It’s been close to 20 years since Canadian jazz-funk-fusion band The Shuffle Demons released an album of new material, but this year they’re back with Clusterfunk, a collection of original tunes likely to get fans wondering why on earth it took so long. More than likely it will garner them some new fans as well. Often compared to Tower of Power, The Shuffle Demons, led by the alto sax of Richard Underhill, really have a sound of their own when they are at their best. Besides Underhill, the quintet features Perry White (not to be confused with the editor of the The Daily Planet) on tenor and baritone sax, Kelly Jefferson on tenor sax, George Koller on electric and acoustic bass, and Stich Wynston on drums. All join in on vocals.
The new album has 12 tracks, of which seven have vocals and five are instrumentals. “SelI Me This” opens with a blast against modern consumer culture, a theme which in some ways informs a number of the vocal numbers. “Bottles and Cans” has a man scavenging through the excesses of society looking for treasures wherever he can. “Shanghai Shuffle” talks about working 12 hours a day for a dollar an hour to fill the big box store. “All About the Hang,” has a retro vibe addressed to the workaholics out there. Don’t waste your time looking for the dough, because “it’s all about the hang.” Set these vocals in some funky jazz riffs and you’ve got something going on.
But it’s when the band shows off its jazz chops on the five instrumentals that the album really hits its groove. George Koller’s “Way After Midnight,” the album’s first instrumental, shows just what these guys can do. The Underhill composition “Earth Song” has an eerie vibe all its own. If some of the vocal tracks seem dated at times, there is nothing dated about the instrumentals. Stich Wynton’s “Fukushima,” dedicated to the Japanese quake victims, is a raucous scream at what would seem to be a nature indifferent to man and his suffering. It is a heart wrenching piece. His “Strollin’” makes for a swinging contrast. “On the Runway,” a Kelly Jefferson composition that closes the album, is a veritable jazz tone poem. It may well be the highlight of the album, although I must say all the instrumentals are impressive.
All in all, Clusterfunk marks a welcome return to form for a popular band that had done some fine work in the past. It is an album that shows the maturity they have gained over the years. There may still be a bit of that energetic playfulness that is so infectious in the video of “Spadina Bus,” the hit from their debut album, but these are now mature musicians. They can still be playful—listen to “He’s the Drummer”—but the music that will stick with you stems from the passion of “Fukushima” and the dynamism of “Way After Midnight.”