R.I.P. Big Bamn. Hear Him on Freekbass & Bump Assembly’s ‘Cincinnati’

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Music is a celebration of life. Interesting that we use that phrase for other situations such as memorials for those who have departed. In that context, the new album from Freekbass & the Bump Assembly, Cincinnati, is a celebration of life on both counts. The music part is obvious, the other less so. In the month of January, when the music world suffered many losses, one barely made the news.

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Ken Smith passed away on January 12, 2016. You have no idea who Ken Smith was. I wouldn’t, either, except that I knew him by his stage name, Big Bamn. I first met Smith when he and Freekbass were touring with Kelly Richey, a superb flame-throwing blues rocker. This was a true power trio, and Big Bamn more than held up his end. His Billy Cobham-style muscle certainly had a deft touch when he needed it.

Smith’s wife, Shawntay, was badly injured in the accident that killed him. She is looking at a long recovery. He died a day shy of his 31st birthday. The couple have five children. There is a GoFundMe account to help Shawntay and the children.

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Everyone who knew him sang his praises as a man first, musician second. His huge smile could light up an entire room. I was proud to say I knew him. The next time I saw him was when Freekbass & the Bump Assembly played the Dunedin Brewery in August. I was blown away (review). They threw down a dynamite set for New Year’s Eve 2014 (review). They returned to the brewery for Oktobeerfest 2015, and once again the band knocked us out (review).

Circumstances prevented me from seeing the band on their NYE tour this year, and then came the news. I choose to celebrate the life of a great man and a great drummer. Freekbass is currently looking at material Big Bamn had compiled for a solo album, hoping to release it as an EP or album.

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Freekbass and Bamn were incredibly close. Here is Freekbass’ Facebook post: “My heart and soul are broken today. Yesterday we lost one of the best friends, best drummers, and best souls I have ever known. I am an only child, but Bamn made me feel like I had a real brother that I could share anything with. For anyone that was lucky enough to meet him, everything you saw was 100% genuine. He loved and was full of life more than anyone I know. Please pray for him, his wife and children. He was an inspiration and a very bright light to anyone he touched. I love you man… you will always be with me.”

I had already begun an album review before the accident, and I put it on the back burner for… too long.

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Freekbass would like you to believe that he just released a new album called Cincinnati. The truth is that it’s not an album; it’s a dance party. This new record is just a logical extension of Freekbass in concert, one non-stop dance marathon from start to finish. He pauses occasionally for a breath, but mostly it’s wall-to-wall funk and groove. The funk just keeps on coming.

If you’re looking for deep lyrics, you won’t find them here. This is feel-good music; not only that, but you can actually understand the lyrics. Make no mistake, though: the messages are real in his music. Take the first track, “Don’t You Waste My Time:” powerhouse bass and drums with vocals and saxophone accents from current band member Jason Burgard and former member Dan Barger.

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The syncopation of “Put It in a Letter” is more fun. And then things get deep. You can understand why the album was named a top 20 funk release for 2015 when you hear “Milkhunt.” The throbbing bass just won’t quit, and the nasty funk sax is perfect. “Pharaoh” is another superb instrumental that would fit into a funky jazz format. Big Bamn kicks it off with a wicked drum intro.

Itaal Shur adds keyboards on “Living the Connection,” and that song is reprised at the end as “Living the Connection REMIX” featuring Doug Wimbush.

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“You Don’t Have the Time” has a great sax solo (wish I knew who did what, but it’s all a blast) in addition to funky vocals. Freekbass also plays keyboards, guitar and harmonica on the album, and the guitar sounds fine here. “I Know That I’ll Get Your Love (Tonight)” is slightly more laid-back, with his signature bass lines standing out.

The great interwoven sound continues on “Ritmo,” with Big Bamn, Freekbass and Barger (OK, I’m guessing) in lockstep for a great instrumental. And, if you need a party anthem, look no further than “Up, Up, Up.” Elise Testone joins the vocal chorus here and on “You Don’t Have the Time.” “Up, Up, Up” is just badass; no other way to describe it.

Cincinnati, on Ropeadope Records, is a great dance party and even better tribute to the late Big Bamn. If you never had the pleasure of his acquaintance, you can meet him through Cincinnati and its predecessor, Everybody’s Feelin’ Real.


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