FEATURE: Jesus Coomes of Lettuce - Greensboro, Charlotte
By Brian Turk
Lettuce has been playing together since meeting as teenagers at a summer program at Berklee College of Music, and eventually attended Berklee together as undergrads. Since they met so early on in their careers, they were able to walk the path of musical exploration next to each other, guiding each other along the way. They passed albums, theory, and dreams back and forth. They encouraged each other to explore, and they played their way through all types of music...together. Jazz, soul, funk and beyond, they listened and learned, each developing a deep understanding of music, a deep understanding of each others playing, and a deep understanding of what it takes to be the best band they can be. Over the past 25 years, the members of Lettuce have learned to communicate with each other both onstage and off, resulting in tremendous abilities as a band, and an ironclad bond as brothers.
NC Music Magazine recently chatted with Lettuce bass player Erick “Jesus” Coomes and his gratitude and love for his bandmates was inspirational to hear. “The last thing I did before I went to bed last night was tell all the members of the band that I love them. I really meant that”, shared Coomes, “We have all had a very strong connection from the start and we are all close friends. We keep each other responsible and hold each other accountable for our actions. We are trying to make each other better people, and we try to be the best we can be for each other”. This dedication to being good friends is as important to them as how many tickets they sell. Maybe even more important. Jesus explained, “ I feel like that this is what the universe wants me to do. Once I started playing with Lettuce and focused on making music with this group of people, all kinds of doors opened. As soon as I started going for the dream with these guys I knew it was the right thing to do”.
Since Coomes is the bassist for Lettuce, and Lettuce is a funk band, one of the strongest bonds he has built is with drummer Adam Deitch. The rhythm section is a key ingredient in funk, and the telepathy Coomes and Deitch have would make you think they were connected by a cord. “When Deitch and I met we had a natural connection. Not just personally, because we like the same music and have other similarities, but musically. Our playing styles fit together immediately”. According to Coomes, he heard the synchronicity the first time he and Deitch played and felt they were on the same page instantly. “There was some ESP stuff going on and we could read each other's minds very quickly and very easily”, said Coomes, “We were just on the same wavelength, and we have been that way ever since”.
Lettuce has released a handful of studio albums and a few live ones as well, but it is the improvisation filled live shows that have built them such a large fan base, and showcased their extraordinary ability to communicate so fluidly onstage. First and foremost, Lettuce is about the funk. They started playing funk when they first met and they have developed into one of the most established “modern” funk bands over the past quarter-century. Since they also have been serious students of music since childhood, they don’t just speak the language of funk, they comprehend where funk evolved from, and how it changed the way music was played.
When bands that started playing what we now call funk formed, they grew out of jazz, R&B, and soul, but funk can be most directly related to jazz because of its improvisational nature. The very word “funk” was coined by jazz musicians who were shouting words of encouragement during moments of improvisational brilliance. Those “funky” moments in the jazz world turned into a genre all its own.
Now, after focusing on the funk, Lettuce showed the world just how jazzy they could get with the release of their live album Witches Stew. Recorded at Catskill Chill Music Festival in 2016 and released on October 31, 2017, Witches Stew is a monument to the art of improvisation that was built on a whim. Coomes explains how the album paying homage to Davis’ Bitches Brew era happened, “It was early. We had just woken up, and it was one of those mornings where it was really hard to wake up. We had all had a late night. We got in the van and Benny told us we were doing to be doing a tribute to Miles. We started freaking out. That’s the real story”.
They freaked out because of their reverence for Miles Davis-and because they had no preparation for the gig. When someone asked Lettuce trumpet player Eric “Benny” Bloom to put together a set as a tribute to Miles, he put his musical brothers in a van and put them to the test. “Once we got on stage the spirit of Miles took over and it felt great”, shared Coomes, “When we listened to the recording after the show, we heard an album. It’s weird and intense and I am really proud of what we did. We don’t always have to do strict funk, and if we feel like putting an album out of super tripped out Miles shit, we are gonna do it because as students of music, we have all been deeply influenced by Miles Davis”.
Some may not instantly connect Miles Davis to funk music since he had an arsenal of jazz albums out well before things got funky, but Davis had a profound impact on funk, and according to Coomes, not just musically. “The way he dressed, the way he talked, the way he lived his life, the way he played... I mean, Miles Davis was a funky cat”, explained Coomes, “Miles was hardcore bebop and jazz, but he had some early, experimental one key jams that were funky as hell. He experimented with electric instruments early on too”.
Coomes shared a story of a bass player on his first gig with Miles Davis. The bass player went up to Davis to try and find out what they were gonna play that night. Davis just laughed and turned away. Davis said you couldn’t predict what was gonna happen on stage and the music would decide. That is about as improvisational as it gets. In that spirit, Lettuce played a live set of music, which became the album Witches Stew, with little to no preparation. They hopped in a van, got a surprise assignment, and got on stage. Anyone who has been a fan of Lettuce may find this album a departure from their funk-filled history, but it is really a profound return to Lettuce’s roots. Those who love jazz, but are new to Lettuce, will be excited by the approach Lettuce takes. The students paid homage to a master in the true spirit of improvisation. The intention, situation, spontaneity, and result would have made Davis proud. Witches Stew is a shining jewel in the Lettuce catalog.
Lettuce is currently on their “Beyond the Clouds” Tour and will be bringing the funk to NC.
SEE LETTUCE LIVE:
Thursday, March 29th
The Blind Tiger - Greensboro, NC
Doors: 8pm / Show: 9pm
Thursday, April 19th
Tuck Fest - Charlotte, NC