lettuce returned to the stage and opened the late set with a particularly psychedelic “Blaze”. Another throwback rare gem followed in “Kron Dutch”, with juicy guitar work from Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff. The squadron chased that classic with one of its newest concoctions, the lysergic, dusted “Hawk’s Claw” from last year’s magnificent Unify. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” offered the weekend’s first vocals from keyboardist Nigel Hall.

Each night, the late set guest spots would cover much of the same songs/geography from the early set, performed (mostly) in the same order. But the man who once went by the moniker Buckshot Shorty yet again showed and proved to a sold-out crowd just why he’s a certified legend. The BDI emcee is still spittin’ verbs like an automatic weapon, and rest assured, this squad LETT ‘em know! After Buckshot left the stage for the final time, for an encore Lettuce tore through a scorching “Lettsanity” (Fly, 2012), mashed up with Rick James’ ever-swanky “You & I”.

Night two fell on a Friday, and to kick things off the band immediately delved into a spirited “Larimar” (Elevate) that featured one of several scintillating trumpet solos from Eric “Benny” Bloom. This animated adventure detoured into Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s classic “The Message”, a harbinger of things to come. After a “Larimar” reprise came “The Lock”, Lettuce’s nod to Wally’s-era sensei Jeff Lockhart. That was followed by a b-boy trifecta in “It’s Just Begun” (Jimmy Castor Bunch), which deftly segued into Lettuce’s “Bowler” (Crush, 2015), a rarely-performed spaghetti-Western-inflected number penned by former keyboardist Neal Evans, which then charged into The Blackbyrds‘ 1975 breakdance banger “Rock Creek Park”. The Blue Note was damn lucky some of us didn’t start throwin’ windmills and backspins right there on the dining tables.

When it was time for the iconic emcee Grand Puba to take the stage, he brought along a partner in Lord Jamar, another emcee from the pioneering New York rap group Brand Nubian. These cats are responsible for some of the most memorable hip-hop to come out of the city in the early 1990s, and they don’t perform together very often anymore. Despite the fact that Brand Nubian’s third emcee Sadat X was not present, it was clear from the jump this would prove to be a very special occasion.

Lord Jamar played a more prominent role in fronting Lettuce for a barrage of Brand Nubian classics. Starting with “Probable Cause”, which was buoyed by the sample, a buttery groove from Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic”. In addition to recreating canonical drum breaks one after the next, Adam Deitch was also triggering select samples from his station behind the drum kit.  They uncorked more Brand Nubian classics: “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head”, then “Word is Bond”, the latter of which saw Jamar bugging out at how surgically Lettuce rendered the Average White Band’s “I’m The One” sample. (Fun fact, in the late 1990s Deitch was drafted to be the AWB’s touring drummer when he was still in college). Meanwhile, Grand Puba declared Lettuce was the best band they’d performed with “since Arsenio Hall”.

Lettuce, Grand Puba, Lord Jamar – “Probable Cause”/”Don’t Let It Go To Your Head” – 6/9/23

[Video: Karen Dugan]

It seemed like most of the room at the Blue Note knew “Slow Down”. This could have been on account of the sample—Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians‘ “What I Am”, a huge hit in 1988 that Puba reformulated into the woozy “Slow Down” on One For All a mere two years later. On this night, not only would he and Jamar rap their classic bars, but he crooned the heart of the sample to boot: Brickell’s famous bridge “I’m not aware of too many things,” delivered in his patented lazy Puba drawl. Mary J. Blige’s “What’s the 411?” followed, the massive title track to her 1992 debut album, written by and featuring Grand Puba. Again, Lettuce had the Ohio Players‘ “Pride & Vanity” sample dialed in proper, and Puba invited the lovely and talented Shantel Gabrielle to more-than-ably assist with Mary’s iconic bars and hooks.

From there, a curious choice: the emcees rocked “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down”, a classic Brand Nubian banger produced by the legendary Diamond D of Diggin’ In The Crates (DITC), who masterfully employs a sample of Lou Donaldson’s “rare-groove” version of The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” (recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in nearby Englewood Cliffs, NJ and released in 1969 on—you guessed it—Blue Note Records). Lettuce absolutely nailed this one, too, with Benny Bloom mimicking Lou’s stuttering horn break perfectly. “Punks Jump Up” was included on 1993’s In God We Trust, an album that doesn’t include Grand Puba, as he was off on his Reel to Reel solo mission at that time. Some hip-hop historians claim that Sadat X and Jamar were throwing subliminals at Puba on this very track. Nonetheless, it was among the highlights of the night, in both sets. LETT plus 2/3 of Brand Nubian finished strong with a charging run through “All For One” from its 5-mic debut LP.

For the late set on Friday, Lettuce continued with the b-boy vibes, uncorking its own take on the park jam in “Krewe” (Elevate). A JB’s-infused intro gave way to Rage’s “Blast Off” (2008) before the team tumbled into the crunkalogic “Waffles” (Unify). The modern-day thumper nodded to the dearly-departed Notorious B.I.G. with a few minutes of instrumental “Juicy”. The band then landed in the always-emotional “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, Lettuce’s rework of Tears for Fears‘ hit single found on Elevate, with the back-end remixed in Soulquarian-style.

Brand Nubian’s late set collaboration with Lettuce was pretty similar to the earlier performance, in setlist and delivery, save for a slick late-set detour from “Punks Jump Up” into James Brown’s foundational “Funky Drummer”, among the most essential breaks in hip-hop history.

But as mentioned earlier, there was another surprise in the house, Grandmaster Melle Mel of the Furious Five, who takes a famed verse on “The Message”. So when Melle Mel showed up, Lettuce dropped into the fatback synth-funk of that primordial song that first warned of the harsh realities of street life. The squad neatly segued into Sugarhill Gang‘s embryonic “Rapper’s Delight” with Melle Mel kickin’ Wonder Mike‘s timeless rhyme. All was well for a good little while, before eventually, Melle Mel did Melle Mel things (rap legend or not, the guy has a well-earned reputation for commandeering stages and going way off script). Soon, the initially-promising collaboration spiraled into quasi-karaoke, with Melle Mel playing jukebox hero. No two ways about it, shit got weird. Somehow we ended up hearing the Melle-Mellification of “Tom’s Diner” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” before somebody in the club mercifully pulled the plug.

I would be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge the fact that in recent years, Lord Jamar is better known for his polarizing opinions and extreme politics than he is for any contemporary music. He is among the more controversial and outspoken voices in hip-hop, and to be clear, I (and many others) find much of his rhetoric and ideology hurtful, harmful, and problematic. That said, my lived experience and day-to-day reality are far from the same as his. So as somebody who is afforded the inarguable benefits of white privilege every day of my life, in this instance, instead of protesting his involvement in this concert, or catching feelings because he was included, I chose to consciously separate the art from the artist, and allow myself to enjoy these songs for what they were and continue to be: important, essential sound art born out of the systemic abuses and struggles of marginalized communities.

Lettuce, Grand Puba, Lord Jamar – “Slow Down” – 6/9/23

[Video: Karen Dugan]

Saturday night, Lettuce would trade the hip-hop history lesson for fiery fusion. The sextet, now thoroughly warmed up and operating at maximum capacity, stormed the stage with a JB’s-styled hard-funk groove that turned into Stevie Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday”. This was dedicated to Adam’s mother Denise Deitch celebrating her birthday seated at a nearby table, sung by most of the band members (and soon audience) with gusto. A rotund run through “RVA Dance” (Unify) saw Bloom go nuclear on trumpet. Not wanting to leave his other parent out of the fun(k), Deitch called for “LETT Bobby”, a bombastic b-side from the Crush era inspired by Adam’s father Bobby Deitch.

A foreboding, patient intro section announced a gallop through Unify crown-jewel “Vamanos”, the triumphant post-trap track concocting a mosaic thump that subtly flirted with the dancehall yet again. “Vamanos” was at once searing and sinister, much to the delight of a gentleman seated at the table next to ours. To close out the Lettuce-only section of the set, the band dialed up a fast-paced “Ready to Live”, originally recorded by ’70s Oakland funksters Cold Blood, a track that propelled Nigel to really get loose on the vocals and organ again.

When Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff excitedly welcomed guitarist Mike Stern to the stage, he called it “one of the great honors of our career.” A renowned guitarist for decades, Stern logged time with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jaco Pastorious, and Billy Cobham, but he’s best known for his stint in the early 1980s working with Miles Davis. With a huge grin, shaggy bowl-cut, and vintage Fender Telecaster in tow, Stern took his spot at the stage center-left, between the horns and Hall, just in front of Shmeeans and Erick “Jesus” Coomes. The squad wasted little time coalescing with a seventh player. Stern naturally vibed with Smirnoff, and he found his way into the LETT sonic alchemy with style and relative ease.

Lettuce laced up a mystical “In A Silent Way” (Miles Davis), Stern connecting with each member of the band, without showing out or stepping on toes. This guest would push the band to meet him on his level, a lofty perch indeed. It was clear from the get-go that Stern was blowing the rest of the band’s minds one by one, as evidenced by the facial expressions and mannerisms of Nigel Hall and Eric “Benny” Bloom. No scales were off limits it seemed, as Stern dealt in harmonics and dug deep in his voluminous bag for the duration of his time onstage, stoking the members of Lettuce to come correct, and raising the proverbial bar by the measure.

Lettuce, Mike Stern – “In A Silent Way” (Miles Davis) – 6/10/23

[Video: Karen Dugan]

On “Silent Way” and later “Tutu”, Ryan Zoidis busted out the soprano sax; with ethereal soundscapes and masterful storytelling, he brilliantly channeled the melodies and energies of dearly departed maestro Wayne Shorter. In a classy move, Stern chose to tackle Lettuce’s elastic “Pocket Change” (Crush) and added his brand of virtuosity to the tight funk workout. Stern stuck around for the “encore”, an updated take on “Last Suppit” (Rage), and the living legend blessed that one up with his angular, esoteric stylings too.

After the intermission, Lettuce returned and delivered an opening section that was probably its finest performance sans guest thus far. A titillating, Afrobeat-tinged take on “Ghosts of Jupiter” (Rage) was positively scorching, hinting a subtle sliver of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”, plus whiffs of the Headhunters and Roy Ayers too. A riveting “Luck of Lucien” nodded toward Linden Boulevard, before neatly segueing into the cinematic boom-bap of “Silence is Golden” (Resonate, 2020), which featured the ever-rare bass solo from Jesus Coomes.

In between tunes, the erstwhile low-end theorist showed love to the great Marcus Miller, before the sextet embarked on a phantasmagorical run through “Purple Cabbage”(Elevate) that swerved over the Brooklyn Bridge for a romp through Gang Starr’s classic “Mass Appeal”. Then Lettuce welcomed Mike Stern back to the stage, for a similar set as the early engagement, save for replacing “Tutu” with another exploratory Miles number in “Fat Time”.

Family obligations forced this writer to cut out and depart NYC before the fourth and final night on Sunday. This pair of performances was slated to be just LETT, without any special guests; the group would dig into almost every album/era of its career between the two frames. Toward the tail end of Sunday’s late performance, former Lettuce trumpet player Rashawn Ross, in the city on a day off from his job with Dave Matthews Band, arrived at the club sans horn to take in a few songs from his former bandmates.

Coincidentally, Ross’s first shows with Lettuce were in 2003, when he performed with the band at the Blue Note in Tokyo, Japan, shows later immortalized on the Live in Tokyo record the following year. To close out Lettuce’s phenomenal residency at the Blue Note New York, Rashawn would borrow Bloom’s trumpet and join for a typically-ambitious excursion on (arguably) the band’s magnum opus, “Madison Square” (Fly). A fitting exclamation point on a terrific, triumphant long Lettuce weekend in Greenwich Village.

Check out a gallery of images from night three of Lettuce at Blue Note New York courtesy of photographer Nicholas Fitanides aka Phrazz.

words: B.Getz