The Essentials aren’t what you might expect to find in Eugene’s local music scene. They’re not burned-out hippies, high-school dropouts or indie punk rockers.
Many of them have degrees from the University, and those who don’t are well on their way.
The 10-member jazz/soul/funk band from Eugene is entirely made up of University students and alumni, making its mark on the local music scene with its balanced and eclectic mix of cover songs and original music.
The group, which has been together for two years now, was the creation of University graduate Gabe Dickinson, the band’s alto saxophone player.
“I had tried this before (with different types of bands)… but this was the first one that stuck,” he said, adding that he found the group’s lead singer, Neil Thurston, when Thurston was singing karaoke at Taylor’s Bar and Grille.
Thurston’s vocals are really the focal point of the band’s music.
“Neil’s voice is one of the defining characteristics of our sound,” said the group’s drummer, John Kalny.
His soulful, timeless voice is a perfect addition to the variety of music and the layers of instruments utilized by The Essentials. On their debut album, titled “The Essentials,” Thurston’s voice is featured prominently. The album’s opening track, “In Your Corner,” starts off as a jazzy Motown sendback, until Bill Marsh’s guitar takes control and the song takes on a more modern feeling. In the midst of it all, Thurston’s voice shines. On tracks like “Bring Me Down Some” and “Bittersweet Reality,” backup singer Myeshia Cleveland’s vocals are a perfect complement to Thurston’s sound, adding yet another layer to the already rich sound of their music.
The album’s second-to-last track, “Spin,” reflects the band’s rich sound with its catchy, rhythmic chorus that will have you moving and that will get in your head and stay there, transitioning perfectly into the album’s closing track, the funky, soulful “Bittersweet Reality.”
The album is packed with solid music – so solid that there’s no way to tell that a good portion of the music was recorded after classes at Ground Control Studios, a recording studio located within Kalny’s house.
The group doesn’t just shine in the studio; when it comes to performing, they like to keep things interesting as well.
“I always write a set list but I never stick to it,” Dickinson said. “I like to keep people dancing.”
One way they keep the dance floor moving is by bringing out the heavy-hitters like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
“That’ll fill the dance floor,” Dickinson said.
In addition to Marvin Gaye, The Essentials cite Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power and Jamiroquai as major musical influences in their art, a mix one member calls “pleasantly eclectic.” With a wide range of influences, it’s no surprise that their music appeals to a varied audience as well.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of people who like what we do,” Kalny said.
Dickinson added that college students make up a good portion of their fans, which might not be expected with the college music scene’s emphasis on alternative music.
“Our music may not be Top 40 all the time, but that doesn’t mean people don’t like it,” he said.
For the musicians of The Essentials, finding a balance between school and music is nothing new – nine of the group’s 10 members are music majors.
“We’re all students studying music,” Marsh said. “We’re professionals earning our degrees in what we do.”
Their work may sometimes get in the way of school, but it’s okay – they’re music majors. “You just say ‘sorry, I got a gig,’ and (our professors) understand,” Marsh said.
In the last year, the Essentials have had more than 30 shows in the area, putting their balancing act to frequent work, and after two years of being together and performing at the Eugene area’s various venues, including the Cuthbert Amphitheater and the Moshofsky Center, The Essentials are ready for their big break. Their self-titled debut album comes out this month and features 11 original tracks and one cover, Billy Paul’s classic “Me and Mrs. Jones” – a fan favorite.
They’re all excited to get their work officially out there and into their fans’ hands, but making the album was a lengthy process; some of the disc’s songs were written years ago, when Dickinson was still in high school, while others were written more recently.
“We were kind of far away a month ago from (the album) being finished,” Dickinson said, but a lot of late, sleepless nights went into making their dreams a reality, and this weekend the group will finally see the results of their hard work when they have a release party for the album on Saturday the 14th, at Latitude 21 in Eugene.
Starting at 10:00 p.m., The Essentials, along with the Brothers of Beat and Disco Organica, will be performing at the event that the band’s MySpace page describes as “essentially the most important event of the Millennium.” Strong words, yes, but if The Essentials continue to rise up and stand out, those words just may prove to be true.