CD Review – Kris Funn – Cornerstore (2017)

“On the corner of bebop and hip-hop, hard rock and hard knocks…here in West Baltimore. This ain’t just a store. It’s a metaphor for our lives” The opening, spoken-word introduction of bassist Kris Funn’s Cornerstore switches on the shop lights, illuminating the musical offerings of Funn’s long awaited debut CD as a bandleader.

The album is unmistakably personal and unapologetically Baltimore. From the cover-photo bench seat, declaring Baltimore to be the “Greatest City in America”, to the deep talent-bench of Baltimore musicians gathered around him, Funn has created an album which the city should be proud of. The experience of growing up in Baltimore provide the inspiration for the compositions, evocatively described in his concise album liner notes for each track. Cornerstore is a bright torch of an album – impeccable musicianship stretched over passionate, emotional compositions and polished with an original contemporary soundscape.

True to the opening-track words of “Welcome” recited by Funn’s wife Paige Hernandez, tunes like the Coltrane inspired “Arithmetricks” gives us the be-bop. We get a touch of hip-hop with the looped, sampled, drums of “PIF” and hard rock comes in the exciting guitar of John Lee, at times reminiscent of John McLaughlin, always adventurous and complementary. ‘Hard knocks’ are reflected in tracks like “Ghettobird”, which Kris describes in the liner-notes to be inspired by the type of inner city “lullabies” kids might fall asleep to in the inner-city – helicopters propellers overhead.

The opening track also reassures us that “there is always hope in a system that’s broke – a church around the corner, or when the love of your life becomes your wife, or when the craft your father taught you before you could speak keeps you from being out on the street”. For all the crackling intensity of Cornerstore, the album is never short of joy and beauty.

Pianist Alleyn Johnson’s gospel progressions on “Thursday Night Prayer Meeting”, take us to church, accompanied by Funn’s effervescent bass lines. Meanwhile, the gentle, meditative interplay between bass and piano on “PIF” gives us the beauty. Described as a ballad that tries to paint his wife’s portrait, this track features Janelle Gill on piano, leaving open spaces against a repeated bass motif which gives way to a hip-hop beat. This, and the closing track “The Day After” have a cinematic quality. “The Day After” features a calming, soothing and conversational bass line. Offering calm after the storm of conflict. A soundtrack to recovery and resolution as the composition reflects on the aftermath of Baltimore’s recent riots and the need for real change.

Kris describes his approach to composing for this album as building from the bottom up, starting with bass and drums, and aiming for compositional simplicity and groove. The phenomenal virtuosity of his collaborating musicians lead to a final product which is anything but simple, but the groove remains due to the interplay with drummers John Lamkin and Quincy Phillips.

Many people in Baltimore will know Kris Funn from his high-school band playing days. He moved on to playing in the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. After graduation Kris quickly established himself as a top tier sideman touring the world with saxophonist Kenny Garrett. More recently he has been recording and touring with trumpeter Christian Scott one of the most prolific and exciting contemporary players on the scene. You can still find him, at times, appearing regularly with musicians around the Baltimore-DC area, notably with vocalist Akua Allrich.

Allrich described to me her musical collaborator and friend of 20 years: “Kris is a deep thinker; an ethical person who sees the importance of doing the right thing; someone who is generous with his time and energy. Brilliant. Modest. Loyal. Not an extrovert, but outspoken when he feels he needs to be”. Funn’s Cornerstore recording honors her description. The ensemble playing – featuring musicians with whom he has long been associated – complements the range of his material. The compositions are at times brilliant and outspoken, at times thoughtful and contemplative. Shop at the Cornerstore…and ideally buy the well-designed CD package with its fine liner note commentary.