Sidewalk Chalk draws on hip-hop, jazz, soul and more

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

The concept for Chicago-based band Sidewalk Chalk sounds almost gimmicky at first blush: eight musicians, including a jazz vocalist, a rapper, a tap dancer and a horn section, joining forces to fuse the genres of hip-hop and jazz.

But keyboardist Charlie Coffeen says the unique ensemble, which will play Cliff Bell’s on Sunday, arose from a serendipitous meeting of several similarly open musical minds. Coffeen met and began spending time with most of Sidewalk Chalk’s original lineup, including MC Rico Sisney and singer Maggie Vagle, while attending Chicago’s Columbia College in the late 2000s.

“We didn’t really have an intention of starting a band or meeting up to write a bunch of songs,” Coffeen says. “But when we met for the first time it just kind of stuck.”

Rather than individually bringing hip-hop or jazz influences to the table, Coffeen says the musicians bonded over a shared appreciation for a spectrum of music that encompassed both genres.

“I think a lot of people our age that were into music at that time … found a similar voice in combining hip-hop and jazz and samples and bebop records that are chopped up and turned into Tribe Called Quest samples,” he says. “All that stuff — J Dilla and Meshell Ndegeocello and Curtis Mayfield and Fela (Kuti) and (Thelonious) Monk and (Charles) Mingus — all of that really soulful music is the common thread.”

Although Sidewalk Chalk’s blend of jazz and hip-hop seems like second nature to Coffeen, he readily admits that the inclusion of a tap dancer is one of his band’s more unconventional touches. Coffeen first invited dancer Jumaane Taylor to sit in on a rehearsal after the two met at a music festival and connected over a shared love of J Dilla. Taylor quickly clicked with the band, and Coffeen says the group feels Taylor’s absence when teaching and other performance obligations in Chicago keep him from joining Sidewalk Chalk on the road.

“He brings so much knowledge, musical and otherwise, to the table,” Coffeen says. “He’s such an incredible listener and incredible improviser. I’d say he’s really one of the most brilliant instrumentalists I know and he plays the most non-traditional instrument that we have.”

Despite the band’s expansive lineup, Coffeen says the group has no formal leader and everyone contributes to the songwriting process.

“There’s been a handful of songs that maybe one person brought in as an almost complete idea to see what people think and see where it goes,” he says.

“But more often than not, it’ll just be a little seed that somebody either worked out on their own or recorded on their phone or had been sitting on for a while, and then we all turn it into something.”

Coffeen says all eight players are pitching in to take Sidewalk Chalk to the next level. The band has spent the last several years taking their exuberant live show on the road with increasing frequency, playing more than 200 shows last year.

Although Coffeen says playing live is the band’s first love, the group has resolved to step up its game in the studio. Coffeen says the band’s two previous studio records found them “trying to figure out what we sound like in the studio.”

But he and his bandmates want to make a more definitive statement with their third release, which they’ve just begun work on.

“We really, really want to get deep into that studio process, fleshing out the sounds and making an album that sounds uniquely us,” he says.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Sidewalk Chalk

with DJ Nick Austin

8 p.m. Sun.

Cliff Bell’s

2030 Park., Detroit

Tickets $12 in advance, $15 at the door

(313) 961-2543