Ian McLeod had a vision. In the midst of the current music scene, he imagined fronting an eight-piece band on vibraphone. Playing jazz. If you are looking to “make it,” that is probably not the best blueprint for success. However, if you are looking to “make beautiful music,” literally, then this is a direct route.
Let’s allow McLeod to explain.
“The creation of Ism was inspired by the idea of combining concepts of my two previous bands. Prior to leaving Gainesville for Orlando in 2011, I spent six years playing drum kit in the band Funkatron and one year playing vibraphone in Afrovibe. Funkatron was a funk band consisting of a rhythm section (drums, bass, keys, guitar, & percussion), a singer, the occasional guest rapper, and horn players (alto or tenor sax). Afrovibe was an almost all-percussion group, playing Afro-Latin arrangements of jazz standards, hip-hop tunes, Calypso standards, and salsa tunes. That group consisted of vibraphone, steel pans, marimba, drum kit, a lot of auxiliary percussion, and bass guitar. Both bands were extremely fun to play in, and I wanted to carry on their spirit in a new project. So, the intention of Ism was to be an instrumental jazz/funk band with splashes of soul, hip-hop, and Afro-Latin flavor. I also knew that I wanted at least a three-piece horn section; I would have six if I could afford it.
The actual beginning of the band started with the booking of a gig. I had been tossing around the concept of Ism with a few local musician buddies of mine, but we had no written material nor even a jam session to speak of. I saw that Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band needed local support for a Wednesday night show at The Social in Orlando; I contacted the promoter, and booked the show… to be honest, I’m still shocked that we even got that first gig. I basically explained the concept of the band that had never played together to the promoter, and he went for it! I didn’t have any audio or anything for him. This gave us motivation to finally get the group going. I wrote “Gimme Summa Dat!,” “Hip Bop” and “Hit Me Up” and arranged versions of “Chank” (John Scofield), “Red Baron” (Billy Cobham), and “Pan in A Minor” (Lord Kitchener) for that first show.
The name “Ism” actually comes from my initials: Ian Stewart McLeod. It was a childhood nick-name given to me by my uncle; my mom hated it! The group didn’t have a name when I booked the show, so I just gave the promoter the name Ism and originally meant for it to be a place holder until the band actually decided on a name. Turned out that the players liked Ism, so we just went with it. September 18, 2013, was the first gig, so we’ve been at it for almost three years. In that time, we’ve had almost 40 high-caliber players sub in and play with the group. Though it can be stressful constantly booking subs, playing with so many incredible players has definitely been a highlight of running this band!
I began playing vibraphone in high school band and continued playing it through college in various capacities. After graduating with a music degree, I quickly found that the vibraphone was one of the few percussion instruments that I knew I could make money playing; marimba, timpani, snare drum, etc., gigs are few and far between. I grew to love the instrument and knew that I wanted to keep it in rotation. Drum kit was my first passion, but vibraphone, congas, timbales, bongos, and other Cuban and Brazilian instruments have become big interests of mine in the past six years. Discovering the xylosynth (MIDIvibes) was a great step for me, too. The brand is xylosynth, but I call it a MIDIvibraphone, because I play it like a vibraphone, and it’s actually just a MIDI controller: there is no synth in it. Either way, it really opens the world to me as far as expanding my soundscape. I can run virtually any sound through that thing and play it like a vibraphone. My goal is to eventually start using both but am rotating them for now.
Compositionally speaking, I have a very large list of influences. However for this band, I pull inspiration from Soulive, Snarky Puppy, Lettuce, Stefon Harris & Blackout, Roy Ayers, to name a few. Typically, my goal is to fuse my favorite styles of music, explore new sounds, put it together in an original manner, keep the jazz spirit alive, and always making it funky. I tend to try to push myself and my players. Though we’re not on the frontline per se, I like to think that we’re at least pushing the envelope of what we can do with music, hopefully making our way to the frontline eventually.”
At the recent Orange Blossom Jamboree in May, MusicFestNews went to hear the early set from Ism. At the time, we wrote:
I think about half of the audience for the early set from Ism were musicians, some of whom had heard Ian McLeod’s superb jazz band, other who had heard the rumors. This was my third Ism show, and in a short span this band has exploded onto the scene. This set was incredible. I am praying there is a recording I can spin on my jazz show on WMNF, because WOW.
Ian plays vibes (percussion with Flat Land). Brother Grant was the percussionist (drums with Flat Land). Mark Mayea (Ajeva) had another superb sit-in on keyboards, and Greg Jungbluth is a tremendous bass player. The set began smokin’ hot and never let up. The horns were great, and Ian is a monster on vibes. Late in the set, Vernon Suber (Holey Miss Moley, Bengali 600) and Nester Garcia jumped up to play percussion (Jimmy Rector was probably up there already), and things went Latin, and they closed with “The Chicken,” always a favorite.
Ian McLeod also plays percussion in Flat Land, a Gainesville quintet that has performed at Hulaween, Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, and dozens more fests. They just returned from a trip up and down the East Coast. Grant McLeod is the drummer and founder of Flat Land.
Both McLeods are also part of a very important organization called Future Music Makers. This group raises funds and collects instruments to provide assistance for school-aged budding musicians in the form of public school partnerships, music lesson scholarships, instrument donations and master classes. It is exciting to see musicians working so hard to pay it forward to the next generation!
Ism just held their album release party July 14th in Orlando. Their debut album is titled Unity, produced, recorded, and mastered by Veit Renn, with McLeod as associate producer. The elegant cover and album artwork are by Jimmy Rector (www.acceptedperspective.com).
For this recording, the group includes: Ian McLeod, vibraphone and percussion; Scott Dickinson, trumpet; Jeremy Fratti, tenor saxophone and flute; Derrick Harris, trombone; Veit Renn, keyboards; Greg Jungbluth, bass; Nik Ritchie, drums and raps; Michael Besedick, guitar on 1, 2 & 3; Bob Patterson, guitar on 4, 5 & 6; and Benjamin Kramer, bass on 7.
[UNITY: 1 Hip Bop, 2 Mind Grapes, 3 Spider Fight, 4 Gimme Summa Dat!, 5 Soul Strut, 6 Hit Me Up, 7 As We Mourn]
Every one of the influences McLeod mentioned comes flowing out on this outstanding recording. And it IS brilliantly recorded from a sonic standpoint. “Hip Bop” jumps out with that classic vibes sound (Ayers, Bobby Hutcherson) and the new funk-jazz sound of Soulive and Ronny Jordan. This is the only vocal tune on the album, as drummer Ritchie does a melodic rap about jazz woven into the song. Fret has a great tenor solo, followed by Dickinson on trumpet (and overdubbed on muted trumpet). When it returns to the vocal, Ritchie just repeats this refrain: “You are rockin’ with the Ism.” Yes, indeed, you are!
“Mind Grapes” has a quick start, then dials it back a bit. McLeod’s vibes recall Ruth Underwood’s work with Zappa. The unison horns are spot-on. McLeod’s solo is laid back, thoughtful, as if speaking. Then the horns lay atop his playing, old-school chart style. The horns funk things up after a false ending, and Harris has a lovely trombone solo.
Ritchie’s drums introduce “Spider Fight” (that’s a great image), then the band comes in, Ritchie still wailing away. The band is punchy, syncopated, paced by Jungbluth on bass and Ritchie. Percussion in the background is awesome. There is a brief vibe statement, and then the Snarky Puppy and Lettuce influences emerge. McLeod’s percussion work stands out here, working with Ritchie; Renn has a fine synthesizer solo. So much is happening.
Dickinson takes another beautiful solo, backed by synthesizer strings, muted trumpet and horns. Besedick has a thoughtful, contained guitar solo, which then gets very electric. Snarky Puppy-style horns, rocking guitar and the drums build to a crescendo before the coda.
“Gimme Summa Dat!” has a similar punchy, funky opening leading to a beautiful vibe solo, with Patterson’s guitar in the background. Horn accents highlight McLeod’s work before Patterson solos in the very best Blue Note tradition.
For certain McLeod is a fan of Stefon Harris when you hear “Soul Strut,” so reminiscent of Harris’ work on Charlie Hunter’s Return of the Candyman. Vibes and percussion are featured, horns punctuating the groove. Jungbluth’s name has not come up much, but his bass is all over the album, very prominently here. After a tempo change, Renn’s sexy, slinky synthesizer takes a spin before McLeod returns at the end.
“Hit Me Up” opens with synthesizer and Orgone-style horns and drive. Renn’s synthesizer leads the way. Fratti has another great tenor solo on top of chunky guitar. The tune builds to a crescendo, then takes the foot off the gas — slightly — a very hip effect.
Inside the album cover, it reads:
This album is dedicated to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, their families, and our hometown, Orlando.
And so the last track is “As We Mourn.” This homage is funereal if not quite dirge-like. Vibes and bass begin the track, the drums far in the background. Kramer plays the double bass here, his tone perfect. McLeod channels Milt Jackson with that beautiful resonance on the vibraphone. Eventually, a gorgeous, melancholy trombone solo shimmers, Renn on organ. Then the horns chime in with a lovely statement, vibes still dancing lightly atop it all. Ritchie’s brush work is sublime. Appropriately, the tune fades to black.
This is a superb recording from a superb band, an accurate picture of what the group delivers in concert.
“You are rockin’ with the Ism!”
Ism’s next show is at noon this Saturday on the Beach Stage at Roosevelt Collier’s Summer Splashdown at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.
This bandcamp link will allow you to listen to the album and to purchase it digitally or on CD.
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