From funk mama to mature musician
EAGLE – For music fans whose heyday was in the High Country in the ’90s, it’s probably hard to separate the name Liza from the sound of funk music. Liza – officially Liza Oxnard, but known by the one-name stage moniker – was the singer-guitarist of Zuba, a Boulder-based funk machine that had an extraordinarily successful run in the Colorado mountains for most of the decade. What brought out the fans was the hard-driving funk, which guaranteed a night or two of sweaty dancing.Zuba ended around the same time as the ’90s, and the music Liza has made since has parted ways with the funk. On her new CD, “Bird on a Wing,” the gap-toothed musician emerges more as a singer-songwriter. The album, released on her own Liza Bones label, also explores territories of jazz and piano-oriented soft rock. It marks a most successful transition from funk mama to mature musician for Liza, who six months ago became a mother, to Kalea Skye.While the gentle songs of “Bird on a Wing” might surprise old fans of Zuba, it is something of a homecoming for Liza. As a kid, growing up mostly in various towns in the South, Liza and her sisters sang Broadway tunes, jazz and folk. Liza dug the mellow sounds of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. She finally encountered funk while living in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati – both, as Liza observes, borrowing the terminology of funk father George Clinton, “chocolate cities,” where the radios boomed with Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown and Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic. Funny thing was, Liza wasn’t aware of the label that went with the sound: “You’d listen to funk music without ever knowing what it was,” she said.
In Telluride, in the early ’90s, before forming Zuba, Liza had a short-lived folky duo with Billy Nershi, who would go on to form String Cheese Incident. When drummer Wallace Lester approached her with a concept for a group, she was puzzled.”He said he wanted to form a funk band. I said, ‘Hmmm, funk? What’s funk?’ Then I went, ‘Oh, that,'” she said. “It was definitely music I knew, but it was my first time singing funk music, with a funk band.”Zuba toured nationally, performed at several prominent festivals, and landed songs in the movies “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary.” In front of the band was Liza, a seductive presence with a powerful voice, serious guitar chops – and an undeniable knack for the funk. But Zuba came crashing down when Liza and drummer Lester broke up as a couple. Instantly, Liza reached back to her musical roots.”After Zuba ended, things kind of blew up for me,” she said by phone. “It was a lot of intense change at the same time. Zuba broke up, I lost my relationship and my house. All in the same weekend.”That’s when a lot of the material [from “Bird on a Wing”] was created, during that big change and turmoil. Losing my confidence, it threw me back on my heels. It was figuring out who I was without Zuba, without my relationship. It was a big turning point in growing up, and being an adult.”
Among the songs to come out of those changes was the introspective, acoustic guitar-based “Foolin’ Myself,” written when Liza realized something was amiss in Zuba-land. “I wasn’t happy and I couldn’t figure out why,” she said. Another was “I Gave It Away,” a jazzy piano ballad about letting go. The opening song, “Take Me Back,” dates back before Zuba.Liza gives much credit for “Bird on a Wing” to Casey Collins, who contributed not pounding drums or bomb-blast bass, but vocal lessons. For four years, Liza has been coached in singing by Collins. “That’s a big help on this album. There are very challenging vocal songs,” she said. Liza says she could have used Collins back in the Zuba years: she suffered frequently from nodules, growths on her vocal cords. Fans might remember a speechless Liza, hanging out backstage with a chalkboard to preserve her delicate voice.The new approach is as evident onstage as it is on CD. Liza says the current material translates well to the live setting, so long as people aren’t anticipating the same old funk.”If people come expecting me to rock out all night … well, I’ve been badgered a few times,” she said. “But I do play that stuff a little. At the end of the night, when things are loosened up.”
The band will take the stage at Eagle Town Park at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, as part of the free ShowDown Town concert series. ShowDown Town is a project of the Vail Valley Foundation. For more information, call 949-1999 or visit http://www.vvf.org. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado