Force of Nature Juna Serita, Acme Jazz Garage Throw a Party
I suspect that most of us at New World Brewery in Tampa on Thursday, November 11, were there to see Acme Jazz Garage, Tampa area mainstays of more than a decade. And we were certainly curious about the headliner, Juna Serita, the woman billed as “The Princess of Funk.” Really?
Acme Jazz Garage first, but REALLY! Juan Serita C-R-U-S-H-E-D!
Acme Jazz Garage are riding high on the strength of outstanding new album Sharkskin. Their show in October at The Palladium in St. Petersburg featured most of the band from the recording plus two new members. The new configuration sounded superb in the lovely indoor room at New World Brewery, bolstered by one of the area’s best sound engineers (I LOVE it when I don’t need earplugs!).
The setlist included two songs from Sharkskin, one from the band’s eponymous debut, a couple of standards, and two choice covers, opening with “Way Back Home,” a Jazz Crusaders tune that they play Steve Gadd Band-style, according to bass-playing Philip Booth. They followed up with the Horace Silver classic “The Jody Grind.” Tenor player Rick Runion has played often with the band, but as a regular now his is a powerhouse.
Next up were a pair of tunes from Sharkskin: the slinky, sexy “Rumba Misterioso” and “Watching the River Flow” (Bob Dylan), the latter featuring lovely vocalist Shelby Sol, whose beautiful voice also graced an uptempo “Cherokee” and a way-up version of “St. James Infirmary.” Jody Marsh on keyboards is a great addition to the band. Acme Jazz Garage has worked with a solid stable of drummers; Michael Washington, who adds tons of percussion to Sharkskin, was at kit this night. Sol also sang the Jon Cleary tune “When You Get Back.”
The band’s remaining original members, Booth and guitarist Matt Swensen, were outstanding all evening. Swensen dug in on numerous occasions, and Booth, sticking with his bass guitar (no double bass this night) anchored everything perfectly. They closed with Booth’s homage to George Porter Jr., the tune “Mr. G.P.”
Acme Jazz Garage next performs in the Tampa Jazz Club series on Sunday, December 5 at 3 p.m. at HCC/Ybor’s Mainstage Theatre.
[AJG: Way Back Home, Jody Grind, Rumba Misterioso, Watching the River Flow, Cherokee, St. James Infirmary, When You Get Back, Mr. G.P.]
When I arrived, I ran into Matt and Anna Giancola. Matt plays in Future Vintage and is, to my mind, one of the very best keyboard artists in Florida. His band plays jamtronica, funk, trance-dance, and R&B. Suddenly, when Acme Jazz Garage finished their set, Matt disappeared. Just as suddenly, he was on stage setting up. WHAT?
Juna Serita is Japanese and apparently spends about half her time there. She has been here in the Florida for a bit and has been playing with some Orlando musicians, including James Adkins (drums) and Keegan Matthews (Leisure Chief, keyboards). She also has teamed up with Noel Rochford, who goes by Noel Plays Uke. Meaning electric ukulele, which sounds like a guitar. And he plays trombone.
Preparing to head to Tampa, Serita and Rochford also had Rion Smith (Shak Nasti, Sam Rivers Riv-Bea Orchestra, Blue Man Group) on drums — my favorite drummer in Florida. But Matthews took ill and could not make the gig. A call went out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, searching for a keyboard replacement. Enter Matt Giancola. On less than 36 hours’ notice, he absorbed the music of the setlist, ready to perform.
You would never have known he wasn’t a regular member of The Sexy Beans, Serita’s rotating cast of characters.
I can only speak for myself in saying that I wasn’t ready for the five-foot “Princess of Funk” to mind-glowingly assure me that her title was indeed accurate. They blasted out with deep fusion on “Run for Cover.” Juna was killing it from the first note. Noel Plays Uke was playing trombone at the moment, and both Giancola and Smith were deep in their element. “The Princess of Funk” featured Noel again on trombone, and then a huge solo from Giancola on electric piano. I love what he does with all of his other keyboard toys with Future Vintage, but this is what he does best, in that Herbie Hancock mindset.
And then it was Juna’s turn… TO THUMP!
She was awesome! She took those Larry Graham lessons to heart! Noel did Play Uke on “Loving Music,” with vocals from Noel and Juna. Next up was “Childhood,” a track from her Battlefield album. Juna struts the stage like she owns it — because she does — but she is also mindful to stand back when band members are soloing.
Giancola and Smith engaged in a glorious exchange reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. It was titanic! Unexpectedly, they tore through rockabilly on “Hunter,” Noel on uke. Giancola and Noel matched up for some rockabilly fun before Giancola took his synth out for a spin.
Those who knew exploded with delight (WELL, I DID!) when Juna hit the opening notes to the aforementioned Larry Graham’s bass intro to Graham Central Station’s “The Jam.” PANDEMONIUM! They just played the head of the tune, but Juna crushed it, Giancola on clavinet. One more tune and a much-deserved encore, and we were done.
A word about New World Brewery: good food, great beer, nice booths on the sides, good tables in the center, fine sound system, DREADFULLY INADEQUATE LIGHTING. It was bad, but when Juna moved to the front of the stage, she was bathed in… darkness. PLEASE… get some lighting in there, for the benefit of everyone.
Juna was gracious in talking about all of her bandmates, especially the Herculean effort put in by Giancola to, in her words, “save the night.”
This little hurricane will be back. You can rest assured we will be shouting out her GPS coordinates when she does. JUST WOW.
The videos have started to surface, courtesy of Bill Hamer. His YouTube channel is Mr. Infinity. Check these out!
Here is a video from August of a different configuation of Juna Serita & The Sexy Beans at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, courtesy of Jake Funkmayor and FunkCity.net.
[JUNA: Run for Cover, The Princess of Funk, Loving Music, Childhood, Hunter, All I Do, Spark, The Jam, Hulucigenia; E: What is Hip?]
Thanks to Anna Giancola and Fred Combs for the pictures!