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Thom Douvan’s ‘Brother Brother’ looks back on Motown soul

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Thom Douvan “Brother Brother” album [April 29, 2014]

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Fast and burning? Well, that’s not my thing. I’m into the soul groove. I like to lay into the pocket.

The world’s littered with guitar players. There’s a time and a place for the record-breaking shredding. But “that’s not my thing,” Thom Douvan said. “I’m into the soul groove. I like to lay into the pocket.” Guitarist Douvan is a devotee of the Detroit Motown hit-making Funk Brothers — he’s played with them many a time in the 1980s. In his April 29th sophomore album, Brother Brother, Douvan and his band try to lay in the pocket on many standard soul riffs.

If you get over the initial wash of dental cleaning Muzak, they do make the most of the small moments. The 1979 Billy Preston/Syreeta Wright single, “With You I’m Born Again,” takes on an almost gospel exultation in the hands of guitarist Douvan, Hammond organist Duncan McMillan and saxophonist Tony Malfatti. The original duet starts and ends as a solemn homily, barely above whispered tones. But as drummer Michael Barsimanto rings in a new, funky sensation — at the 2:09 mark — the holy matrimony erupts onto the dance floor of the reception, ties and heels tossed aside. McMillan presses insanely on a locked-and-loaded groove, and Douvan squeezes every note dry on his six-string, turning the melody up, as the rest of the band dances in step.

Dedicated to the Funk Brothers, Douvan and his recording band infuse warm, easy-listening tones on the soulful hits he remembered and loved in his musically formative time. Before the covers succumb to too much of that laid-back easy listening, they manage to — for the most part — interject intensified soul into the proceedings.

They soften the Isley Brothers’ “Harvest For The World” — not too much! — for a chill background check, before flipping mellow with some inspired solos on organ and guitar. By the 3:21 mark, that Hammond organ is riding shotgun, scattering blues-funk-gospel everywhere.

Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” receives a brighter birthmark in a nice 4/4 shuffle-swing set groove. It’s one of the best covers on this album, changing the original 12/8 African mambo into an almost rockabilly feel.

When Douvan and his band get too much into the music, they can forget the pocket entirely.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” is DOA compared to the mother ship. Not much in the way of the organ’s touch can jolt the flatline. “For The Love Of You,” another Isley Brothers hit, is already as mellow as a song gets. Nothing’s improved here as the instrumentation feels muted and the soul, gutted. By Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile,” the dental Muzak’s completely taken over and the pocket Douvan seeks disappears. He takes too long and doesn’t do enough on this cover to raise it from a sleep-inducing blur.

Thom Douvan grew up in Ann Arbor, MI loving blues and jazz. But when he met Cannonball Adderley’s protégé and a high school music teacher, trumpeter Louis Smith, he discovered a new love that would stay with him. “I played in my first soul band when I was 16 years old in high school. That was a life-changing event for me because all the suburban kids that I grew up with...it was a very competitive thing of who can play faster, who can play louder,” Douvan said. “But when I joined this soul band, everybody was very supportive and saying things like, ‘Take another solo! Have your way!’ I just found it to be a very supportive community and one that I was attracted to.”

In law school, Douvan’s love of soul deepened with the Funk Brothers keyboardist Johnny Griffith and drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen. Playing with them gave him a greater love of soul, maybe not so much a greater understanding of how to relay that soul differentially in his covers. Even now as he splits his time between L.A. and San Francisco, Detroit remains uppermost in his mind. It's too bad he couldn’t convey that in Brother Brother.

There’s not much of the Funk Brothers in Douvan’s album. There is, however, as much soul as the veteran guitarist can muster.

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