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.
At the Pageant gig, the Sessions' extended family -- the core members augmented by Lliam Christy and Lamar Harris -- will be joined by Slang founder and DJ Vince Lawrence; his vocalists, Nikki Lynette and Katia; the Nuclear Percussion Ensemble; and DJ Astroboy. Larger than most of the venues the Sessions play, the Pageant is a perfect fit for the group's wide-ranging audience. Tucci jokingly calls their sound "new pop" because they perform at everything from computer-convention cocktail parties to weddings, not to mention regular gigs at Nik's, Miso and the Delmar and Pepper lounges.
As the Sessions' performance résumé indicates, St. Louis is digging it and getting it. Tucci is a bit surprised but very grateful for the support. Because venues are willing to be ever-so-slightly innovative, it might just be a point that the Chamber of Commerce could bandwagon. "It's making it so much cooler to be here!" Tucci exclaims. "Our biggest compliments come from people from out of state who say we remind them of their homes -- Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, LA -- so that's exciting."
St. Louis may be a little slow, but the music community is far from dumb. Hansen attributes the band's local success to a collaborative, mutually supportive dance scene: "This wouldn't be possible, for us to be moving like this, if there weren't other great acts out there pushing for it like the Urban Jazz Naturals, like Astroboy, like SF & Edgar, Boomer and that whole crew, Steve O and those cats."
The Sessions hope to branch out to markets outside of St. Louis, but they're being cautious at first. Although most of their shows have been in Missouri, they expect to start touring farther afield, with gigs in Chicago and on both coasts. And although the Sessions want to wait and see how this album does before jumping into any other projects, Tucci says she's hopeful that some house remixes will result. "Already we know that it's going to be a great remix project," she says. "There's so many different parts going on in each song that [remixers] could really cling on to any part that they feel and go with that." This may sound like empty speculation, but it's not: DJ Lego, Slater Hogan and Cyberjive have already expressed interest in working with the group.
The ultimate goal is still more ambitious: to create a lasting sound for the masses. "I really feel like it's meant to be on a big stage with big sound, big lights and lots of people movin' and taking it all the way," Hansen says.
With all these successes, Hansen and Tucci are enjoying personal victories as well: They are getting married in three months. Although their bond is obvious -- they bicker and finish each other's sentences -- they're both adamant in their conviction that without many other people, both current and former players, the Hot House Sessions wouldn't be possible. Explains Tucci: "We definitely have a support team -- from our photographers to our graphic designers, the accountants and lawyers who have really had our back -- and they've invested in us to see us grow."
Here's to their future longevity -- both as a couple and as a collective.