July 2008

Ninja Funk Orchestra
July 31, 2008 Clinton's Tavern Toronto
Report by Zoë Guigueno
If you're into solid, grooving, original funk music played by sparky, enthusiastic and talented Toronto musicians, and if you're into dancing until you're sore, Ninja Funk Orchestra is there for you. This five-piece group plays around the city on a fairly regular basis. They are selling CDs and stickers and t-shirts and tickets. They stir up a crowd and demand your attention. Funk with elements of rock and jazz.

A year of playing constant gigs has brought these young men so close to each other musically that there is a strong feeling of trust within the band, which is easily absorbed by the audience. The group was born out of a weekly funk jam held at the Concord Cafe, and began branching out by entertaining at the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel. Now, barely a year old, the Ninjas have toured the Chilean province of Colchagua and ventured north to play during the Montreal Jazz Festival.

I saw them on July 31st at Clinton's Tavern, which although it has decent acoustics, I found to be a sort of annoying venue. There seem to be no house lights at all but you'd think the person doing the stage lighting was on speed. I had to close my eyes or squint for the whole show to avoid being blinded by the constant, piercing flashing and colour-shifting. It was highly distracting and aggravating and did the exact opposite of what its purpose should be — to enhance the performance.
But the Ninjas weren't responsible for that. Sporting their logo on black t-shirts, the five musicians took the stage (about an hour later than the show was said to start… but these types of events always run late) with tenorman Gordon Hyland revving up the crowd in a rather self-mocking fashion before embarking into the set.

The Ninjas have a real party vibe on stage — smiling and laughing at each other, moving around, sipping pints. Their music is playful and stern, unique and catchy. A thrill and a refreshing breeze to be riding these grooves after moving through Toronto's smoggy traffic, rumbling buses and sweaty people buying groceries.

But NFO has its dark side. Hyland's composition “Murk” starts with pounding heartbeat bass and drums, some creepy guitar sounds, and then the saxophone in with a bending moan. Pulsating and creepy and funky as hell. Ex-Ninja bassist Adam Jenkins, who happened to be in town and at his friends' gig, swapped places with Brendan McElroy for this tune. When it came to his solo — I can't help raving about this, being particulary fond of the instrument myself — he opened with a catchy riff, and rode it out throughout his solo, rife with interesting rhythms and melodic variations. Not too complicated, but memorable, and with such good taste, attitude, intention and utter control. Jenkins was kidnapped by a Montreal learning institution.

This band is constantly writing new material. They are also a great hang, if you ever go up and talk to them. As they reach towards freedom of expression in their individual playing, they can only get better. Though their arrangements are tight and creative, they could still be improved if they wanted to really kick the listener in the gut.

Their set opened with keyboard player Stephen Harmelink laying down a bluesy, driving groove, setting the feel for the night — relentless, in the pocket, straightforward yet nuanced. One by one the band crept in, building the tension and stretching out past where I expected and I wanted the drums to come crashing in with a killing beat. It stretched and stretched and I grinned in anticipation, trusting they would knock the wind out of me. But when the kick finally came, it grazed my side. Don't think for a second that Mackenzie Longpre isn't one of the best young drummers in town — once you hear him you can never go back. It’s only that the NFO is still learning how to use their strength, and when they do, they will take over the world.

The Musicians
Mackenzie Longpre – drums
Neil Whitford – guitar
Gordon Hyland – tenor sax
Stephen Harmelink – keys
Brendan McElroy – bass


We welcome your comments and feedback
Zoë Guigueno
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