Moonraker's soulful funk-jazz fusion
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., January 2, 2003) – What happens when some Berklee-trained jazz musicians hook up with some electronica-minded Boston University students?

The results were on display on Saturday night at La Choza, where the terrific quintet Moonraker, fronted by the intriguing and alluring vocalist and songwriter Kelli Scarr, performed its unique “livetronica” – a fusion of soul, jazz and contemporary dance grooves typically played by computers, but all rendered by live musicians in the hands of Moonraker.

The band’s style of “trip-hop” music was a sensual and intelligent blend of classic r&b and soul stylings, especially in Scarr’s melodies and vocals, with the rhythm section providing a variety of underpinnings including jungle, reggae, ska and other irregular meters. Drummer Dan Mintzer and bassist Kody Akhavi often kept listeners guessing what was going to come next, not only from one song to the other but within songs, which morphed from free-form grooves to lockstep dance beats.

Keyboardist Dan “Shaolun” Chen and guitarist David Moltz mostly provided textures and atmosphere. Chen favored spacey, drippy beds of sound, and Moltz was understated, favoring mood and punctuation over melody.

As good as the musicians were, Scarr was the focus. She exuded charisma with her vocals that veered from powerful soul belting to jazz scatting to Ani DiFranco-like, intimate folk phrasing. Her vocals were undermiked, unfortunately, but occasional phrases bubbled to the surface, and words and phrases like “undertow,” “set me free,” “what’s happening inside,” “I feel you in my heartbeat” and “is this an urgent message” were evocative.

Musical references abounded, from New Wave influences like David Bowie and the Cars to the soul-pop leanings of Steely Dan and Squeeze to more contemporary electronic rock groups like Portishead and Radiohead. But Moonraker also surprised – one song boasted a Kurt Weill-like, carnivalesque bridge, and Scarr definitely has a Lotte Lenya quality. She also built on her jazz training to do a patented style of soul-scatting that fit right in with the band’s very contemporary groove.

The music was smooth and gentle, rarely harsh -- what is sometimes termed “ambient,” meant for soulful chilling rather than aggressive posturing. Scarr bore most of the melodic burden, and sometimes it was more than she could shoulder, given the overwhelming power of the ensemble. But credit her for giving it her all, even though by shortly before midnight, the musicians onstage and club staff still easily outnumbered the audience.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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