“Cat Walk,” the first track on Crazy Time, opens with a four-chord minor-key progression over a pedal bass, driven by an insistent shuffle beat. It’s a classic fusion setup except for one thing: The chords are played by saxophones, not synthesizer, and the bass comes courtesy of a gloriously growling upright. It’s the sort of groove that owes more to the street corner than the recording studio, which is as it should be, given that the Shuffle Demons started out busking on the streets of Toronto 35 years ago.
Over time, the Demons’ lineup changed, but their sound didn’t. Crazy Time, the quintet’s ninth album, underscores this point by splitting the tracks between the current set of players and a reunited version of the original combo. Should you want to weigh one against the other, current tenor Matt Lagan’s work has more of an R&B edge to it than heritage tenor Mike Murley, but Murley is so solid in the postbop mode (and such a joy all around on his horn) that having a preference is less a reflection of quality than of taste—do you prefer hot fudge or butterscotch on your ice cream?
On the bass end of things, although it’s hard to find fault with the technique or creativity of either O.G. Jim Vivian or newcomer Mike Downes, I’d give Downes the edge on sheer funk, even if his best solo is on the straight-ahead “Even Demons Get the Blues.”
Ultimately, though, the real driver of the Shuffle Demons’ sound is the spark between drummer Stich Wynston’s visceral pulse and alto saxophonist Richard Underhill’s sly cerebral melodic lines. Wynston is one of those rare players whose timekeeping manages to square the difference between melodic elaboration and gut-level groove, ensuring that the sophistication of Underhill’s tunes (not to mention his rapped vocals) is inevitably met with head-bobbing assent.
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