Attention young players: class in session

by Jordan Green

An imposing man dressed in a matching shorts and shirt ensemble patterned like denim patchwork, Larry Graves presides over the band like a watchful but good-humored patriarch, plucking the strings of his bass and pointing to various members to give them their cues as his band, Signature Soundz, runs through some songs before their show at the Comedy Zone.

He’s easily the tallest member of the band, and standing on the drum riser above the little dance floor where the keyboardist, saxophonist and guitarist front the band he is a towering presence.

“We’ve been playing for about a year and a half,” the 48-year-old Graves says after the sound check. “We started at Alexander Devereaux’s as a three-piece jazz group. We’ve all been playing a long time. I got cards made and the gigs started coming in. We’re all in different bands. We’re all church musicians. No druggies, no drinking -‘ those are the rules. They appointed me the leader.”

As he speaks the club fills with the piercing, emotive vocals of Rahsul “Rock” Burney, the promoter whose R&R Productions banner hangs behind the bandstand. He channels Otis Redding and Luther Vandross, describing an era of old-school R&B that derives its power from raw expression. He grips the stand, bends his knees and sings up to the mic.

Jeff McLean, the guitar player and the only white guy in the band, gives up on trying to practice. He kneels and tugs at the hem of Burney’s pant leg, as if trying to keep him from igniting and blasting into space.

The slogan emblazoned across R&R Productions’ banner is “entertainment with a touch of class,” and that’s a fair description of Signature Soundz as well. The band holds dual citizenship in the countries of smooth jazz and funk, hearkening back to a time before hip hop had super-power status. As a bass player, Graves is an eminence, both a foundational rhythm player and a virtuoso musician. He both drives and builds from Melvin Turner, a solid, workman-like drummer. McLean, exhibiting the versatility and showmanship of a beach music guitarist, adds flourish and texture, but proves himself by his discipline to be a team player.

The saxophonist, 27-year-old Bluford Thompson, brings the lyrical jazz dimension, and through his horn-playing takes on the role of a third vocalist, after McLean, and keyboard player Derrick Bartell. The keyboard player sings through a vocorder, the vocal synthesizer that gives the voice an ethereal and mechanical cast – once a signature of R&B.

Signature Soundz is primarily an instrumental band, with the vocals serving as interdependent parts rather than front-and-center showpieces.

“It’s more like an accent to establish the hook,” explains McLean, who works as an operations manager for a real estate company by day.

By the time the band takes the stage for their first set at 8 p.m. Graves has changed into black slacks and a shimmering, silk shirt with stripes of hot color. The rest of the band members, with the exception of Blu who appropriately wears a blue shirt, dress in semi-formal black.

The club’s small round cocktail tables are draped with green cloths, each appointed with a small candle, and packed tightly together. The 200-capacity room is almost completely full with a clientele that is predominantly middle aged and African American. Outfitted in suits and ties, loafers, summer dresses and loose fitting silk shirts they swirl on the dance floor or lean coolly against the bar.

The band is consummate, confident in their abilities but attentive to the audience’s needs. They begin their first set with atmospheric mood music and then build to a vamp with classics like “Brick House” through the second and third sets. Later McLean even raps over the band’s organic concoction like Grandmaster Caz circa 1979.

“We groove off of each other,” Turner says during a break between the sets. “We don’t argue and we don’t fight.”

He considers himself lucky to be working with the band.

“I used to live in Martinsville, Virginia,” Turner says. “Larry got me into this band. He said, ‘If you move down here I’ll get you some work.’ He’s making me a better musician.”

But it was Turner who slipped a CD to Burney and got Signature Soundz a gig at the Comedy Zone. The two go back. They attended high school together in Virginia. Turner put together a band for a high school talent show sometime around 1976 or 1977, he recalls, and recruited Burney to sing the Archie Bell and the Drells classic “Tighten Up.”

“He went far,” Turner says of his friend.

As the band takes a break, Burney works the stage, running through a routine that mixes comedy with R&B trivia and includes prizes for audience members willing to risk public humiliation. Then he steals a page from Archie Bell, calling the musicians up to the stage and showcasing their individual abilities.

With his arm draped around Thompson’s neck, he asks the saxophone player, “Can you make it really funky?”

He can, if the audience’s response is any indication.

Then Burney makes the rounds, appraising each player like a soul inspector. At the end, just before the band takes off in a full-fledged gallop, he gestures up to the drum riser and acknowledges his old friend, though he recalls the details of their past exploits somewhat differently.

“This my homeboy,” Burney says. “We go all the way back to elementary school, singing ‘Just My Imagination’ at the talent show.”

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