• Jonathan Widran

TEA, Grand Cru

Considering that French guitarist Franck Balloffet and Southern California bred keyboardist/percussionist Phil Bunch – aka the pop, chill and world fusion duo Tea – dubbed their critically acclaimed 2004 debut Voyages du Jour, it would make sense to interpret the title of their long awaited third album, the inviting, intoxicating and mostly laid back Grand Cru, as an ode to one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it’s actually a playful reflection of the time they invested in the writing and recording process.

In the French wine/tea making market, the French term “Grand Cru” refers to a great, superior, well aged wine. That’s even more on point, considering how the eight easy grooving, sensually flowing vocals and three instrumentals caress our musical palettes.

While all three of their releases are driven by an easy grooving electronic percussion based flow, Bunch’s retro keys and Balloffet’s crisp guitar lines, Grand Cru has a very different vibe than their debut and its 2009 follow-up Dreams. Rhythmically and production-wise, the first two albums were heavily influenced by the duo’s time as members of L.A’s premier African band Bateke Beaat, which featured multi-instrumentalist Fidel Bateke, formerly of Fela Kuti’s ensemble from Nigeria.

The intensely African vibe and guttural voices have given way to a blissful new vocal sensibility, courtesy of the intimate and sensual, deeply soulful singers and  insightful lyricists Sabrina Williams (five tracks) and Ines Murer (three). Check out Murer’s unique phrasing and “vowelizing” on “Drive Me Away,” and Sabrina’s harmonic magic on “I Can” for starters.

Both women bring a dreamy hipster sensibility to the magical foundation created by the guitarist, keyboardist and their longtime friend and collaborator, legendary British Hammond B-3 master Brian Auger, who plays both his trademark instrument and the equally old school (and super cool) Fender Rhodes on eight tracks. Auger has been an increasingly foundational part of the Tea aesthetic since he appeared on a few tracks on Dreams.

The duo later collaborated with Auger on his 2012 album Language of the Heart. Here, Balloffet and Bunch let him go full throttle, bringing a mix of wistful grandeur and wild intensity with his soloing on tracks ranging from the hypnotic, lightly funky opener “Trapeze” and the easy flowing, ambient “Cargo” to the high energy rock-fusion jam “Domino,” which also features Balloffet’s high octane electric guitar jamming.

The covers of Tea’s first two albums were a bit vague as to what the duo was about. But this time, with a green-tinged historic image of three bearded men sitting down to tea, we see their sense of joy, humor and the fact that Auger is now an intrinsic member of the high spirited Tea party.

As a fan of Tea since their debut album, which I gave a stellar review back in 2004, I urge you to check out their earlier, very different works. It’s great to hear the duo (or trio?) back in gear, but don’t let the simmering transcendence of Grand Cru keep you from buying or streaming their more Afro-centric previous albums!

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