The Park is probably the best San Francisco band you don't know you've heard. With its knack for modern updates of the vintage soul, jazz, and funk sounds hip-hop producers have sampled for years, the trio has lately kept busy working on critically acclaimed albums and live shows by cult early-'70s Bay Area soul man Darondo; feisty U.K. chanteuse Alice Russell; Tanya Morgan's MC, Donwill; and dance-pop band Wallpaper. Isn't it time for the Park to be out in front?
Drummer Derek Taylor, bassist Josh Lippi, and keyboardist Ben Schwier got started in the old-school soul band Bucho. After a car accident in 2002 left their lead singer partially paralyzed, the trio decided to continue, tapping into the rich vein of musical talent that surrounded them. "Living in San Francisco, we were around lots of singer-songwriters, artists, and MCs from all different scenes who needed a backing band," Taylor says. "We wanted to be that park they could play in, whatever their style."
That approach certainly has worked well for others. "What the Roots do is definitely an inspiration," Taylor says of hip-hop's premier backing unit, known as much for supporting Jay-Z on tour and holding it down as Jimmy Fallon's house band as for its eight studio albums. Taylor cops to basing his senior thesis on analyzing Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's playing on "Concerto of the Desperado," so even if the Park hasn't purposely emulated the Roots, nobody here minds the comparison. And one important difference remains: The Roots set out as a studio band before becoming known for their ability to play live, but the Park has taken an opposite route.
Their musical recreation area began as a tiny rehearsal spot at 26th and Third streets. Although too cramped and prone to water damage from an overflowing toilet, that space worked just fine for kicking off the Wednesday Night Sessions, a series of sit-ins where local musicians came to jam with the band and mingle with appreciative fans from disparate backgrounds.
"That gig for us was about embracing the community aspect, making it a safe place for people to come and get down musically," Taylor says. "We'd have Hells Angels there mixing with thugs from Richmond and Oakland, and b-boys next to yuppies. We've even had people dating from meeting there!" Lippi adds, "We learned our musical chops there, playing continuous music from 10:30 p.m. until 2 a.m."
Today, the Wednesday Night Sessions continue at Mojito in North Beach. The longevity of the venture owes much to the variety of its visitors — including musicians who've worked with Ludacris, Lauryn Hill, and Keyshia Cole, plus freestyle-proficient MCs Wonway, Gavin Grant, and Bicasso of the Living Legends collective. But while the guests hail from a wide community, it's the founders' close musical kinship that keeps their sound watertight.
The members of the Park insist that the inclusive vibe of the Wednesday Night Sessions will always be integral to their appeal, but they're also aware that even the most acclaimed rhythm section for hire is defined by the artists it supports. As 2010 continues, they will indeed be moving forward, most notably with their own debut album. "It will sound funky and good, and we hope it will feature most of the artists we've worked with," Lippi says. But this time, the Park sets the agenda. "Oddly, I'm very excited by the idea of being recognized for our own record," Taylor says. So maybe by year's end, the thing about the Park will be that you actually know you've heard it.