Elegant Primates Layer Cafe Nine In Sound

With seven musicians nestled on Cafe Nine’s cozy stage, Elegant Primates’ sound was all about layers. Percussion layered over the swinging beat of a drum set. Trombone and trumpet layered over playful guitar and bass. Lyrics and melody layered over infectious grooves.

Tuesday night, Branford-born Elegant Primates played New Haven’s Cafe Nine, opening for international duo Gingkoa. The lineup included Kathianna Celestin on lead vocals, Dave Provolo on guitar and vocals, Rob Nelson on bass and vocals, Clifford Schloss on percussion and vocals, and Harvey Martin on trombone. Caleb Jackson went at it alone without fellow trumpeter Tyler Ferson and Jason Apostoleris filled in for regular drummer Christian Ponce. 

With each new song, members of the band transitioned into a new feel, a new groove, a new rhythm. As they played their single “Cosmonauts,” the chorus' close harmonies and catchy refrain caught on: “My sweet cosmonaut, I pray you’ll return / This is love among the cosmonauts, so come back to earth.” 

The horns echoed the melody line and then wove over and under it. That kind of tight work is the band’s signature—The Elegant Primates like to transition between grooves within a song. 

The band closed with their song “Helium,” which started off with a quiet, bouncy guitar riff. The beat dropped; vocalists came in with an “ooh la la” in four part harmony. The bass line picked up the groove just as the verse came in soft and quick. 

“Gravity’s a state of mind,” the band sang in the chorus. At the end, the instruments cut out and the last impression is those four voices ringing out on the hook, leaving the audience wanting more. 

Chatting after the band’s set, bassist and founding member Rob Nelson talked about what makes the band tick, starting with the collection of world beats in their repertoire.

“Dave and I have been writing songs together since 1979 or so,” Nelson said of his co-founder Dave Provolo. After writing Swimming Since Birth in 2006, a CD that Nelson describes as a grab bag of world styles, the pair knew they needed to build an ensemble in order to be able to do the music justice in live shows. 

Nelson said the band has international members that range in age from 17 to 60, and everyone works together to create their arrangements. 

“We’re inclusive. It’s an important value that we have as a band,” he said. “We’re like a family.” 

He added that when Kathianna Celestin left her solo work as a singer-songwriter to join the band on lead vocals, she brought the band “to the next level.”

Celestin has joined founding members Nelson and Provolo in songwriting, and among the songs the trio has penned are two tunes they played at Cafe Nine: “Ultraviolet”—a ska number that combines a minor key with a hopping, can’t-sit-still rhythm—and the laid-back but bubbly “Tremble.”

The conversation was cut short when Ginkgoa took the stage. Lead singer Nicolle Rochelle was instantly animated, a vivacious presence on stage. Gingkoa swung old-world rhythms and melodies over dance beats, and they accomplished the incredible feat of getting the Tuesday crowd up and dancing. It was a great contrast to Elegant Primate’s cool vibe.

Elegant Primates has been recording and expects to release an album by the end of 2018. “Cosmonauts” and other songs have been featured on The Local Bands Show with Rick Allison and Frank Critelli, which airs 10 p.m. on Sundays on WPLR 99.1 New Haven. 

This year, the band met its goal of reaching beyond Connecticut when it played to a large crowd at Silvana in Harlem. “We were asked back,” said Nelson, clearly excited for their next foray into New York. 

“Our music appeals to a wide range of people. People seem to really dig it,” he added. He smiled. “It makes people happy.”