If there anything is more fascinating than the ensemble groove Lettuce establishes on a record, it’s the way the music is placed in motion in the first place.
Take, for instance, “Trapezoid,” the leadoff tune to the Boston-bred funk band’s new “Elevate” album. It opens with synths chirping at a patiently discreet pace before the rhythm starts to form beats, guitar stutters and organ-like keyboard orchestration. Drums then solidify the momentum before horns provide the proverbial cherry-on-top as the groove circulates and ultimately is cemented without losing any of the tune’s inherent playfulness.
A lot is going here. Aside from multi-generational funk elements, there is a dash of old school soul, a poppish undercurrent and a spaciousness that lets improvisation warp the groove. Keeping all that in line in a studio environment might seem difficult enough. In a performance setting, though, such a caravan of styles would seem to have the makings of a train wreck.
Saxophonist and co-founding member Ryan Zoidis, who will perform with Lettuce on Sunday at Forecastle in Lousiville, isn’t worried about such mishaps. He feels Lettuce, which has been honing its textured groove sounds for over 25 years, has grown enough to trust its collective ears and instincts.
“The older we get, the more mature we get with our listening skills,” he said. “We’re more sensitive to what each other is doing. We really try to keep our ears open and stay nimble with what’s happening.
“We respect the parts. We play funk music, for the most part. We’re playing groove music, so everybody has a part when we’re in a groove. But from there, we can improvise perpetually if we want. To be able to do that for a long time without getting redundant or turning into a train wreck takes a lot of listening and a lot of just being present in the moment and knowing what each other’s tendencies are.
“It’s about finding the spaces and leaving the spaces. That’s really what it is. It’s about having the capacity and intuition to let the music come to us and not overplay. We’ve been out on the road a lot. That’s just inspired us to get better at the improvising, which is really what got us into this in the first place. That’s one thing that just keeps getting better and better.”
The literal first place for Lettuce was the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, where the members of what would become the band’s initial lineup met for a summer program as high schoolers.
“We knew there was something there,” Zoidis said. “There was an ensemble room in the basement of the dorm we were staying at. So basically, we would just jam until, like, 4 a.m. every night. That was our academic input. There was really not a lot of academics, to be honest.”
From there, the world opened to the band members – far more, in fact, than to the band itself. Drummer Adam Deitch gigged with John Scofield, Shakira and Wyclef Jean. Bassist Erick Coomes was featured on records by Britney Spears, Kanye West and Dr. Dre. Guitarist Adam Smirnoff was backing Lady Gaga and Robert Randolph. Zoidis found himself signed to Arista Records at the age of 20 by record label pioneer Clive Davis.
“We all went our separate ways after Berklee. For almost 10 years, we were all running around with different projects. That’s what we thought we needed to do as musicians and instrumentalists, to get that big pop gig and have Lettuce be a side project. Those experiences definitely made us who we are today. All of us learned a lot in that span of time. We were able to come back and impart those lessons into the music of Lettuce.”
That music has proved especially productive of late. The band wound up with 30 completed songs during recording sessions for “Elevate.” Zoidis said Lettuce is eyeing to release them soon on a pair of recordings he is viewing as “Vol. 2” and “Vol. 3” of “Elevate.”
“Sometimes bands can kind of get stifled and run in to creative blocks,” the saxophonist said. “But for us, it seems like the music and the energy flow is really growing. We just have a lot of music we need to put down and get out there. We’ve just got to figure out when and how to put it out.”
When: 8:30 p.m. July 14 as part of Forecastle
Where: Waterfront Park, 231 Witherspoon St. in Louisville