Slimmed-down Ohio Players jazz/funk group is back - on Track

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The Ohio Players are back in full force after an eight-year hiatus. ``Back'' is the fitting title of their new album, recently released on the equally new record label, Track, devoted solely to bands with track records.

The album ``Back'' is a continuation and expansion of the jazzy powerhouse funk style that popularized the Ohio Players in the mid-1970s, when they garnered huge successes with their now-classic albums ``Fire'' and ``Honey.''

From the fiery dance track ``Vibe Alive'' to the slow ballad ``Just to Show My Love,'' the Ohio Players sing and play as though they haven't missed a beat, never mind eight years.

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The laid-back groove of ``Sweat,'' and the pop/gospel ballad ``Try,'' are among the many highlights on ``Back.''

Lead singer/guitarist Leroy (Sugar) Bonner even tries his hand at some rap (softened by pretty backup vocals) on ``I'm Madd,'' a rampage against drunken drivers.

Rap - with a melody

``It's hard for me to rap without putting something melodic in it,'' said Mr. Bonner in a telephone interview.

Bonner, who never intended to become a singer, ended up being the Ohio Players' trademark, with his snarly, rough-edged voice and his famous ``OW!''

Both he and percussionist/vocalist James (Diamond) Williams expressed their joy to be back. ``I'm flabbergasted!'' said Mr. Williams.

The new version of the Ohio Players, which retains four original members, is smaller, and the horn section is gone. But the sound is as full and funky as ever, thanks to the technology of samplers and synthesizers.

Although the Players have mixed feelings about technology (``We're actually pro-musician and anti-gadget,'' says Williams), they approach the problem realistically.

Says Bonner, ``You have to use it - you don't have a choice. If you don't deal with modern technology, then you're gonna be left behind. We deal with it, but we try to put more of ourselves into [the music]. If it has no life, it's like a machine. Maybe we're all headed in that direction as far as humanity is concerned, but as long as I'm alive, I want to play my guitar.''

No worries about going flat

Williams sees some practical advantages to the new technology, though. ``We use an Oberheim synthesizer. So we don't have to worry about reeds or mouthpieces or people going flat. We tune this rascal up right before the show, put it in automatic tune, and it plays just fine! - every night.''

Amy Duncan covers popular music for the Monitor.

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