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It's a hot, sultry Friday night inside Nik's Wine Bar & Hookah Lounge. Everyone in the smoky little club is vibing to the sizzling sounds of the Hot House Sessions. Music emanates only from the front corner, but it dominates the hipster enclave until all that's left is groove, groove, groove. Tonight Chris Hansen is on the congas, Alexis Tucci commands the decks, Kasimu Taylor blows the trumpet, Jeff Lash bangs the tropical-sounding steel drum (instead of his usual vibraphone) and Tom "Papa" Ray (co-owner of Vintage Vinyl) wails on the electric harmonica. Adorning the walls is local artist Cbabi Bayoc's urban-beat imagery, eye candy for house heads whose ears are occupied.
Keeping up with the Hot House Sessions' diverse range of sounds can be a sensory challenge. Tucci, legendary in some circles for her underground parties, has graduated from promoter to DJ. Even though she's been tickling the turntables for only three years, Hansen speaks highly of her developing skills: "She's just really stepped up to the plate and has been able to step onstage and play with some of St. Louis' best jazz, blues and funk musicians out there."
Hansen and Ray are no slouches themselves. Hansen grew up playing with a traditional drum kit; he now feels that the hands are where it's at and often plays congas for the group. Ray, the most seasoned member of the collective, has a whopping 35 years of harmonica experience. The subtlety of his electric harmonica fits into the Hot House sound surprisingly well. Hansen says Ray helps define the overall tone. "He can fill in the cracks of the music with the electronics of his harmonica," he explains.
Even though astute listeners attuned to every sonic nuance can barely make out his fills, Ray is confident that his contributions make a difference. "A lot of times," he recounts, "people say, 'I can't hear what you're playing,' and I'm going, 'Great -- that's exactly how I want it.' But if I drop out, there would be an aspect of the sonic stream that wouldn't be there."
Of course, 23-year-old Lash is practically a vibraphone prodigy, and trumpeter Taylor's improvisational skills are impeccable, too. But technical proficiency is just part of the equation; Hansen believes that only a special kind of musician can play along with the Hot House Sessions' unique Afro-house fusion. "It has a method to it," he says. "It's not for everybody. Most players can't find a home in what we do. For one, they wouldn't want to, and for two there's a certain amount of sacrifice you have to make as a player to just give yourself to the records and to find your place, your niche in it, and not try to be a different entity away from it. That's what this band's trying to create, that depth within that kind of wall of sound in space -- a canvas to solo and to write and to do really creative things within long phrases and short phrases that are original pieces." Because these musicians have an almost instinctive dynamic, Hansen continues, "You couldn't re-create that tone because of the players and because of the instruments and the way they approach them."
Given this quasi-mystical musical aesthetic, it's somehow fitting that the current lineup came together by accident. Taylor was in a ProTools class with Hansen. Ray began playing with them about six months ago, after succumbing to Tucci's entreaties. And Lash is able to make it to most of the Hot House Sessions' many gigs, despite frequent appearances with his own jazz trio. Tucci says these musicians wanted a change from their usual jazz and blues gigs. "As much of an expert as you can become in those areas of music, there's still a standard," she remarks. "And with our music, there is no standard."
This free-form approach may be just what got the group signed to Slang Records late last fall. Hansen and Taylor wrote and produced all four tracks of the group's new debut EP themselves. The twelve-inch, which will be sold locally at both Revolve Records and Vintage Vinyl, is as sexy-hot, beginning with the catchy "Baby Girl." Guest musicians include post-bop hotshot Russell Gunn, who traveled all the way from Atlanta to lay down his part. The vocals, courtesy of Soul Tyde's Steve West and Coultrain, only sweeten the sound; singing isn't typically a part of the live show.
Coming off the successful debut of the EP at the Miami club Honey during the Winter Music Conference in March, the Sessions are gearing up for their pre-release party in the Lou. The album officially drops on June 9, but St. Louisans will get a taste at the Pageant on May 17. Why the early affair? Replies Hansen: "We've been finished since the first week in January, so we've just been waiting for all the things to get aligned."
The EP, a combination of electronic sounds and live samples, also boasts unique album art. Instead of being a white label or futuristically plain, the CD's cover stands out on its own. The artwork, which features two dancing soul divas, was created by St. Louisan Bayoc, who also decorated Prince's 2001 release The Rainbow Children.