There’s this part on Celina, the new record by Nashville-based jazz-soul-R&B fusion outfit Dynamo, when the song ends and the audience claps. Oh, this is live? The mix is pristine, the band is on fire. The audience, you can tell, is dialed in.
But Celina is not a live record; at least, it’s not billed that way. The next song ends, the studio audience claps again, and even though you should know better, you’re still surprised. Wow, this is live.
“For us, when we perform,” says Ryan Connors—Dynamo founder, pianist and principal arranger—via phone call to Behind the Setlist, “that’s captured best when we play live and there’s an audience with us. Everyone’s feeding off of each other and feeding off the audience, and I think that comes across in the recording.”
It’s a recipe that works.
Celina, out May 5, was recorded over three days and uses the best takes from seven different performances. Other than cherry-picking the best take of a song, the final product is natural and honest. No overdubbing.
“Thankful,” the album’s opening track and lead single, has a rich, big band feel with a smooth chorus reminiscent of Michael Bublé. “Carried Away,” featuring Brooklyn-based singer Jonathan Hoard, is another standout track that covers four of five genres in the span of six minutes, including gospel, jazz and blues. At the four minute, 25-second mark, an electric guitar bursts out of nowhere and takes over the tune with a soaring solo that rivals Clapton’s “Crossroads.”
There is something special going on here and it starts with the talent. On any given day, Dynamo has nine dedicated members, which includes keys, woodwinds, brass, percussion, guitars and vocals. On Celina, upwards of 20 musicians contributed to the final product, comprising a large-scale cooperative effort uncommonly seen in the DIY space.
“There was collaboration from everyone involved,” Connors explains. “When we were in the studio that week, different people were throwing in production ideas and arrangement ideas. I thought that was the coolest part. 20 people working together to get the best sound possible in that amount of time.”
Connors founded Dynamo in 2012 after moving to Nashville to study music at Belmont University. Originally a classically trained percussionist, Connors improvised while earning his masters and switched to jazz piano. Belmont was also where he’d meet his future bandmates. “A lot of these guys were at Belmont,” Connors adds. “For whatever reason, I was really inspired when I moved, so I put a group together. That was right after I heard Snarky Puppy for the first time. They were a huge influence on the group.”
Dynamo began as an instrumental project, similar to Snarky Puppy, but when the group permanently integrated vocalist/lyricist Dain Ussery, the band acquired its own identity. Ever since, Dynamo has released records and traveled the country. Taking its show on the road has earned them a following throughout New York State and Pennsylvania, among other states, where they tour often.
But it can be hard to regularly tour with nine players. The sound mix is a common and difficult challenge, as improvisation is a regular part of the show. “We’re very concerned about how we sound all the time. It can be tough. We like to switch up tunes night after night to make each gig a completely different experience for the listeners, but also for us. We try to find a balance of how much creativity can we add without straying away from the song too far while still sounding good.”
Another potential issue of touring with such a large group, of course, is the clash of egos and attitudes. But Connors says it’s not a problem for them. “The stage is so crowded that there’s no room for ego. A fan said that to me one time and it’s so true. You have to listen to what people say and know when not to talk. In Dynamo, you have to share the stage with eight people, sometimes 20. It’s taught us to be more mature about where, what and how we play.”
Celina is named after Celina, Texas, a small town north of Dallas. Dynamo regularly stops through the area on tour, partially because of family and partially because the music in Dallas energizes the group. It’s here where Celina first started taking shape.
“Your Touch” was the first song written for the then untitled Celina, created while on the road in a garage in Celina. The next trip through the area the band wrote four more: “Dream,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Carried Away” and “Jade.”
Connors explains: “When I think of Dallas I think of the sounds of North Texas combining with gospel. I really wanted to be around those musicians and bands that inspire me, like the Funky Knuckles, Progger and Philip Lassiter. Seeing some of those bands [while touring] definitely kicked our butts and influenced us for the better. We’ve been similarly inspired in New York, Chicago and New Orleans, but a lot of the music I listen to and a lot of the music that influences the band comes from Dallas.”
Eventually, the band settled on eight tracks that comprise the now finished Celina. Structurally, the songs are arranged with precision and poise, but the album’s real secret sauce is its immediacy—a sense that almost anything can happen. And while the genres are wide-ranging and at times overwhelming, the record excels in this rich musicality of controlled chaos, captured in the only way it could be captured: live.
“I’m definitely a fan of live music and the energy that comes along with something that’s recorded live,” Connors says. “I’m in the studio with a lot of other projects, producing a lot, and I think it’s way harder than people realize to get a studio product that hits you in the face and makes you feel something.”
In addition to capturing energy, the live recording served Dynamo well for one other reason: ticket sales from each performance helped pay for a big chunk of Celina’s production expenses. It’s brilliant, in a way. Quite literally crowd funded. It makes you wonder if more bands will catch on and follow suit, especially with a final product that sounds so sharp.
“The thing about studio music is that if you give yourself too much time, you can drive yourself insane,” Connors says. “If we can just get in there and do a live show and never look back, that sort of thing, then it’s done. And we have a snapshot of how we sounded in that moment. It’s pretty cool.”
With a new album and a stretch of tour dates on the books, the prodigious Dynamo is poised for a huge 2017. Maybe they’ll stop back in Celina on the way. And just like in the other Celina, who knows what will happen next.