If you are a fan of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone - or if you just like to get funky with your bad self - there's something at this year's Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival that might interest you: Planet Earth.
Based out of Toronto, Planet Earth features a core group of Dylan Heming on keys, Ben Riley on drums, Glenn Olive on bass and the heavy vocals of Ron Littlejohn, building additional sidemen onto their core. Eight players at a concert one night, six another, but always with that core group and always with their trademark soul slides and funk grooves.
"There's not a lot of funk and soul in Toronto. It's a lot of jazz, a lot of rock, stuff like that, but we're kind of unique in Toronto in what we do," Littlejohn said. "I don't know any other bands who are doing what we do (in Ontario). ... All the soul music seems to be cover bands."
In this sense, it is the soul and original funk focus that both benefits and hurts Planet Earth. Unique means rare, means commodity, but it can also mean trouble in finding a popular platform.
"There are jazz stations here who won't play our stuff because we're not jazzy enough and then there are pop stations who say, 'Oh, no, we don't play jazz,'" Littlejohn said. "(And) although there's a festival here, the Beaches Jazz Festival, to them we're not jazz enough, you know what I mean? It's a really weird place to be," he said.
Yet improvization, a characteristic of most jazz, is at the heart of many Planet Earth tracks and the band's sidemen also happen to be active in Toronto's jazz scene.
So while, as Littlejohn said, "they don't have anything called like soul and R&B festivals," Planet Earth is being welcomed at the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival in St. John's.
"It's the first time any of us has been there to Newfoundland, but we hear it's one of the most amazing places to play, so we're really excited," Littlejohn said.
Together since 1999, Planet Earth have followed up on their 2008 release "Twenty Miles from Buffalo," with their first live album, "Planet Earth: Live at the Glenn Gould." It was recorded in January of this year and will be available at the Wreckhouse festival.
"I wanted to make an album in a recording studio with maybe a hundred friends, like (Frank) Sinatra used to do that, just have a hundred people into the studio and they're having drinks and we're recording our album," Littlejohn said. "But we realized that was kind of an impossible thing to do. So the Glenn Gould (studio) is actually a recording studio more than anything, so we thought we'd do it at the Glenn Gould and we'll have 350 or 400 or whatever it was of our friends. So it was a show, but it was kind of a recording session at the same time."
The completed album is flavoured by points where Littlejohn and the band talk to audience and improvize lines, cutting between tracks that have Littlejohn dancing around the stage (even as he recovered from a broken knee at the time).
Planet Earth is scheduled to perform Saturday, July 17 at 9:30 p.m. and on Sunday, July 18 at 9:30 p.m., both shows will be at Dusk Ultralounge.
Meanwhile, the opening night concerts tonight will feature Jeff Dyer and the Bill Brennan Quintet at 8 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre. They will be followed by 2010 Juno Award-winning drummer Terry Clarke at 9 p.m. also at the Majestic. The Terry Clarke Trio will perform with Don Thompson and Phil Dwyer.
For a full festival schedule and ticket info, go to www.wreckhousejazzandblues.com or contact the Holy Heart Theatre box office (709-579-4424).