Re-wiring the rules

What is groosion? “It’s, of course, a combination of groove and fusion,” says drummer Robin Tolleson, who’s also a well-seasoned music journalist. OK, maybe a better question is: Why groosion?

“Somewhere along the way,” Tolleson feels, “fusion got a bad connotation. It went commercial sort of, trying to sell records. For us, groove and fusion is more about not telling people how many notes you can play per second, but is based more on the groove and rhythm of it. It’s more accessible to people than some of the fusion that’s more of a note-fest.”

When drummer Robin Tolleson moved to Western North Carolina in 1999, his luggage didn’t carry any ideas of carving new terms in the musical dictionary. Though he’d just arrived from music-mad San Francisco, having trained on drums with Narada Michael Walden (of Jeff Beck and Mahavishnu Orchestra fame), it wasn’t till a meeting with local guitarist Bill Altman that space began to clear on the dictionary pages, and the foundation of Big Block Dodge was laid.

“It’s music we like listening to, that gets us excited, non-commercial [music],” Tolleson says. “It’s fun music to play for musicians, and fun grooving stuff to listen or dance to. It was a real easy situation to move into, it clicked really easily.” Altman, having already worked with bassist Jeff Hinkle through the local blues-based rock scene, added him to the mix, and groosion was born from the sounds of the newfound trio.

“I wanted to take more of a song-based approach and then loosen it up a little, not just incessant jamming,” Altman says. Groosion is catching on in a hurry. Having only begun touring seriously for just over a year, Big Block Dodge has already accepted invites to perform across the Southeast in venues from Atlanta to Charleston. And while the fanbase gets used to an all-instrumental band that’s not straight-up jazz and that doesn’t include itself in the massive funk-fusion genre, the reaction has been immediate from some notable music heavyweights.

After an opening gig in Asheville for Project Z — a jazz/jam exploratory side project featuring Jimmy Herring (Phil Lesh & Friends, Aquarium Rescue Unit) and Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Susan Tedeschi) — the band was so well-received they earned another invitation, this time to record their debut CD at Atlanta’s Southern Living At Its Finest Studios.

The just-released album, Manifold Destiny, is filled with technically fearless jazz/rock numbers, turbo-charged blues and eyes-closed, neck-numbing groove vibes — the band is now armed with a marketable product sure to spread thick helpings of groosion across the South. Currently, Big Block Dodge plans to continue its reach across the region, breaking into new markets while targeting the festival scene and recruiting a booking agent to facilitate the act’s growth.

“We’re jazz because we do so many instrumentals, but we’re really a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Tolleson claims. “In an effort to excite our fans and ourselves, we write parts that are more challenging and interesting. Not much noodling like jam bands, more in the four- to five-minute range. It’s fun to leave space, and it’s encouraging when we start to go off and loosen up, our fans enjoy that. We’re reaching new levels of conjuring,” Tolleson says through a small laugh.

Big Block Dodge comes equipped with an attractive take on instrumental music, resting inside a circle of influences that includes be-bop jazz standards, Altman’s Joe Satriani or Steve Vai-ish guitar runs, or the schizophrenic time signatures of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The collision of these influences serves to create something distinctly original.

“I’m takin’ it from a 1974-’75 kind of place,” Altman admits. “From the old Jeff Beck classic fusion records really, with a little more groove. We’re tapping into a younger audience, and they’re listening and really digging music, which is cool. Where do we fit in? I don’t know … Jeff Sipe said we were powerful, but not dark. That’s kind of ambiguous, but I like it. People understand we’re trying to play something that’s memorable, but loose.”

Though bassist Hinkle is significantly younger than his Big Block brethren, his youth and skill add a fresh note to the trio. “It’s really cool — Jeff, for a young bass player, hangs in all of our jams and everything extremely well. He loves to dig in and play. Even on some of my more challenging, odd-timed polyrhythmic things, he hangs right in. He’s got a great feel, a great low end, really holds down the root,” says Tolleson.

Altman, a veteran of many groups come and gone, insists, “We’re all on the same page, even with the age difference between us. All three take influences from everywhere, there’s never a cross word, no problems. It’s like we’re on a mission because we all know what it is we want to be doing.”

“It’s been real easy,” agrees Tolleson. “Sometimes someone will bring in a well-developed piece of a song, and say, ‘Here, let’s develop this.’ Other times, Jeff will come in and say, ‘I’ve got this groove, let’s work on this.’ Sometimes our first thing at rehearsal, we’ll just open up and completely jam. A couple of our songs we’ve pulled from a tape recorder that’s just been rolling from our rehearsals.”

Tolleson pauses and laughs, suddenly cognizant of how good he’s got it. “I feel like I’m getting away with something, playing with these guys. It’s been wonderful.”

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