Memphis instrumental soul-jazz trio the City Champs will unveil their second album, The Set-Up, this week with an album-release show at the Buccaneer Lounge, an important location in the group's history.
The band was originally formed about four years ago out of a regular Tuesday-night jam session at the local pub among a small collection of friends and veteran musicians, including organist Al Gamble, guitarist Joe Restivo, drummer George Sluppick, and saxophonist Art Edmaiston.
"It was sort of our weekly poker night," Restivo says. "But instead of playing cards, we played soul-jazz. Sometimes different musician friends would sit in with us, and it was always a great time."
That core foursome came to be known as the Grip and released a fine EP for Archer Records in 2007 called Grab This Thing. But eventually Edmaiston became too busy with his other band, J.J. Grey and MOFRO, reducing the group to a trio.
"We decided to go ahead and change the name since Art couldn't do it anymore," Restivo says.
Rechristened the City Champs, the trio approached local producer and musical kindred spirit Scott Bomar in 2008 about working on some new recordings. Bomar agreed, and the City Champs cut what would become their debut album, The Safecracker, entirely live to a vintage tape machine in three days at his local Electraphonic recording studio.
"Originally, our plan was to shop it to other labels," Restivo says. "We had no intention of getting a record deal out of him."
But six months after the sessions, Bomar decided to sign the band to his own label, also dubbed Electraphonic.
"I was a big fan of the group even before they became the City Champs," Bomar says. "The band and I both tried to find another label to release the album at first, but I found myself listening to it a lot at home and really enjoying it, so I decided to put it out myself."
Released in March 2009, The Safecracker earned the band excellent reviews in local and national media, several film and television placements, and a spot on tour opening for local heavyweights the North Mississippi Allstars.
The following summer, Bomar approached the band about recording a second album.
"I was excited to get to do one album," Restivo says. "This is a band that started out just for fun, and then suddenly we're touring and have a legit record out. Doing a second record wasn't really in our thoughts."
For the follow-up, the band decided to spend a bit more time in the studio, as well as expand their musical horizons beyond their trademark Booker T & the MGs/Meters-inspired sound.
"I had been listening to lots of different kinds of world music, and when I started writing new material, some of that started to get incorporated," Restivo says. "The band and material had progressed in the two years since The Safecracker."
"I think we all felt that the stakes were higher this time, and we had to collectively raise the bar," Bomar says. "All of the guys in the group are really forward-thinking and creative. The band wanted to expand the palette on this record and expand their sound."
To accomplish the task, the band brought in a handful of outside collaborators, including legendary Motown backing musician and percussionist Jack Ashford, the horn section from Bomar's R&B group the Bo-Keys, and Bomar himself, who contributes bass to the song "Crump St."
"Getting to record with the City Champs was a pleasant surprise for me, as I never get called for any sessions or gigs in Memphis," says Ashford, an area resident since 1983. "I liked the material, and all the guys in the band were great."
Still, The Set-Up is unmistakably a City Champs album. The trio recorded everything live in the studio (overdubbing only the horns and extra percussion), and their sound remains driven by Gamble's smooth, masterful organ playing.
"Al's left hand is one of the best bass players in Memphis," Bomar says. "I think one of the things that makes the City Champs unique is they are a trio, and Al has to play melody, chords, and bass on the organ all at the same time, which is very difficult."
After this Friday's release show, the group will play a short run of dates on the road before returning to the studio to record a single backing up Shreveport blues singer Big Baby. They'll also be gearing up for a few potentially big opportunities next year.
"I probably shouldn't say anything at this point," Restivo says. "But there are some possible tours with big-name artists in the works and some other interesting projects coming in the months ahead. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."
The City Champs
The Set-Up CD-release show
Friday, October 29th