“Suga Top” is the slang name for a “black” district in Pittsburgh. Hill District, as it’s officially known, is on one of the hills that dominate the cityscape of the former “steel town” in the USA. It is one of these Afro-American communities with their middleclass population which can still be found in many US cities. Poogie Bell was born in Suga Top in 1961. Growing up in the atmosphere of this district in Pittsburgh was to have a formative influence on the young Poogie: with the cohesion of the neighbourhood, with its culture in general and the music in particular, that can be heard and experienced there everywhere; mainly gospel and soul, both of which are practically identity-forming for the people in Hill District, but also Soul, Funk and above all Jazz – his father Charles Bell was an outstanding Jazz pianist. In short: the drummer Poogie Bell is firmly rooted in Suga Top.
“Authenticity” – that is the key word that runs like the proverbial red thread through the entire career of the drummer Poogie Bell. Whether that be in the various bands of the bass guitarist Marcus Miller, for whose ingenious Jazz fusion Bell had provided the percussion for almost 20 years, or in the “super group” SMW with Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller und Victor Wooten, whose soloist flights on the bass guitar were grounded by Bell with casual elegance and a reduced style.
For Poogie, however, who, over the course of a long career as side man with, among others, Tom Browne, Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, Keith Sweat and, above all, Erika Badu, helped to codetermine the course of “black” Jazz and Pop music from the USA, two unusual cooperations stand out in particular: one with the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, with whom he toured South Africa along with Miriam Makeba, also known as “Mama Africa”, and one with the singer Angélique Kidjo from Benin in West Africa. These experiences brought him as an Afro-American musician even closer to the polyrhythms of Africa.
It’s not really enough to listen to Poogie Bell’s new CD “Suga Top” – his fifth album as leader – under the heading of mere “biography”. The 15 tracks represent, rather, the quintessence of Poogie’s career to date with all the ingredients of Funk and Soul, Blues and Pop, combined with the spirit of Jazz. But above all, Poogie digs deep into his own (family) history.
As the album title suggests, Poogie Bell, who moved back to the city of his birth with his family in 2001, is taking a look back at all that he learned and experienced as a small boy in Pittsburgh’s Hill District – but through the “spectacles” of a 52-year-old Afro-American musician. This is why a subtle gospel phrase often opens itself to Soul music, or a strong backbeat groove flows into the Blues.
The band, of course, makes a major contribution towards the authentic atmosphere of “Suga Top”. On the one hand, because most of the participating musicians – Bobby Sparks on keyboards for example, or the saxophonists Chris Hemmingway and Keith Anderson and the acclaimed Jazz trumpeter Michael “Patches” Stewart – all look back on a more or less concrete Gospel background. On the other hand, because Poogie deliberately intended to take the spirit of an Afro-American community into the studio: with the similar experiences they had as black US citizens and as musicians.
That is the only way that the highly expressive song material on “Suga Top” can be played. Usually there was just a simple basic idea – sometimes a catchy melodic phrase or a plucked-out groove, and then again a brief harmonious reverse – over which the musicians jammed during the recording. With this the band initiated a creative production process at the end of which the finished song is created- for example “One Love” or “Greasy Chicken”, a kind of “intuitive” paraphrase of D’Angelo’s hit “Chicken Grease”. And last but by no means least, the singers that Poogie Bell invited to take part in the production of “Suga Top”. In particular Mey, who, as a Bulgarian-born vocalist (sic!), is immersed in the traditions of Afro-American Pop and Jazz music.
“Suga Top” is, however, also a kind of “Manifesto of Groove”. Because this rhythmic phenomenon is not just some myth that cannot be explained let alone played. For Poogie Bell, grooving certainly presents no problems. “With the bass drum I follow the quarter notes from the bass that I can usually only feel, to create a basis for the music,” he explains. “As soon as the link is created between bass drum and bass, you can use the left and right hand on the drum more variably. If, for example, in the tandem of bass drum/bass the right hand hits the cymbal before the beat and the left hand is “laid back” playing the snare drum, then the music suddenly begins to breathe and to level.” This is the “miracle” that is manifested in “Suga Top”.