Sea Level began as an offshoot of the Allman Brothers in 1976. Keyboardist/vocalist Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams, and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (aka “Jaimoe”) began playing together as an informal jazz/rock group when the Allmans initially broke up that year, and then added guitarist Jimmy Nalls to complete the birth of Sea Level.
While signed to Capricorn Records (home of the Allmans at the time), their self-titled 1977 debut album fused distinctive jazz elements into their southern rock roots sound.
By the time they recorded their second album, Cats On The Coast, they had expanded their style and band. They added keyboardist/saxophone player Randall Bramblett, who gave the band another excellent songwriter, plus an additional guitarist in Davis Causey. Causey’s blues roots blended in well and the two keyboards and sax allowed for more improvisation.
Another change during the recording sessions was the departure of Johanson due to physical problems. New drummer George Weaver came out of a rhythm and blues background. While drummer Joe English would eventually replace Weaver, their basic line-up was complete.
Real Gone Music recently released Cats On The Coast and follow-up On The Edge as a two-for-one set. Both albums are divided between vocal and instrumental songs. The vocal tracks tend to fuse catchy pop and soul with southern rock, while the instrumentals are more in the jazz fusion vein.
Cats benefits from Bramblett’s writing skills. “That’s Your Secret” and “Hard to Fall” both veer in a funky direction with catchy rhythms. Leavell returns to his southern roots with “It Hurts To Want It So Bad.”
The instrumentals, “Storm Warning” and “Midnight Pass,” are jazz fusion pieces that feature Bramblett’s sax and double keyboards. “Song For Amy” retains some jazz elements but strings move the sound in a pop direction.
On The Edge picks up were Cats left off. Bramblett had recorded “King Grand” and “Living in a Dream” on a solo album but here, the band fills in the sound and they emerge as more funk/rock pieces. The other vocal tracks, “This Could Be The Worst,” “Uptown Downtown,” and “Electron Cold” travel the urban soul route.
The instrumentals again have a different sound. “A Lotta Colada” finds the band traveling to the Caribbean to find some of its rhythms. “On The Wing” and “Fifty-Four” are both upbeat rock and jazz pieces.
The band would release five studio albums during their existence, 1976-1981. Williams died in 1983 of cancer. Leavell, Bramblett, English, Nalls, and Causey have all become noted session musicians, while occasionally releasing solo albums.
Sea Level was a competent and professional band that had a unique blend of sounds, and seemed to have had some fun along the way. Cats On The Coast/On The Edge is a fine example of their approach and it’s nice to have both albums back in circulation.