The fourth time was the charm when New Orleans-based funk band Water Seed performed in Schenley Plaza Park as part of the 20th anniversary of WYEP’s Soul Show.
“Our audience is very mixed and whoever likes it likes it,” explained Water Seed founder and percussionist Louis Hill. “It’s interesting to see the people that our music resonates with. Pittsburgh is one of our biggest markets. Mike Canton started playing us on the radio station WYEP and he created a buzz.”
Canton, who is always on the hunt for new music discovered Water Seed and instantly knew he’d stumbled across something special. The band’s first performance was a sold-out affair at the Pittsburgh Winery. The group returned to Pittsburgh to do another show four months later. It was blessed with another sold out crowd. Then the band performed a third time in the Pittsburgh area.
“My personal mission is to make the ‘Soul Show’ a conduit for great bands,” Canton said. “My focus is‘’70s soul and I want the show to explore these great independent bands.”
The Soul Show airs every Saturday from 2 -5 p.m. on WYEP 91.3 fm.
“I chose Water Seed as part of the 20th anniversary celebration because I wanted the station to see the minority market they were missing,” Canton said.
Now Water Seed is trying to make a name for itself in other markets. The band embarked on a 10-day Midwestern tour that included Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit.
“People haven’t seen us before in some of those places. We’re excited,” Hill said.
Water Seed’s message of unity was like a balm for the thousands of people that packed Schenley Park Plaza. The audience danced around freely and sang along to the group’s eclectic mix of songs, which included a unique cover of the Temptations “Just My Imagination” and Sly and the Family Stone’s hit, “Thank You.” The high-octane show was a mixture of New Orleans soul and ’70s funk spiced up with a lead singer who danced the whole night away and a tight band.
Water Seed started as a production writing team while students at Xavier University and the band was formed in 2001. The origins of this hybridity reflecting the diverse feels and experiences of Black America begin in New Orleans, the birthplace of multi-instrumentalists Lou Hill and J Sharp, the architects of Water Seed’s cool, elemental sound. The band’s privileging of rhythm and groove, the elegant jazz flourishes, and lyrical songs deeply rooted in both alchemists’ classical education, all hint at the sacred training grounds that sharpened Louisiana jazz greats from Jelly Roll Morton to the Marsalis brothers, creators known for marrying the traditional with the modern in the creation of the new.
Preternaturally aware of their paths fairly early, Hill began playing the alto sax in fourth grade while Sharp was developing his piano chops over the three-notes of “Hot Crossed Buns” at the tender age of five. Both learned as children to respect their crafts through studious dedication, rigorous practice schedules, and trying their hand at several different instruments before landing on their primary tools of musical expression, the percussion for Hill and the keys for Sharp, each finding their home.
These curators’ apprentice journeys took different paths, reflecting different exposures. Sharp reared in a home of classical music, engaged in demanding training while nursing concerto circuit dreams. Hill was immersed in the radio R&B and funk of the day and the jazz culture of his storied surroundings. Both formally trained in esteemed music programs, Sharp through the famed NOCCA, the Jazz and Heritage School at Southern University and Dillard University, Hill at the venerated Xavier University. With his first rock/funk/jazz band, Afrodeezifunk, Hill’s fine-tuning came through constant club gigs, an ill-fated record deal that ended as abruptly as it started, and later on the go-go and funk stages of Washington, DC.
As a nightclub gigging teen, Sharp’s refinement wasn’t too far behind Hill, after a decisive turn toward the synthesized sounds and arrangements of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. Two college-age young artists—one barely out of high school—securing professional gigs, each starting their own bands, developing cult followings, and esteemed reputations in N’awlins incestuously small musical pond; there’s a kismet there. It was inevitable they would meet and discuss the Earth Wind and Fire-inspired band and production company Hill had started, Water Seed, though it would take a mutual friend’s recommendation to land the then 18-year old Sharp behind Water Seed’s trademark keys.
Conceptually on the same page in training and musical direction, Hill and Sharp developed and eventually evolved a writing process that became more mutually collaborative over several independent releases. A brief creative rift followed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, separated the songwriting and composition team for a time, before Hill and Sharp reconvened Water Seed in Atlanta’s burgeoning music scene and really began to flourish. Enter Pasadena bred flautist, Cinese.
Inspired by the legendary Bobbi Humphrey, the orchestral-trained Cinese switched to jazz after a 10-year business and school-led hiatus with music. Answering a Craigslist ad for Water Seed, Cinese learned her classical meets jazz foundation found nice complements with Hill and Sharp’s, rounding out their sound.
Now, with a five-piece band that eventually included bass player Marius Tilton and lead vocalist Ryan Johnson, the concept albums soon followed. Their self-released, experimental 2006 EP debut, “Two Words,” uncovered an avant-garde Water Seed sound. Recorded live and direct at Atlanta’s Apache Café, their second indie release, 2008’s “Early for the Future,” boasted covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and originals like “Dance in the Sunshine,” earning critical praise and awards nominations for Best R&B Group with respected outfits like SoulTracks.com. Positive buzz begat opening opportunities for revered musicians like N’Dambi and Janelle Monae, a three-month musical residency in Russia, and an international reputation as one of the few touring Black American bands’ offering a truly electric live experience. By the time the orchestral, “futuristic funk” of the comic book derived “Fresh” was delivered to fans in 2010, more soul-pop songs like “Magnificent” announced a sound change: exit Ryan Johnson and enter Shaleyah.
(For more information on Water Seed, visit www.waterseedmusic.com.)
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