Polyrhythmics: All for One and One for All

The band’s name suggests a sound that draws from the complex and intricate rhythms of the African musical tradition. But while Seattle-based Polyrhythmics began with Afrobeat as a musical starting point, the group has since expanded upon that framework to craft a sound all its own. The group – perhaps better described as a collective – released its debut album, Labrador, in 2011. Today, Polyrhythmics’ catalog features six albums, a pair of EPs and a half dozen singles. And the style and sound found therein is one that will confound those intent on pigeonholing the group into one or another genre.

Polyrhythmics saxophonist/flautist Art Brown laughs when that conundrum is pointed out. “The whole ‘labeling’ discussion confounds us as band members, too,” he says. Noting that the original concept came from founders Ben Bloom (guitar) and drummer Grant Schroff, Brown says that Polyrhythmics did begin with musical touchstones that included Fela Kuti and Antibalas. “That’s how it was pitched to me,” he says. But as the vision – and the group – expanded, a horn section became an integral part of the group’s character. “And I think we’ve branched out significantly,” Brown says.

The sonic realignment wasn’t intentional; it was more a factor of exploring the unique collective character that the seven-man lineup brought to the music. And constant touring meant that the group’s style, strength, cohesion and versatility only grew.

Polyrhythmics’ first three albums were released by a small, Canada-based label specializing in vinyl releases of instrumental funk and Afrobeat. By 2017 the group had shifted to self-releasing its music, but a fortuitous meeting helped bring the band to a wider audience. “Ben had been a fan of The New Mastersounds for several years,” Brown recalls. And when Bloom turned his band mates on to the deep-groove boogaloo funk of the foursome from Leeds, England, they were impressed as well. “I thought they were just incredible,” Brown says.

A mutual respect and friendship grew between members of the two bands, and when New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts launched his own label, Color Red, Polyrhythmics arranged for a pair of releases on the new imprint. 2020’s Man From the Future (reviewed here) has a sound that will appeal to fans of Roberts’ group, but the addition of those complex rhythms – shades of James Brown, Maceo Parker and George Clinton – asserts the group’s unique musical identity.

Man of the Future’s sonic textures also took the music in a moodier direction; the group’s website uses words like “sinister” and “dark” to describe the sound. But that was only one of many sides to the band; at almost the same time, they released another disc. A five-song, twelve-inch EP called Fondue Party (also reviewed here) showed Polyrhythmics’ playful side. With cover art that emphasized the retro character within, Fondue Party recalls classic genre-blurring releases like Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground and Push Push.

Like Man From the Future, the EP (designed to be played at 45 r.p.m.) featured all original material, composed by a group member and/or various combinations of members. Taken together, the two pandemic-era releases showcased the multifaceted nature of Polyrhythmics’ music.

Having parted with Color Red on amicable terms, the group returned to self-releasing for 2023’s Filter System. This time, Polyrhythmics have found a way to display all of their assets – songwriting, arrangement, eclecticism, top-notch musicianship and an incredibly tight ensemble approach – into a single disc. The stuttering, deep funk of cuts like “Clydesdale” display a grounding in Afrobeat, but take the listener to other intriguing destinations as well.

As bracing and high-energy as Polyrhthmics’ music is, there’s an undercurrent of urbane sophistication and subtlety on the studio cuts. And Brown concedes that getting that subtlety across in a live setting can present a challenge. “For me, that level of patience – of pacing, of telling a story with music – was really difficult at first,” he says. He explains that his jazz background emphasizes improvisation, an approach in which “multiple stories are being told from soloist to soloist.”

But Brown says the longer, more groove-oriented approach employed by Polyrhthmics means that a more intentional approach is required. “There’s a lot of ego that needs to be taken away,” he says with a chuckle. “I have to take myself out of it and think more about the journey, the story that we’re telling as a group.”

While it’s carefully thought-out, the Polyrhythmics approach isn’t solely inward-looking. “It’s definitely at the forefront of all our minds: What does the journey look like for the audience? Are they with us?” Brown says that that connection with listeners is a core tenet of what Polyrhythmics is about. Groove and long-form storytelling are the group’s foundational values. “And,” he emphasizes, “doing it all as a group, rather than one person in the front with the rest in the back.”