The amusing name Slavic Soul Party! conjures up thoughts of East European musicians playing covers of James Brown, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett songs -- and that isn't such an outlandish idea because classic '60s and '70s soul does, in fact, have a lot of fans in that part of the world. But Slavic Soul Party! is actually a group of New York-based jazz musicians who, in the early 2000s, put their own spin on the instrumental folk music of Macedonia and the Balkans. Although Balkan-oriented, Slavic Soul Party! is not purist and is not totally traditional in its approach. Rather, the five members of Slavic Soul Party! bring elements of jazz and funk to a Balkan foundation. Slavic Soul Party! is also willing to incorporate elements of Indian, Russian, and Jewish music at times. Although not a klezmer band, Slavic Soul Party! has been influenced by klezmer -- and in Lower Manhattan jazz circles, the quintet has fared well among fans of New York's klezmer jazz movement (which makes sense because there are parallels between klezmer and Balkan music). Clearly, the members of Slavic Soul Party! are drawn to instrumental Balkan music for the same reason they're drawn to jazz: they love to improvise. Like jazz -- or, for that matter, klezmer -- traditional Balkan music can be full of improvisation. And Slavic Soul Party! has found the parallels between Balkan music and jazz, which is why it is perfectly natural for the band to include Duke Ellington's "Blue Pepper" (from 1966's ambitious The Far East Suite) in its repertoire.
All five of the band's members have jazz backgrounds; that is true of trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, cornetist Rossen Zahariev, and clarinetist Chris Speed as well as drummer Matt Moran and accordion player Ted Reichman. In fact, three of Slavic Soul Party!'s members -- Moran, Speed, and Reichman -- are also members of John Hollenback's Claudia Quartet. Speed, who is comfortable with both inside and outside improvisation, has worked as sideman for pianist Myra Melford and trumpeter Dave Douglas -- he has also done some recording as a leader. Reichman, meanwhile, has also worked in some of the more experimental jazz settings; his employers have ranged from Douglas to Uri Caine. A flexible jazzman, Moran has played with big-band veteran Lionel Hampton but has embraced more experimental jazz with pianist Paul Bley, bassist William Parker, arranger/band leader George Russell, and third stream icon Gunther Schuller. And while Hasselbring has been employed as a sideman by drummer Bobby Previte and trumpeter Tom Harrell, Zahariev has played with organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame), pianist Steve Kuhn, and singer Abbey Lincoln. Most of the band's members were born in the United States, but Zahariev is the exception -- he is a native of Bulgaria, where Balkan music has existed for centuries. After playing most of their gigs in Lower Manhattan, the members of Slavic Soul Party! decided to visit the part of the world that spawned Balkan music. In October 2000, the quintet toured Macedonia and taped some of their performances; that tour resulted in the live album In Makedonija, which Knitting Factory Records released in 2002. ~ Alex Henderson