12 songs – 56 minutes
Mama SpanX are a funk/soul/rock/pop band led by singer, songwriter and New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Nikki Armstrong. Having originally kicked around the idea of the band with the late soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks (who coined the band name), Armstrong finally began pulling the band together in 2015.
The opening track, “Rocket”, perfectly sets out Mama SpanX’s stall. With a rock solid groove, funky horns, Armstrong’s top drawer blues voice, great dueling saxophone solos from Julie Sax and Steve Sadd and a rock guitar solo from Steve Johnson, the song shifts through various key changes before suddenly launching into the stratosphere as it explodes into a James Brown-style gospel breakdown.
It is immediately apparent that Mama SpanX have chops to spare but also retain the precious ability to craft clever songs. Armstrong herself wrote or co-wrote 11 of the songs on State of Groove, the sole cover being an updated version of Lou Donaldson’s 1967 hit, “Alligator Boogie” (to which Armstrong added additional lyrics). She has a particular knack for coming up with catchy choruses, such as in “Thinkin’, where one finds oneself excited for the verse to end, knowing what is about to happen.
Armstrong has a magnificent voice, warm and powerful, with an endearing lived-in edge to it, and she is superbly supported by her band. In addition to Armstrong, Mama SpanX features Steve Johnson on guitars, Harlan Spector on organ and piano, Julie Sax on alto and bari-saxophone, flute and backing vocals, Steve Sadd on tenor and soprano sax, David Abercrombie on bass, “Uncle ” Ben Beckley on drums (and piano on “Anywhere You Are”). There are also guest appearances by Russ Mullen (trumpet and trombone), John “Beedo” Dzubak, Sr (vocals on “Let’s Roll”), Stewart Cole (trumpet solo on “Anywhere You Are”) and Rob Chaseman (percussion programming on “Black & White”).
There is more than a hint of the 1970s in songs like “Black And White” and “All Around The World”, partly in the chord structures, partly in the lavish production and smart backing vocals, but primarily in the easy virtuosity of the musicians. In an era when the pernicious devaluation of music as a valuable art form shows no sign of abating, it is both refreshing and encouraging to hear an album like this. The musicians successfully run that delicate balance between being a musical wizard whilst never over-shadowing the song and the music. The album title is spot on – groove is absolutely key to every song on State of Groove – but so are melody, technical excellence and passion.
There is also a fine sense of humor on display, as evidenced by the sound of an old-fashioned needle being placed on a record that book-ends the album. This is proudly retro-modern music.
Despite Armstrong’s impressive blues resume, there isn’t a huge amount of blues on State of Groove. There is however a lot to enjoy on this album. If you revel in the soul-funk-pop of the likes of Tower of Power, James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone, you will find much to appreciate here.