BRATTLEBORO — When Guilford-based keyboardist Kris Yunker, 39, moved to the area three years ago, he said to himself "Brattleboro needs a funk night." He got in touch with Robin Johnson, and the owner of the Stone Church loved the idea.
The Stone Church's final funk night of 2023 will take place Wednesday, Dec. 6. The series will start up again on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.
Previous special guests of Funk Night have included Russ Lawton, Eric Kalb, Fuzz Sangiovanni, Tim Palmieri, Elise Testone, Molly Es, Johnny Trauma, Billy Ruegger, Jon Fisher, Pierre Aleksi, Dan Thomas, and Colin Jalbert.
A much-sought-after professional musician, Yunker has played (and continues to play) in various projects and bands, including Alan Evans Trio, On The Spot Trio (with his musical brother guitarist Danny Mayer), Jen Durkin and the Business, Wubakia, Soulive, Drew Angus, Love Raptor, and The 7 Day Weekend, just to name a few.
In 2017, he played and toured with the band Goose, just before recording his first solo album, "Bicoastal Waves."
He has just accepted the keyboardist position with Bearly Dead, a Boston-based Grateful Dead tribute band. He also started a Hammond organ funk trio, Yunker Funker.
He has recently released a single, "To Be Fair," with Karl Denson, Will Bernard, Mike Dillon, Alan Evans, and the BT/ALC horns (Brian "B.T." Thomas and Alex Lee-Clark) on the Vintage League Music label. He also teaches keyboard students at his home studio, records tracks for other musicians, and works on his girlfriend Kelly Burr's web series If We Really Were Witches.
Yunker has lived all over the country, including in his home state of Texas, in Hawaii, and In Santa Cruz, California, where he attended college. He settled in southern Vermont because "the town of Brattleboro spoke to me," he says.
"I wanted to be close enough to the city but also in nature, because I feel more inspired whenever I'm in a more natural environment," Yunker adds. "I love the community of Brattleboro, and it surely has great, conscious-minded people."
"You can really feel how enmeshed Kris is with the scene here, how much care he takes to cultivate the relationships and build the musical synergy. And he's just an absolute bomb player, so fun to watch. Funk nights are pretty magical," says Erin Scaggs, director of programming and community outreach at The Stone Church.
Yunker invites a rotating cast of special guests who share similar views about him and his funk night residency.
"It's not often I get to play such a fun, fulfilling gig with not only musicians that I've looked up to for so long, but also have become some of my best friends," says Mike Oehmen, a saxophonist based in Hartford, Connecticut who plays with Mihali and West End Blend, and Yunker, who will return to play on Dec. 6.
The Commons caught up with Kris Yunker recently by phone to talk about his Funk Night Residency, his passion for vintage instruments and gear, and what he likes about playing this style of music. Here's an excerpt of the conversation.
* * *
Victoria Chertok: What have you been up to lately?
Kris Yunker: I've been recording tons of albums with the Alan Evans trio and The 7 Day Weekend, with special guests Elise Testone and Sonya Rae Taylor. There are singles currently out and available on all streaming services with full albums coming out soon.
V.C.: Cool! Let's talk about your Funk Night residency at the Stone Church. Your next one is on Dec. 6. Who will be joining you on stage?
K.Y.: I'll have Adrian Tramontano, drummer for Kung Fu and Twiddle; he also had a band called Psychedelic Breakfast. Justin Henricks, guitar, will play with Beau Sausser; he has a band, Wurliday. Mike Oehmen, tenor sax, plays with Mihali and West End Blend, and Gershon Rosen, on trumpet, plays with Bella's Bartok.
V.C.: What is the origin of Brattleboro's Funk Night?
K.Y.: It started in February 2023, so we're closing in on about one year now. I've lived in the area for three years, and anywhere I move, I like to get residencies going. Funk night just works.
I was thinking of doing it at the former Metropolis but I was like, let me hit up Robin [Johnson] and see what he thinks. He loved the idea.
A few months later we got it rolling. I've always liked the idea of having a regular thing where I can pull in all the musicians that I don't get to play with regularly; a nice rotating cast.
V.C.: How do you describe Funk music?
K.Y.: Funk is music that gets in your soul that makes you move and dance. It originated from James Brown and spread out in all facets of music after Brown started doing his thing.
I try to cover all of that - like jazz, disco, funk, jam bands, etc. I'm an organ player myself, and I gravitate towards a lot of funky organ-player music. It's interrelated. It really gets you moving on the dance floor.
V.C.: What do you like about performing at the Stone Church?
K.Y.: I love the vibe at the Church and everyone who runs the place. They are all really good people, and they create a great atmosphere. It also sounds great, and they have really good lights.
I'm all about the vibe with places that I play in. If the vibe is high and it feels good, that is one of the most important parts of a show.
V.C.: When did you first start playing keys, and who were your early music influences?
K.Y.: At age 2, I started playing my mom's piano. She started teaching me piano, and I started taking up organ in high school - I got into the music of American keyboard player and composer John Medeski.
My dad introduced me to Jimmy Smith. I grew up in Texas and was listening to The Doors, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and big-band music. Oscar Peterson is one of my biggest piano influences.
V.C.: When did you know you wanted to do this professionally?
K.Y.: I knew in my soul my whole life - especially when I did piano performances as a kid and everyone would tell me it was really great. I just knew in every fiber of my being that this is what I came here to do on this planet.
It's always been a struggle to figure out how to make that work. The artist life is a lot different from the normal career path for people. I had to make ends meet with weird jobs like construction, farmers' markets, and iPhone sales.
At some point, I said to myself, "I want to make my entire income from music." That was, like, five years ago. I've gotten to that point now, and it is solidly that career.
V.C.: You play a variety of organs and pianos, from vintage Fender Rhodes, Ludwigs, and your favorite Hammond A-100, to modern synthesizers with MIDI technology. Which of those do you bring to Funk Night?
K.Y.: I like to bring different vintage keyboards; they have a lot more depth to them, because they have strings and metal parts. They have a life of their own.
The clavinet is like the funky stringed instrument on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." I sometimes bring out the Fender Rhodes. I have two digital keyboards that I hook up to my computer for bass sounds.
V.C.: You call the Hammond organ "one of the toughest-built things ever in America," likening it to a 1950s refrigerator, and you've said also that "it is the focal point of [your] gig array."
K.Y.: Laurens Hammond was a clockmaker; he invented the first synchronic clock and came up with the idea. They were building things that last for a long time. The Hammond organ was the first electric organ made to just be a stand-in for pipe organs for churches that couldn't afford the large pipe organs.
And then this guy built a Leslie speaker for it to toss the sound around. Even though Hammond didn't want his organ sold that way, the instrument just became an iconic piece of American music, rock 'n' roll, and all music. It's become an iconic piece.
My Hammond A-100 organ still functions even though I've put barely any work into it. They were built in Chicago in the 1950s, and it was the price of a car back then.
V.C.: Did you have any formal piano training?
K.Y.: I had a piano teacher and did all the band classes in school. Jim Carmichael was the local church organist in town who taught me classical piano and theory. I went to Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, California and studied with Ray Brown, who was Stan Kitman's arranger. He was well known for his jazz arrangements. I studied jazz with him for four years.
V.C.: You play with lots of other bands and have guested with other bands. Tell me about Goose and Bearly Dead.
K.Y.: Goose was amazing. I toured with them for a year. I love those guys. I've been talking to them, and they want to come up and do some funk nights. Maybe we will get one of those guys up here.
I'm also playing keyboards with Bearly Dead. I'm friends with Matt Butler, their vocalist, through Soul Live, and I know all those guys - I tried a few shows in Virginia with them. I like that they are high energy; they do funky versions of Dead songs.
I get to do what I want to do as a keyboardist. For me, it's fun to explore and use the songs as a platform to launch into something else. I am a jazz head. I love and appreciate the Grateful Dead but don't consider myself a Deadhead.
It's cool. It's a perfect fit.
* * *
Funk Night at the Stone Church, 210 Main Street, Brattleboro, takes place on the first Wednesday of each month. The next one is on Wednesday, Dec. 6. Doors open at 7 p.m.; show is at 8 p.m. For more information and to buy tickets, visit stonechurchvt.org. For more information about Yunker, visit krisyunker.com.
Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.
This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.