THE MINUTE YOU STEPPED into Green Dolphin Street, Mr. A.L.I. hit you between the eyes, in the heart, in the hips and in the soul. Keyboard riffs, drums, a strumming baseline and the unmistakable voice of Dajae washed over a crowd.
It was House Music, all right, but it was live – improvised from basic chords into a full-on jam of some of the deepest house ever heard in Chicago.
The atmosphere at Green Dolphin Thursdays with Mr. A.L.I. was more like an ecstatic seance than a typical night at a club (and the chanting, percussion and dance of Mr. A.L.I.’s “groove guru” David Risqué only made it that much more mesmerizing).
After a year at Green Dolphin and another at The District ending in 2004, Mr. A.L.I. (short for “Afro-Latin Influence”) are capturing that signature sound on record. Their releases for Loveslap!, West End and Chicago’s own Unified Records (unifiedrecs.com) among others have created an overwhelming craving among househeads for more of “that sound” – the Mr. A.L.I. sound, created by two deep house innovators and a collective of ever-changing musicians, nurtured by live performance.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that people said this would never work,” says co-founder Vick Lavender. Yet after the highly-anticipated release of “Dance All Night” and “About Us” on Unified and the November release of “Rainy Day” on West End Records, seeing – or, in this case, hearing – is believing.
Lavender formed Mr. A.L.I. with veteran producer, remixer and performer Jere McAllister in late 2000. “Mr. A.L.I. started as more of a production team,” Jere says. The pioneering Jazz-Funk band of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Incognito, with its changing and versatile roster of “friends and associates” who would join the group on stage, was one of the precedents he had in mind.
“We were creating a collective, a group with interchangeable performers, each of whom brought something unique. The dying of disco made House Music surface, but it feels like we’ve gotten away from the great musicianship of the live disco days.”
McAllister is a pioneer of Chicago house, having released the first of his three records on the DJ International label at the age of 19. Later he worked with Steve “Silk” Hurley’s ID Productions and Eric “E-Smoove” Miller, creating remixes for two of the Jacksons (Michael and Janet), INXS and Diana Ross, writing the landmark Frankie Knuckles Deep House track “Let the Music Use You” (released under the name “The NightWriters” and with vocals by Ricky Dillard) and co-authoring the CeCe Peniston hit “We Got a Love Thang.”
Jere remembers spending days in the studio working on remixes and nights experiencing the virtuoso live performances at Chicago’s jazz clubs. It was this passion for House Music’s roots and the possibilities that come from collaboration that he brought to Mr. A.L.I.
Lavender for his part is the perfect counterpart to McAllister, coming from what he calls a “strictly underground” background with Glenn Underground’s Strictly Jaz Unit. A DJ for more than 20 years, Lavender’s PM Blues EP was hailed as one of the seminal recordings of Chicago’s deep house sound.
The two work together on what Lavender calls the “skeleton” of Mr. A.L.I.’s songs, and gradually introduce the other musicians and collaborators. Each piece is rehearsed and gone over “eight or nine times,” according to Vick, and the musicians are given the freedom to add to the mix. “During rehearsals,” McAllister remembers of the early days, “we told the drummer to just go with it, just roll if he thinks he should change the rhythm.” This freedom to improvise is what makes the Mr. A.L.I. live show so unlike any other club performance.
Accomplished musicianship plays a key role as well. “With no disrespect to any others,” Lavender says, “we’re working with the creme de la creme of musicians in Chicago.”
The result is a lively sound, more organic than electronic. I obtained a couple of 30 second promo clips for Mr. A.L.I.’s “Rainy Day” (released in mid-November on West End Records) and was blown away by the intricacy of the composition and the tight overall sound. It’s House Music that you can get lost in, with a jazz-oriented theme, a trumpet and an acoustic guitar below it, all pushed along by a steady, irresistible beat. The lush textures are capped by the understated and soulful voice of Carla Prather, pleading “Have you saved up enough love now that I need it, now that the rain is coming down, now that it’s hard to find love anywhere else?”
“It’s a funny story about that song,” McAllister says. “Out of all the things Vick and I wrote when we first came together, that was the one we liked the least. I really love Brazilian music and was listening to some when I picked up the guitar and it started coming together.” The song went from being a track that they weren’t even sure they could salvage to a release that had househeads buzzing around the globe based on just a couple of short excerpts prior to release (I obtained mine from a Brazilian fan of Mr. A.L.I., who, thinking I had some kind of inside track with Vick and Jere, began to interrogate me on when they were bringing their live act to Rio.) Released just a week prior to the time of writing, it’s popping up all over the place to stellar reviews, from London and Budapest to Taiwan.
One of their releases on Unified, “Dance All Night,” has a similar story behind it. Vick was working with singer Eddie Arroyo, and, McAllister says, “I thought, ‘We should do something with this guy.'” The two worked on a track and gave it to Arroyo, who came back with the lyrics and the vocal for a track that’s helped define the Mr. A.L.I. sound. Unified Records included a bangin’ Ron Carroll remix with the Mr. A.L.I. original for “Dance All Night,” and a Glenn Underground remix for their second release from Unified, “About Us.”
As readers of the October issue of 5 Magazine know, Jere and Vick are also producing several songs for House Music diva Dajae, who performed live with Mr. A.L.I. but never recorded with them. The vocalist on “Rainy Day,” Carla Prather, is renowned for her sultry and emotional performances and the deep, breezy tone of her voice meshes with the soulful sound of Mr. A.L.I. in the studio. Prior to this year, she was best known in Chicago for her work fronting Poi Dog Pondering. She was also featured in Mr. A.L.I.’s releases “Cast Your Spell” and “That Feeling” as well as working with Maurice Joshua, Byron Stingley and Kenny Carvajal.
The response to the Mr. A.L.I. experiment of reconnecting dance music to live, full-on, multicultural and multi-instrumental performance has been positive, to say the least. To keep up with demand, in mid-December Unified will be releasing Imagine Freedom with remixes from Glenn Underground and DJ Spinna. This will be followed by a full-length album to be released by Unified in mid-January, entitled Transit (Chasing Life). Samples from the full album on unifiedrecs.com evoke some of those first hypnotic performances on Green Dolphin Thursdays back in 2002.
If you were lucky enough to be there, consider yourself a bonafide witness to the birth of something special.