Perhaps it would be unwise to say that Kevin Coelho is one of the best jazz organists this world has ever seen. To make such a bold statement, given the genre’s rich and expansive history, would surely step on many people’s toes. The boy is only seventeen, after all. For all we know, he may not even be allowed to legally drive anything, let alone a B3. Why is it, then, that I can feel him channeling that same energy that we hear from all the jazz and blues superstars we’ve come to love? As a rising star himself, Coelho is a living embodiment of the power of music; it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, as long as you create honest, impassioned music. This is certainly the case with his debut album, Funkengruven: The Joy of Driving a B3.
Right off the bat, it is easy to tell that Kevin Coelho truly is basking in “the joy of driving a B3.” The record starts off by immediately throwing you into the swing of the title track, “Funkengruven.” Coelho teams up with guitarist Derek DiCenzo and drummer Reggie Jackson to form one of the most tightly-knit trios I’ve heard in quite some time. It quickly becomes evident that all three of them are instrumental masters in their own right, and the chemistry between them shines through. As the group starts off by running through the head of the first tune, we are lured in by a relatively calm, modest opening. And then, before you can say “jivin’ jitterbugs,” Coelho kicks it up a notch with his first organ solo on the album. This is one it starts to get real. Although he starts out soft, he continues to escalate more and more, until you suddenly find yourself wondering how such creative ingenuity is even possible. Definitely a fantastic way to kick off the record.
The solos are certainly impressive, but the grooves are really what brings the whole masterpiece together. With Coelho’s revamp of the Herbie Hancock classic, “Cantaloupe Island,” the trio puts its own unique spin on it, transforming it into a much more bluesy, yet very forward-thinking jam. Such an undertaking is ambitious to say the least, given Herbie’s reputation and unparalleled musicality, but I am delighted to say that they live up to the hype. As the album progresses, we are taken on a very musically diverse journey that travels through many of jazz’s notable subgenres, including swing, bebop, soul jazz, jazz-funk, and even a bit of Latin flair. What I value the most is not that the young Mr. Coelho makes a point to cover all of these styles (although it’s certainly very important), but that, in many cases, it’s hard to tell where exactly such distinctions are made. In other words, these stylistic influences, rather than each being assigned to separate songs on the album, are meshed together to create an unique product. I may not be able to tell you exactly where he pulls influence from, but I can tell you that this sound is distinctly Coelho. Not Hancock, not Davis, not Jimmy McGriff. What I hear in Funkengruven is not the work of someone who is trying to cover all his bases; it is the work of a performer who genuinely revels in expanding his musical horizons as far as he can. This album is the story of one
boy man who is embarking upon his own career as a musician and composer, and I, for one, would very much enjoy riding in the passenger seat.
Another big element of Coelho’s music that won me over is its playfulness. The music is indisputably complex at times, and I’m sure it gets extremely rigorous for the musicians at times, but it never loses that lighthearted mood. Every note and every drum pattern that is played is played for a reason: because it was enjoyable (although that’s by no means the only reason). As a listener, knowing that the performers are playing their music because of a genuine, mutual passion makes the listening experience all the more engaging. This is not something that can be taught in music theory classrooms; it’s something that is born out of a spark, cultivated over a long period of time. The music is no longer evaluating the series of decisions made by the performer. It’s about sitting back and drawing pleasure in that musician’s chosen path, regardless of whether or not you would have made the same choice. That’s what makes it unique, and that’s why I consider Kevin Coelho’s music to be so astonishing. He’s got it all figured out. He may not be as technically proficient as he would like to be (after all, a musician who believes he’s reached his full potential has a long way to go), but he’s found sincerity in music, and his debut album reflects that.
With that in mind, I look forward to what Kevin Coelho will have to offer us in the future. It may be similar to his work on Funkengruven, or it may be completely different, but rest assured that whichever direction he chooses, it will absolutely be the right direction.