What do you call a musical gumbo that recalls the ancestral strut and joie de vivre of the New Orleans’ Tremé, the drama and ecstasy of the church’s wailing floor, and the suited-up sophistication of jazz threaded with the party funk of Parliament? What do you name sounds that hail from Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the red dirt South all at once? How do you label music that simultaneously evokes all of the uncontainable energies and passions exploding from so many disparate musical legacies? Here we call it Water Seed.
The origins of this hybridity reflecting the diverse feels and experiences of Black America begin in New Orleans, the birthplace of multi-instrumentalists Lou Hill and J Sharp, the architects of Water Seed’s cool, elemental sound. The band’s privileging of rhythm and groove, the elegant jazz flourishes, and lyrical songs deeply rooted in both alchemists’ classical education, all hint at the sacred training grounds that sharpened Louisiana jazz greats from Jelly Roll Morton to the Marsalis Brothers, creators known for marrying the traditional with the modern in the creation of the new.
Preternaturally aware of their paths fairly early, Hill began playing the alto sax in fourth grade while Sharp was developing his piano chops over the three-notes of “Hot Crossed Buns” at the tender age of five. Both learned as children to respect their crafts through studious dedication, rigorous practice schedules, and trying their hand at several different instruments before landing on their primary tools of musical expression, the percussion for Hill and the keys for Sharp, each finding their home.
These curators’ apprentice journeys took different paths, reflecting different exposures. Sharp reared in a home of classical music, engaged in demanding training while nursing concerto circuit dreams. Hill was immersed in the radio R&B and funk of the day and the jazz culture of his storied surroundings. Both formally trained in esteemed music programs, Sharp through the famed NOCCA, the Jazz and Heritage School at Southern University and Dillard University, Hill at the venerated Xavier University. With his first rock/funk/jazz band, Afrodeezifunk, Hill’s fine-tuning came through constant club gigs, an ill-fated record deal that ended as abruptly as it started, and later on the go-go and funk stages of Washington, DC. As a nightclub gigging teen, Sharp’s refinement wasn’t too far behind Hill, after a decisive turn toward the synthesized sounds and arrangements of Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. Two college-age young artists—one barely out of high school—securing professional gigs, each starting their own bands, developing cult followings, and esteemed reputations in N’awlins incestuously small musical pond; there’s a kismet there. It was inevitable they would meet and discuss the Earth Wind and Fire-inspired band and production company Hill had started, Water Seed, though it would take a mutual friend’s recommendation to land the then 18-year old Sharp behind Water Seed’s trademark keys.
Conceptually on the same page in training and musical direction, Hill and Sharp developed and eventually evolved a writing process that became more mutually collaborative over several independent releases. A brief creative rift followed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, separated the songwriting and composition team for a time, before Hill and Sharp reconvened Water Seed in Atlanta’s burgeoning music scene and really began to flourish.
Enter Pasadena bred flautist, Cinese. Inspired by the legendary Bobbi Humphrey, the orchestral-trained Cinese switched to jazz after a 10-year business and school-led hiatus with music. Answering a Craigslist ad for Water Seed, Cinese learned her classical meets jazz foundation found nice complements with Hill and Sharp’s, rounding out their sound.
Now, with a five-piece band that eventually included bass player Marius Tilton and lead vocalist Ryan Johnson, the concept albums soon followed. Their self-released, experimental 2006 EP debut, Two Words, uncovered an avant-garde Water Seed sound. Recorded live and direct at Atlanta’s Apache Café, their second indie release, 2008’s Early for the Future, boasted covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and originals like “Dance in the Sunshine,” earning critical praise and awards nominations for Best R&B Group with respected outfits like SoulTracks.com. Positive buzz begat opening opportunities for revered musicians like N’Dambi and Janelle Monae, a three-month musical residency in Russia, and an international reputation as one of the few touring black American bands’ offering a truly electric live experience. By the time the orchestral, “futuristic funk” of the comic book derived Fresh was delivered to fans in 2010, more soul-pop songs like “Magnificent” announced a sound change: exit Ryan Johnson and enter Shaleyah.
Houston born, blues and gospel influenced singer Shaleyah took the trainings of the Texas Mass Choir and the Gospel Music Workshop of America and brought them to Clark Atlanta University’s Philharmonic Society before ultimately blending these well-traveled gifts with the Water Seed sound on Fresh and 2013’s Top 100 selling iTunes release, Wonder Love.
Now on Wonder Love 2, the second volume of their two-volume Wonder Love release, Shaleyah is joined by new keyboardist Anthony Duplessis, as well as respected guest artists: Jon Bibb, Lara Bell, Dain Harris, Kev Choice, and saxophonist Clarence Johnson III, on what is the band’s most volcanically emotional release to-date. Having gelled and matured into a distinctive force on Wonder Love 1, on its sequel, Water Seed continues exploring love’s many faces with a fiery urgency and indisputable power. The Latin groove of “Build Me Up,” featuring a truth-seeking Jon Bibbs, digs deeper into the honest needs of men in love. The Jackson 5 insistence and percussive throbbing of “Show Work and Prove” starring the deliciously re-emergent ATL star, Dain Harris, stamps a no-nonsense approach to love’s obligations. The founders’ classical beginnings gets revealed on the shimmering piano and ethereal woodwinds ballad of the title track with a haunting Lara Bell painting a respectfully awed portrait of aimer’s vulnerable fall. That reverence is complimented by the sinewy sophistication of “I’m Trying” and the gospel-tinged fusion of “Creep/Love Somebody” which uncovers romantic affairs with the sage, interrogative eye of reflective artists. Through a dynamic series of musical transitions, “Shine” delivers such a celebratory anthem of a covenant made solid as a rock. Its crumbling through the blues of “Vent” and multi-choral pain in “Move On,” featuring the wizened flow of Kev Choice, leaves listeners suitably crushed following the many thin-aired highs before it. Rounding out Wonder Love 2 are the opening Mardi Gras backbeat of the marching “Nola Brown” and closing moonlight groove of “Daisy Chain,” each instrumental illustrating the N’awlin’s dance of Water Seed at play.
Coming off the success of Wonder Love with premium bookings at NYC’s revered Blue Note and the Essence Music Festival, Water Seed reemerges with their second love offering in Wonder Love 2. Following the tumultuous rivers of cast changes, flood devastations, and sound revolutions, the triumphant multi-genre fusion band beckons fans with a more peaceful, if powerfully soulful flow. Come on in, the water is just fine.