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Downtown with the Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra
By Greg Jackson
Fort Wayne Reader
There are seven core members of the Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — quite a large band, and a potential nightmare dynamics-wise. Fortunately, that’s not the case at all. This group of musicians really makes it work by checking egos at the door, and honing-in on the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of watching and interviewing the Ft. Wayne Funk Orchestra (here known as FWFO) play a show at Columbia Street West. I’ve been friends with Dave Pagan, FWFO’s lead guitarist, for a long time. He had taught me many lessons along the way, not only about playing music, but the finer points of being an entertainer, and he filled me in on the finer points of the FWFO.
Watching FWFO on stage, it’s difficult to figure out who the “leader” is, but behind the scenes, Pagan and the rest of the group point to Aaron King, trombone player and vocalist. It was King who started it all, calling FWFO’s lead vocalist Tony Didier and telling him it was time to collect a band of assassins to take the local funk scene by storm. They made a list of potential members and devised a plan of attack to launch the FWFO.
Last Spring the band got together and jammed about 2 or 3 times with a planned gig in May at the Precious Blood Funk Festival, but was interrupted by the Covington Bar & Grill. The owner of Covington offered them a Saturday night of “Paid Practice” that turned out to be the band’s first gig. After being talked into doing another gig the very next Saturday at Covington, the band was off and running.
But though King is the classic leader of the band — a frequent response I heard from band members to various questions was “Aaron takes care of that stuff” — I get the feeling King isn’t going to appreciate me using the term “leader.” He is a guy who doesn’t seem to want credit for anything but is happiest when the band is playing and having fun. While King often does a lot behind the scenes for the band, he doesn’t see it as working harder than anyone else; rather, he just makes sure everyone has ample opportunity to jump on that stage and do what make them each tick.
To be where these guys are both as individuals and a band like this one, they need to live for the music. Having an “Aaron” is the only way to make it work without having lots of cooks in a very small kitchen.
Each member of the band brings a special artistry to the FWFO as they each resemble a hand crafted puzzle piece in a complex jigsaw of high energy funk. Ego has no place in this band as each member both understands the larger picture, and is humble enough to embrace their role. Yet each member’s colorful personality is easy to see on stage.
On stage, the rhythm section lays down the groundwork as the keys, horns, guitar, and vocals wrap themselves around the beat. It’s literally impossible to NOT shake what you got while they take you through a series of portals from 1970’s drippy funk to grooving soul music and today’s hottest songs like “Uptown Funk.” Add in a little bit of Snoop and some Dr. Dre, while keeping some Marvin Gaye kicking, they can really keep the party going all night long.
The cover tunes are great and all, but what really blew me away were FWFO’s original songs. They blend in so well with the rest of the set list the crowd is left wondering what famous tune they are listening to.
The original music grows mostly from improvisational jams where each man writes his own part, then quickly turns into a premeditated, meticulously planned out work of art. They guys told me at the end of the night sometimes they just throw out a riff or rhythm and everyone starts to jump on it. This will in turn become the framework for the next musical masterpiece, a sort of blank canvas with a complete pallet of oil paints ready to go. This comes effortlessly from this group due to the confidence each member has with the guy next to him. It’s this confidence that really brings out the difference between FWFO and a band that is just trying to hang on instead of truly flying high.
The band really wants to focus on originals and is constantly writing before, during, and sometimes after each gig. Aaron and the guys told me they plan to record a few songs this spring and are working toward having an album out by the midway point of this year. The recording process for the FWFO is a bit out of the norm compared to most bands as they record in a live setting. Asked why this is their preference I got the answer of just look at how we write and play everything. To truly be honest and keep the feel of the orchestra coming through the recording they have to record just like a live show. This all goes back to the concept of the FWFO — individually they are all great players, but when put together they make an exceptional team.