In music, there’s something called a ghost note—a nearly silent note that’s felt more than it is heard. Legendary funk and rock drummer Bernard Purdie helped popularize the technique, but the James Brown drummers really brought it into popularity. A classic example of the technique is drummer Clyde Stubblefield’s beat in Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” If you listen carefully, you can hear barely audible drum hits that give the song a tight, rhythmic complexity.
Admittedly, a ghost note is a bit of an abstract concept. Drummer Robert “Sput” Searight describes them as the things you hear subtly that don’t stand out.
“It’s the thing that makes you dance, but you don’t realize it,” he says. “It’s the subtlety and finesse of drumming and music.”
Searight would know. The longtime drummer for jazz outfit Snarky Puppy, he named his percussion-based side project Ghost-Note after the phenomenon. In Ghost-Note, he and Snarky Puppy percussionist Nate Werth create rhythm-driven, textured music rooted in jazz, funk, hip-hop and international styles. The two have a strong commitment to musical innovation and to prioritizing music over personality.
“We both consider ourselves percussionists and drummers that play from a musical standpoint,” says Searight. “We don’t always consider ourselves having to be featured on songs. The music comes first.”
In Snarky Puppy, the two frequently take solos together and are so familiar with each other’s style that they can, according to Searight, finish each other’s sentences. Their ability to sync up musically has established them as one of the great rhythmic teams in contemporary jazz.
“Over the years, we just developed this ability to play together in a way that’s unique,” he says. “We sound like one drummer at times.”
After years of collaborating this way in Snarky Puppy, Searight and Werth decided to create a concept album showcasing their deep sense of groove and musical connection. They recorded Fortified in 2015, thinking Ghost-Note would just be a one-album project. The two spent a lot of time in the studio, overdubbing tracks over their live playing to create a full band sound. When it came time to tour, however, they found they couldn’t recreate live what they had created in the studio. They enlisted the help of friends, and Ghost-Note the band was born.
Now a seven-piece, with horns, bass, keyboard, percussion and drums, Ghost-Note draws inspiration from James Brown, J Dilla, West African music, Afro-Cuban folklorico and Brazilian samba. As with Snarky Puppy, the members all have other projects they work on and other people they play with. They perform with Ghost-Note when schedules allow. This works well to keep members engaged and the Ghost-Note sound fresh.
“I wouldn’t call it a collective,” says Searight, “but we do have a roster of guys that come in and out that we consider band members.”
These days, the band is heavy on funk. With the makings of a groove-heavy horn band, and roots in the classic funk era, the evolution from percussion concept album to funk band feels organic and true to its early inspiration: ghost notes that make you dance without knowing why.
The band recently recorded a new album—due out in October—in New Orleans at the Parlor Recording Studios, which Searight describes as “one of the baddest studios on this side of the Earth—a thing of beauty.”
When asked what makes it so special, Searight explains that it has some of the best equipment you can play through and record to, and a reverb chamber the band “had a lot of fun with.” The rooms all have unique character, and, since it’s in the middle of the city, you can “get the whole Cajun, New Orleans experience” while you record an album.
The recording experience strengthened the strong, music-first ethos between Searight and Werth, and furthered the members’ appreciation of making music together.
“It’s been cool to be a part of music making,” Searight says, “and not just rhythms, not just making up beats.”
Ghost-Note will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 27 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10/adv, $15/door. 479-1854.