“This album is a tribute to all the funk greats. We all grew up through the evolution of funk into hip-hop, hearing the original versions as well as the sampled versions. Our versions incorporate both.” - guitarist Eric Krasno
“A lot of us work on mainstream music, but this record is as non-commercial as it gets. We did it for the love, and you can hear that come through the music.” - guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff
“We called the record Rage! because that’s what we do. We’re ragers and that’s how we got started … by raging.” - bassist Erick “E.D.” Coomes
Lettuce, the seven-person all-star collective originally formed in 1992, returns to the funk jazz forefront with its third album, RAGE!, a hyper-charged outing of tunes that are equal parts artsy and party. The CD is a tantalizing tribute to funk music — paying homage to all stripes of funksters, including James Brown, Sly Stone, Herbie Hancock, Tower of Power, the Meters, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelics, J Dilla—music that reflects “our way of life,” says bassist Erick “E.D.” Coomes, who is joined in the groove onslaught by his co-ragers: keyboardist Neal Evans, saxophonists Sam Kininger and Ryan Zoidis, guitarists Eric Krasno and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, and drummer Adam Deitch.
Lettuce sprouted in the fertile environment of Berklee College of Music in Boston where all members met at a summer music program when they were in their teens. “I hate to sound cheesy, but I fully feel it was destiny that this band came together,” says Krasno. “We were all in the same place, all the same age. None of the friends I grew up with were into music like I was. Then I went to Berklee that summer, and all these guys were into music the way I was, and it happened that we were all playing the right instruments to put together a band.”
All the members brought to the group different funk-styled influences. For example, Krasno was into the new jazz funk of Herbie Hancock, Deitch was raised on Tower of Power and Earth Wind & Fire and introduced that sound through his compositions to the band. Zoidis recalls, “We all lived in the same dorm and we each brought music to the table that the others hadn’t heard before. There was an ensemble room downstairs that we began playing in.” Krasno adds, “We did a lot of jamming after we did a lot of listening.”
Two years later, in the fall of 1994, all Lettuce members, who had remained in contact with each other, returned to Berklee as full-fledged undergrads and picked up right where they left off. They were fond of showing up with their instruments at underground jazz clubs like Wally’s (usually at other musicians’ gigs) and asking, “Will you let us play?”— hence the birth of the name Lettuce. “We never thought that name would stick,” says Krasno, “but we just never got around to changing it.”
“We knew we had an great musical chemistry, and sure enough, when we finally got up on stage, the party starting getting incredible,” says E.D. “We didn’t really plan on taking over, but by the end of the evening all the Lettuce guys were up on stage and all the guys from the other band were gone. And then we’d play until close.”
It was onward and upward from there, with Lettuce issuing various tapes sold at their live shows and eventually recording two CDs (2001’s Outta Here on Velour and 2003’s Live in Tokyo, released on Velour in Japan and stateside on Kufala Records). Strong fan bases grew up in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Tokyo. “It became pretty happening,” says Zoidis. “Not bad for a band that didn’t have any TV or radio play. Pretty much all of our success came by word of mouth.”
While the collective has been playing consistently since its founding, averaging three or four times per year, each member of Lettuce has branched out into various other projects. Krasno and Evans founded the band Soulive, and Kininger and Zoidis toured with band as the Soulive Horns. Kininger fronts his own group, while Zoidis is in the successful Portland, Maine-based rock band Rustic Overtones. Deitch works as a session and touring drummer and producer, with his support-team resume including John Scofield and Wyclef Jean. He’s gone on to produce songs with Krasno for top artists such as 50-Cent, Talib Kweli and Redman. Shmeeans plays with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and E.D. has laid down bass lines for The Game, DJ Quik, Britney Spears and others.
“We all have different projects, but Lettuce is an outlet for all of us,” says Krasno. “It’s a great excuse to hang out and have fun. It’s always been that way. Plus, we all challenge each other in ways where we all get better. We play new tracks; we learn new things. We inspire each other.”
On Rage!, the band’s collective sensibility has taken on more depth. “Being apart from each other as much as we have, we’ve come back together with a new maturity,” says Shmeeans. “We’ve grown as writers and players and we’re much better when it comes to using space.” Krasno concurs: “If you listen to our early recordings, there’s so much going on all at once. With the newer stuff, there’s definitely more space, more relaxed playing, more skill. On Rage! no one’s overplaying. It’s all tasteful.”
Krasno also points out that with Outta Here, there were no rehearsals. They all just showed up at the studio and played. This time, the group spent two days rehearsing, with different members bringing in music to experiment with. Then there was the sound factor. “We wanted the record to sound like the old stuff we were paying tribute to,” says E.D. “So we recorded with an old board, old mikes, old tube compressors.”
As for the wide range of funk Lettuce dives into on Rage!, E.D. cites two factors: the deaths in 2006 of both James Brown and J Dilla. “That’s when we decided to tip our hats to every style of funk,” he says. In addition to groove-steeped originals, Lettuce delivers two covers: Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” with guest vocalist Dwele, and “Express Yourself,” with vocals by Kininger. It’s music that represents “a new era,” says Krasno. “We blend the old school with the new. We take solos but we also vamp on two-bar loops.” Lettuce is a group that takes its dedication to the music seriously – as Deitch says, “Know your history and take it somewhere.”
What kind of expectations does the band have for the new CD? “Hey, it’s all about having fun,” Krasno says. “It’s all about good friends getting together to play the kind of music that made us all want to become musicians. We don’t have any real expectations. DJs can play this. Jazz fans will like it. People will hear it and hopefully dig it. We’re just hoping that this album will appeal to a lot of different kinds of people, and the funk will live on.”