January 29, 2022
Detroit Free Press
One of the country’s finest jazz organ combos comes to the region this weekend when the Soul Message Band plays two shows Saturday at Ann Arbor’s Blue LLama Jazz Club. The evening will function as an album release party for the band’s second album, “Live at Blue LLama,” the debut offering of the club’s new, eponymous record label. Soul Message has become a staple in its native Chicago, where the trio holds court each Sunday night as the house band at the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Two celebrated jazz veterans, organist Chris Foreman and drummer Greg Rockingham, combine with swinging guitarist Lee Rothenberg to produce a timeless, blues-inflected sound that evokes the classic record of Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. Foreman’s expansive style and churchy chords were inspired by those same players and others of their generation and served him in working with musicians such as Hank Crawford, Albert Collins and Bernard Purdie. Rockingham (affectionately referred to as “Rock”) has delivered his splashy, deep-in-the-pocket groove for the likes of Charles Earland, Kenny Burrell, Nat Adderley, Nancy Wilson and Ellis Marsalis.
From 2000 to 2013, Foreman and Rockingham played and recorded with guitarist Bobby Broom as the Deep Blue Organ Trio. Together, they tackled standards, originals and, perhaps their signature, jazz arrangements of R&B tunes like Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thing” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” as well as an entire album of Stevie Wonder covers, entitled “Wonderful!” The trio proved popular enough to tour as Steely Dan’s opening act for several summers.
Foreman and Rockingham have been working together in some form for 37 years. For 39-year-old guitarist Rothenberg, playing with them is a full circle experience. After moving from Philadelphia to Chicago to study and play, he took lessons from the Deep Blue Organ Trio’s Bobby Broom and eventually proved good enough to sub for him when he had scheduling conflicts.
“When I got to join Greg and Chris for a gig at the Green Mill, that was very life-changing,” he said. “That was something that really helped me grow as a musician, too.”
“Chris and I noticed,” Rockingham said, “that every time Lee played with us, he knew more and more of the material. After one of the Steely Dan tours, I needed to take a break, but after that, we started playing together more.”
“I really missed playing with those guys,” Rothenberg said. “So I reached out to Greg, and here we are now.”
Blue LLama artistic director Dave Sharp said, “I’m looking forward to having them back. They lay down the classic Chicago groove, which lives halfway between jazz and blues. Super soulful. It’s always a fun time when they play.”
Soul Message’s 2019 debut album, “Soulful Days,” included guest saxophonists Greg Ward and Geof Bradfield in a breezy, slow-burning set. Two of those tunes also appear on the new live album, which was recorded Jan. 31, 2020, six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. Stanley Turrentine’s “Minor Chant” and Slide Hampton’s epic “Frame for the Blues” also appear, though selecting which songs from the performance would be included on the record proved to be difficult.
“I’ve never told anybody this but Lee and Chris,” Rockingham said, “but I have multiple sclerosis. And that’s something that can flare up at any time. It’s never a good time to have relapses, but sometimes you really wish it didn’t happen because of plans you’ve made. I remember that night we played Blue LLama, I wasn’t feeling well. It’s really personal for me, and I got really worried and self-conscious. Somebody might say, ‘I can’t tell, you sound great’ — but I can tell.”
Concerned about not being heard at his best, Rockingham worried again when the band was contacted about releasing selections from that evening on CD. The band worked together to choose the best tracks, and the album is an enjoyable glimpse into what it’s like to see the performers live.
Rockingham used the experience to reshape his view of being a working musician with MS.
“I look at it differently now,” he said. “I’m glad that night happened. I’ve learned a lot since then about how to deal with situations like that. We never expected it to happen, but it’s had a positive effect on my learning how to play with this disease. That’s been important for me.
“It just goes to show that this disease doesn’t have to stop anybody if they don’t want it to. There’s great medication now, and it’s meant a lot.”
Foreman seconded the importance of working through adversity.
“I was born blind,” he said. “Some circumstances may be difficult, like the road trips, but my goal, and our goal, is to always make it work. And that’s what we’re doing.”
The Soul Message Band plays at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Blue LLama Jazz Club, 314 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. $75 per person tickets gain entry to the performance as well as a multi-course dinner by executive chef Louis Goral, whose choices are always surprising and superior in quality. Show-only tickets are available for $25. To reserve, call 734-372-3200 or visit bluellamaclub.com.
For info about the band, visit soulmessageband.com.