The Overton Berry Ensemble: T.O.B.E. / At Seattle’s Doubletree Inn
Light In The Attic, one of the shortlist contenders for Best Reissue Label, has been hitting a seriously heavy stride with their recent releases: Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O.; Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor; T.L. Barrett’s Like A Ship…; Gabor Szabo’s Jazz Raga. But these two long out-of-print albums by The Overton Berry Ensemble, while being lovingly packaged and sounding great, miss the musical mark.
There’s promise (to judge by the cover), but the praise that LITA heaps on these two LPs comes off as hyperbolic upon first listen. Far from being the breakbeat-laden rare groovers one hopes for, they’re middle-of-the-road soul-jazz efforts reminiscent of the era (1970-72), more in line with better-known pianists like Les McCann and Ramsey Lewis. The first album, T.O.B.E., even starts with a cover of McCann’s “Compared To What,” but the rollicking vibe belies the tone of rest of the record (except for some tasty wah guitar dropped on “Black Bottom” and the instrumental funk in the “Jesus Christ Superstar Medley”). Much of the repertoire runs a standard gamut from Lewis’ trademark sound through Herbie Hancock-styled piano impressions, with Berry voicing some interesting chords, and borderline-lounge moves. Of note, though, in the “Superstar Medley,” is the melodica-driven “Everything’s Alright,” a favorite of mine from the otherwise overwrought musical.
At Seattle’s Doubletree Inn is more of the same, this time actually recorded in a lounge. The energy ebbs and flows, again with an emphasis on groovy swing, but it never really heats up. Berry, who hails from the small Seattle suburb of Tukwila and still performs today, has a fine melodic sense, making itself most heard through the three Beatles tunes included on this live disc. His best-known track is the cover of “Hey Jude,” where the trio skips the verses altogether and chooses to build up the singalong coda up from a thudding bassline, to great effect.
LITA never skimps on their reissues, and this hand numbered, limited edition 2LP set is faithful to Berry’s indie spunk, with fully reproduced covers and original labels, as well as a download card for extra tracks. The fact that it’s not a wide release may speak to the label’s understanding that there’s a smaller audience for this set than some of their others. Still, while the Overton Berry Ensemble doesn’t bust down the door and tear the roof off any suckas, there’s enough to pique – and keep – the attention of any listeners with an interest in the idioms of the classic Blue Note and Chess/Cadet soul-jazz sounds.