"Of course, we learn from the experiences of making our previous albums, but I feel that this one is the one we all felt the strongest about," says Groundation frontman Harrison Stafford, speaking of his band's seventh album Here I Am. "When it comes to the music and songs, all nine musicians play crucial roles. It's much more of an evolved sound, much more of a group sound ... we're definitely feeling that what we have now is our best work at the moment."
For over 10 years, Stafford has led his spiritualized reggae ensemble from their earliest days in the northern California scene through a world-wide musical journey that continues to aim far. In the middle of the second leg of their 2009 world tour, Groundation visits the Pour House on Friday for two full sets.
Warmly textured and rhythmically elaborate, Here I Am is firmly anchored in classic roots reggae styles. The impressive proficiency and chemistry of the musicians and the additional vocal harmonies of recently-enlisted Jamaican vocalist Kim Pommell and Stephanie Wallace allow for even more sophisticated stylistic forays.
"We've learned everyone's strengths, and we've learned where everything needs to go in the songs," says Stafford. "It's a collective effort. These are great players, and it's a nice thing to spotlight them all during the shows. We sing about community, unity, and people coming together. I think the togetherness comes through musically. There's a collective balance, and people can get that."
Some of the songs on Here I Am lean in jazzy direction. It's a lively sonic fusion.
"Maybe those people who say they don't really like reggae can get into it here," Stafford says of the new music. "Maybe we can help bridge that gap and lead them to Burning Spear, Bob Marley, and all of the rest of the great reggae artists who came out Jamaica. Maybe somebody is a big roots-reggae fan, starts listening to Groundation, and starts hearing other music things happening."
Stafford's bandmates include Ryan Newman on bass and Marcus Urani on organ and keys, who helped form the band in 1998. The current lineup includes trumpeter David Chachere, trombonist Kelsey Howard, drummer Tekanawa "Rufus" Haereiti, percussionist Mingo Lewis Jr., and Pommell and Wallace on vocals.
"A lot of us have that huge jazz foundation, from when we were first inspired and pushed as musicians," says Stafford.
Over the years, Groundation garnered a strong reputation for their animated and exploratory live performances. Unlike some more traditional (and comfortably categorized) roots-reggae acts, they eagerly step toward risky instrumental excursions and mini-jams.
"I think that's the thing that really helps us, especially when we play the big reggae music festivals," says Stafford. "With us, you'll see all nine musicians work together in a different way — like a family. We move together. There's constant improvisation, which obviously comes from the jazz side of things.
"Expect the unexpected," he adds. "If the people are there and the energy is there, it will push us further and further to create an energy circle between us and the audience. To me, if you're not really live, not really improvising, and not really feeling where the audience wants to go, you can't really reach those great heights. That's something that's very special."