Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest
Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest

AZTEC SUN Bring “Funk with Soul” to Rosslyn Jazz Fest

Though I  have a limited knowledge of cooking, my brief flirtation with Pinterest has taught me that recipes made of unlikely ingredients with proper preparation often turn out to be the most delicious. If AZTEC SUN were a recipe, the 10-piece crew would consist of two cups guitar, one cup of bass, one serving of equal parts keyboard and organ, and a heaping helping of horns and vocals – all served over a foundation of varied percussion.

Though the original band started off with four members and grew from there, each member of the band’s current lineup adds their own special flavor to the mix in an exciting blend of different genres and styles whose talents combine to form an original recipe they like to call “funk with soul.

This Saturday, the band is set to bring this blend of music to Rosslyn’s Jazz Festival, a 28-year tradition that fills Arlington’s Gateway Park with a full day of free musical performances. I sat down to talk to Lee Anderson (backing vocals) and Catch Banning (keyboard/organ) about AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone, the fest and the strong sense of community their band has formed.

On Tap: How did you all come together and what are the origins of the group?
Catch Banning: AZTEC SUN had two iterations. The original iteration formed seven years ago when Stephane Detchou [the band’s leader, singer and songwriter] sent out a Craigslist post. The original AZTEC SUN was a lot more rock and funk heavy – more of a Red Hot Chili Peppers sound. About a year and a half into that project, band members went to grad school and moved out of state, and that kind of fell apart. Steph put out another Craigslist ad and that’s where I met him – in an audition. We met our original sax players there, and our bass player. We kept in touch after that audition and started to form our own project, and slowly put the pieces together to bring back the band.

OT: How else would you describe your music?
Lee Anderson: The sound is very reflective of the process Catch just talked about. It’s very full and energetic. You can sit at home and turn on the radio and hear some really nice music, but when you come to an AZTEC show, it’s an experience. It’s hard to personify a sound, but if you could hear community – like what the very essence of being communal is – it would sound like AZTEC SUN.
CB: [We use the phrase] “funk with soul” on the website, and I think a great part of our sound is that so much of it comes from [and is inspired by] different eras of music.

OT: How has the group evolved since it was first created?
CB: We are a live band. That has been a core pillar of AZTEC SUN, in that it is important to think of [us] as an entire experience. [That includes] everything from what we are wearing to how we’re performing and what our energy on stage is like. Steph’s done a great job of continuing to challenge us and push us to think about ways just to make this an experience, not just music.

OT: Up until this point, you all have been focusing your energy on live performances. Why did you all choose to start out that way rather than just releasing music and touring based on music you’ve already released?
CB: A word that we use often is “collective.” AZTEC SUN is bigger than the 10 of us. It’s bigger than our partners. We very much see this as a movement in DC and [for] the musicians in other communities we connect with when we play. There’s something that happens with this shared experience of live music; when we see musicians on stage; when we hear live music; when we hear improvisation; [and] when we hear a call to action. People come because they know that’s true. They know they’re gonna get passion, raw energy, joy, an excuse to jump and be around like-minded folks who are incredibly inclusive. I feel like the reason we put so much effort into playing live constantly is because it’s so much more than music. We’re doing this to connect with people. Recording is one way to do that, but we are so much more a live band than a polished studio band. We’re really proud of that.
LA: I think a lot of that also goes back to Steph, who always had a really specific vision for what he wanted this conglomerate to sound like. That tradition for him – that audio legacy – is rooted in the performances that emerged from the Motown Era. Berry Gordy had a very stringent test, the Ham Sandwich Test, that he would put records through before [they] hit the streets. If more people said they would rather buy a ham sandwich than the record, he would tell them to take that shit back to the studio. For us, before we are able to have something we can put online and impress our friends, [we need to make] sure the sound has a certain amount of integrity. We don’t want to just release a bunch of product without people being able to connect with [us]. Nothing makes people feel invested as much as [performing] live, face to face.

OT: Since you have already performed alongside acts like Shaun Martin of Snarky Puppywho has been your favorite artist to perform with live and why?
CB: I think the biggest show of our lives was opening up for Galactic at 9:30 Club. I speak for myself on this, but I know a lot of members really grew up listening to Galactic and Rebirth Brass Band, which is another band we’re about to go on tour with for four nights in the South. For us to get that opening slot in our home turf at 9:30 Club – to play for Galactic – it was an incredible honor to be able to warm up the crowd for a band that’s been incredibly influential in a lot of our lives.
LA: I’m with Catch on that one. That was a particularly amazing night. I’ll also give a shoutout to Alan Evans of Soulive, who we recorded with. Al is, and he doesn’t know this, but he’s kind of like my mentor in some ways.

OT: Speaking of recording your album with him, what was that like?
LA: It was definitely a different type of recording process. I was used to going in the studio and tracking everything out, [but] we definitely did this old school. We put the whole band in one big room and we started playing. We limited each song to three takes and decided we were going to take the best one. It was exciting to me because I had never recorded anything that way before, which is like a shout out to old school, golden era music like James Brown, Motown, that’s how they recorded.

OT: That’s amazing, especially since there are so many of you guys. Three takes in three days, that’s like your lucky number.
CB: There was definitely a lot of pressure going into the project for that very reason, because we were [only taking] a few cuts of each song and we weren’t going to go back and edit everyone’s solos or nitpick. You could feel that trust throughout the entire group – we all knew we were ready. We all knew we were capable of it because we put in the practice to get to this moment. We opened for a band called Everyone Orchestra that uses a shifting amalgamation of different artists around the country to put on live shows. [Al] met us there and that’s kind of where this connection started. 

OT: What can fans of your live performance expect to hear from this album? Do you think the live aspect translated over to the recording really well?
LA: I think if nothing else, they will hear 10 people who really care a lot about each other and trust each other, having fun, and it will be so infectious they’ll have no choice but to have fun with us. They’re going to want to play it everyday and jam out with us. Musically, it’s us – it’s a little bit of everything, but it comes together really nicely.
CB: We’re very proud of [our first] EP, but I think [compared to] when you see a live AZTEC SUN show, the EP is very clean and very studio polished. All of those songs sound drastically different when we play live. This album communicates more of the emotion of the song [and] takes shape in [the] way that we all play it live a lot more.

OT: How are you guys prepping for Rosslyn Jazz Fest and what are you most looking forward to about it?
CB: Cory Henry is a beast! I’m just beyond thrilled we’re on a bill with him. I’m glad we get to play a set warming up the crowd and then [get to] sit back, relax and listen to that man tear up the Hammond. I’m pumped to play an outdoor show, but to watch Cory Henry is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
LA: For me, it’s the fact that we’re going to have so many friends and family there. It’s always cool when I get to go on the road and go to a new place, but it’s even better when I have my people. When I can look out and see folks that I know and love, it’s just a special thing. Also just the energy that happens when you’re home. When you can say “Hey, we’re DC’s own,: even though it’s in Virginia.

AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone is set to release this November. Join them for their album release show on Saturday, November 10 at Pearl Street Warehouse. For information about the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, visit the event page here

Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

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Aja Neal

Aja is a modern-day renaissance woman, a patron of the arts, and a lover of commas. When she's not writing for On Tap, she can be found dancing in a studio, on a dance floor, or alone in her room when no one's watching.