Alex Moxon (l) and Ed Lister (r) at the Chocolate Hot Pockets' show at the Tulip Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Alex Moxon (l) and Ed Lister (r) at the Chocolate Hot Pockets' show at the Tulip Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

The Chocolate Hot Pockets have kept their new album almost completely under wraps.

At their CD release show Saturday at Ritual, the Ottawa jazz/neo-soul group will be performing songs that have only been played a few times live – or not at all.

“We've only played maybe half of it live before – and never on the same gig – as we've been developing the tunes. So it's going to be a fresh concert,” said guitarist Alex Moxon.

The four members of the Chocolate Hot Pockets – Moxon, bassist J.P. Lapensée, drummer Jamie Holmes, and trumpeter Ed Lister – spoke to after playing a well-received and energetic show at the Tulip Festival on May 11. And in the 90-minute show, Lister said, only about three songs were from the new CD.

They all said they were excited to finally release Chocolate Dreamz, their second CD, which they recorded last August. The songs are all originals: six each by Moxon and Lister, the two writers in the group.

“It's super-tight now. We were before, but now the music's taken its own direction. I feel like there's more of a focus on this album,” Lister said.

“I think it's more of a personal statement in terms of the writing. It's just kind of distinct from any of our influences. And there's some really killer tunes,” Moxon said.

“I'm just excited to be able to share with new audiences some tunes that we don't play very often because they're pretty challenging for us, and to put out a record that we're all really, really happy about, and that really adequately represents where we're at as a band,” Holmes said. “Some of the tunes that were on that record we can't even play them yet. So I personally love that – that we're putting out a record that, musically, is like wow!”

The album name, Chocolate Dreamz, came out of them joking in the studio about Holmes' brand of cymbals (Dream Cymbals) as they were listening back to a track, “and maybe we were talking about the cymbals or something, and it sounds like a nice sweet dream or something. And then it was 'Oh, it's a chocolate dream'. As soon as it just popped out, it was just like, that's it! It was just kind of a weird jokey thing – Holy Jeez that fits. That really represents what we're going for!” Holmes said.

Groove – and what else?

They have more trouble actually categorizing their music. All four have strong jazz backgrounds: Moxon, Lapensée, and Holmes all met while studying jazz performance at Carleton University, while Lister has a degree in jazz studies from the Leeds College of Music in England. They all regularly play in jazz groups around Ottawa; Holmes, Moxon, and Lapensée's long-standing HML Trio is the house band for the weekly jazz jams at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge.

But they also play in local rock and R&B groups: Moxon in The Hilotrons, Lister in BlakDenim and The Hornettes, Lapensée in The Billy Love Band. Holmes tours and records regularly with blues artist JW-Jones.

They describe the Chocolate Hot Pockets' general sound as jazz and neo-soul – but also eclectic. It's not easy for them to find other bands that are “similar sound-wise”, Holmes said. “You wouldn't say we're a jazz band. You wouldn't say we're an easy listening band.”

After a long discussion at our interview, they settled on a strong groove, with a jazz influence: “the mixing of styles, the intensity, the split between improvised stuff coming from the more jazz-oriented background, the more jazz-style stuff, and then mixing that heavy with kind of hip-hoppy modern funk, soul element,” Holmes said.

And lots of improvisation to add freshness: “I think we've matured in terms of our approach to the improvising, too , which is at least half of the music,” Moxon said. “We've talked about a little bit, if we were going to call it any kind of genre, sometimes we've called it improvised groove. Which doesn't work if you tell a venue owner you're an 'improvised groove band'. Like, what is that?

“But it is pretty accurate, because just in terms of when we're improvising it's like we'll devote some time and attention to maybe 8 or 16 bars of one groove, and then whoever the lead player is will play something – and then suddenly we'll morph into another groove. But I think we're trying to just make it feel written, like whatever the groove is, like it's not pre-conceived but we're trying to develop it into something solid and groovy, but have it constantly be changing and morphing into different situations while still being true to what the tune is that we've written.”

"A lot more mature" – with modern electronic sounds

The Chocolate Hot Pockets formed in the fall of 2011, several months after Lister arrived in Ottawa from England. The band's name was an inspiration from Lister: “it rolls off the tongue and keeps you guessing a bit.”

They released their first CD, The Filthy Chapter, in January, 2013. Since then, they've been a regular fixture on the Ottawa scene, playing the jazz festival and many local clubs. They've also toured regularly to Montreal and Toronto and south-western Ontario, including a gig this month at an R&B club in Toronto.

The last two years have given them more time to prepare for this album, Lapensée said. “Compared to the other album, I think we've put more time on the tunes, that's for sure, and we've had more time on tunes versus the other one, which we I think we did in one weekend.”

“I feel like we're a lot more mature in this album. We're a lot more selective of what we're doing. We'll go out musically and stretch out, but I feel like we're a lot more controlled and we are thinking big-picture, as opposed to being young and going nuts and just make this all as crazy as possible. So I feel it's a lot more musical, and it's a lot more groovy, it's a lot more tight and cohesive,” Holmes said.

The group is also “trying to channel some of the modern electronic sounds that are around right now”, Moxon said, with Lister doubling more on keyboards. “We love synthesizers: Ed's been developing his synthesizer playing for sure and he plays some lead melodies. He also is comping. I guess that's different from the first album, because we only had one or two tracks that Ed was featured on [keyboards], but now it's become more of like a quintet – with four people – than previously. And I myself I've built up my pedal board since before, just because I'm trying to get inside some of those relevant contemporary sounds.”

On “Jezebel”, for example, Lister said he's playing “lead whistle synth, some sort of Snoop-Dog-esque lead synth, I couldn't really put a name on it.”

On his trumpet, on the other hand, he's strictly acoustic: “I'm just going pure, clean sound” – except for the last track on the CD where he “added some kind of Miles Davis tape delay so right at the very end there's a kind of a Bitches Brew kind of two-two fusion-y Miles Davis sound.”

Lister joked that this group doesn't belong in coffee houses – they sound best on a big stage and with a big sound system. But that won't be a problem at their CD release show Saturday. It will be held at the Ritual Nightclub on Besserer at Dalhousie – a venue more used to rock shows. Besides being the first chance to hear the Chocolate Hot Pockets' new material, it will also be the first time they're selling the CD, although they are taking advance orders.

And what's next? “We just want to tour it a lot more, I think. We just want to get it out there more,” Lister said.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read the review of the Chocolate Hot Pockets at the 2016 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival:

Watch the video about the Chocolate Hot Pockets:

The Chocolate Hot Pockets at the Canadian Tulip Festival, on May 11, 2015:
All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015