I went up to the mountains, I went down to the seas/And I ain't found nothing better than what I brought with me/I got a nickel, I got a nickel bag of funk! Do you want it?
With this pronouncement, sung in an octave-leaping Stevie Wonder voice over percolating bass, drums and be-bopping baritone sax, Leslie Adele throws her business card on the table. Adele's song, and her band, are both called A Nickel Bag of Funk. And the long-gestating debut album, unveiled this week, is titled Melodic Schizophrenic.
Adele's partners in Nick-Bag are the powerful drummer Jermaine Baker, and keyboard wizard Willie Jones, who handles everything from synth to church organ to bass runs. The band's intoxicating brew of R&B and jazz (both old- and new-school), funk, hip hop, rock and roll and pop, has made it unique among Savannah live units for the past four years.
The dynamic Adele is the engine that makes the machine operate. She wrote or co-wrote every song on Melodic Schizophrenic, and while they're stylistically all over the map, they benefit from her strong lyrics, her intoxicating melodies, and most of all from her expressive voice. She's Chaka Khan at one end of her range, Toni Braxton in the middle, and Ella Fitzgerald at the other end.
"There's a country song on this album," Adele says. "There's a Duke Ellington-esque, swinging jazz song on this album. Because that's what goes on in my head. I have many, many different voices in my head, but they all sing to me. That's why I chose the title Melodic Schizophrenic.
"All the voices in my head sing to me — they don't tell me to do bad stuff! They give me inspiration to write all kinds of different music."
A Savannah native, Adele began singing in church as a child. Although she's dabbled in a couple of different careers, she says that she always knew music was her true calling. "Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved being onstage," she says. "I love the applause. I don't live for it — if you do that, you're a trained seal."
She also loves to confound.
"I am just phobic of being stuck in a box," Adele explains. "I don't ever want to anybody to look at our band and its visual makeup and say 'These guys can't play that kind of music, 'cause they look like this.' Or 'She can't sing because she looks like that.' I can be onstage in my Chuck Taylors, and my mohawk in five colors, and sing 'Ave Maria' with the best of 'em. That's how and I live and that's how I write."
She says she, Baker and Jones get a kick out of playing in a new town and blowing expectations out of the water. The band's name, for example, which comes from a song by Digable Planets, makes them sound like a Parliament/Funkadelic clone, or some sort of freaky hip hop band.
"Or a bunch of hippie stoners," laughs Adele, "or a jam band. And we're none of those things. It's all about taking the paradigm and flipping people on their ear. It's meant to antagonize in that way; it's meant to poke and prod at people's perceptions and misconceptions about what we do, and what I do, just because of the way I look."
Melodic Schizophrenic includes a hypnotic Latin-tinged ballad ("Baile Lover"), with gut-string guitar from Randy Cuba, and a rich blanket of harmony vocals all overdubbed by Adele herself.
"The Last Biscuit" is a Crusaders-styled jazz instrumental, with guest Eric Moore on bass; "Shake That Leg" is a bumpy, horn-driven New Orleans funk song that defies you to get up and dance. The pretty "One Call Away" could be a lost outtake from Thriller.
And then there's "Rockstar," a high-energy rock/soul sizzler with rapid-fire verses spit by Lloyd "KidSyc" Harold, Steve "Basik Lee" Baumgardner and Adele herself. Rappin' Leslie.
Many of the songs are linked with humorous spoken-word breaks from Tre Moore (aka Trestyle), the band's newest member. He sings alongside Adele at the live shows.
Saturday's album-release show at Dollhouse will also include a set from the jazz/funk/fusion instrumental band the Royal Noise; several members of the group, including guitarist Johan Harvey, were in an earlier incarnation of A Nickel Bag of Funk. Royal Noise saxman Mike LaBombard is all over Melodic Schizophrenic.
It was after the Royal Noise guys left that Adele met Baker and Jones, Savannah natives both, and recruited them for her band.
"At first," Adele remembers, "they looked at the set list and kinda went 'Britney Spears, Guns N Roses and Jay Z? This doesn't make any sense. Don't you know any Parliament?' It took about a month of looking at this set list before they stopped thinking 'She's out of her mind.'"
Eventually, the other musicians got it. "Everything has soul, everything — country, rock, ska, pop, jazz — and if you can pinpoint the soul in a song, and highlight that and bring it out, it doesn't matter if you're black or white," Adele believes.
"When it became a three-piece, that's when it got really interesting," says Willie Jones. "Because we had to flip rock songs with just keyboards and drums, and still rock. Leslie's out front, and she rocks the crowd for real, and goes in."
Onstage, he explains, "We're reading each other, and reading the crowd at the same time. It's very spontaneous. You don't go in with a game plan. We'll go from Britney to Rolling Stones to Montell Jordan to Drake. When I say spontaneous, we don't even know what we're gonna do half of the time.
"Leslie's like a guru. She's quick on her feet. She can flip any song, and it goes well. She'll say 'Stay right there ...' We were playing that new Drake song, 'Going Home,' and she started singing "Do You remember?" and we went into 'Remember the Time,' Michael Jackson."
Melodic Schizophrenic was a long time in the making, Adele admits, because she had some learning to do first.
"I did all those things my mother said you need to do to be a respectable adult," she says. "Her thing was 'You act like you're my child. You act like you've had some home training.'"
Live shows, no problem. A Nickel Bag of Funk runs on punctuality, politeness and good vibes. "Because no matter how good you play, if you're a jerk nobody's going to let you come in and work. So in all those things, my mother's rules definitely do apply."
Ah, but financing the record's completion and national distribution required a bank loan, and some serious financial restructuring. Leslie Adele and A Nickel Bag of Funk now have a lawyer and an accountant.
"It was kind of like a crash course in branding," laughs Adele. "I had to grow it up and put my businesswoman hat on really, really fast.
"This wasn't supposed to be a real job! Wait, I wasn't supposed to have to do math! It was my mom, in my ear, saying 'You never know when you're going to need this.'"