All This Jazz

Rick Lazar, Karen Young and Tom Walsh talk to Craig Silverman about Barry White, the Titanic, Corn Flakes and the joys of playing the Atlantic Jazz Festival.

Rick Shadrach Lazar looks funky. And that’s not a bad thing. No, no. Even David Letterman’s Canuck sidekick Paul Shaffer acknowledges it. Shaffer and Lazar used to play together quite a bit as kids, and that was when the percussionist earned the nickname Funky Ricky.

“That was his name for me,” says Lazar via phone from Toronto. “But you can use those nicknames on a few different levels, right.”

The leader of Montuno Police – a conglomeration of some of the country’s finer studio and freelance musicians – has more than a few major tours under his belt, along with a Juno nomination for his group’s last disc, Touch. He’s a regular of Loreena McKennitt’s touring band and smacked some skins behind the greatest lover of all, Barry White. Dig?

“That was a thrill,” Lazar says with a chuckle. (But how could you not have a good time on tour as part of the Love Unlimited Orchestra?). “It was my first exposure to that kind of scene. After the first show somebody in his entourage took me backstage because Barry wanted to meet me. He shook my hand and told me I was doing a great job. He was really big then. It was definitely a blast.”

Lazar and his fellow officers of the Montuno Police have earned themselves quite a reputation for their hybrid of world rhythms, relentless groove and creative interplay. The band flawlessly mixes sounds from Brazil, Cuba and the Middle East with contemporary jazz. The result is strikingly natural – like Barry White dressed in silk and sitting at a piano with a bucket of KFC tucked under his bench.

“It’s a great band for a musician to be in.” says Lazar. “It’s an outlet for everything in your head. We focus on strong rhythm and groove and then mix in Cuban, African, Brazilian and Arabic rhythms.”

Funky Ricky says his head is filled with sounds of the Middle East these days.

“Lately I’ve really been into Arabic rhythms. That’s just where my head’s at right now. It could be Brazilian tomorrow.”

Their conglomeration of sounds make Lazar and his mates prime suspects for another precinct – the Jazz Police. Fearlessly searching out anyone not playing with a walking bass line, spang-a -lang cymbal beat and Charlie Parkeresque phrasing, the Jazz Police turn up their noses at those who don’t conform. Ironically, the band’s name was inspired by the very force that would have them arrested and sent back to be-bop school. During rehearsal for a Latin project, bass player Roberto Occhipinti (now with Jane Bunnett) warned Lazar: “he said, ‘We better play good tonight because the Montuno Police will be out checking to see if the clave is correct.” says Lazar.

“I thought that was a great name for a band. There’s a joke about the Jazz Police, just like the Politically Correct Police. But I don’t think about it. I just do what I want to do. And some Be-Boppers dig the band – they dig the energy.”