Reviews of Tea’s newest album, “Grand Cru”

“Considering that French guitarist Franck Balloffet and Southern California bred keyboardist-percussionist Phil Bunch – aka the pop, chill and world fusion duo Tea – dubbed their critically acclaimed 2004 debut ‘Voyages du Jour’, it would make sense to interpret the title of their long awaited third album, the inviting, intoxicating and mostly laid back ‘Grand Cru,’ as an ode to one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it’s actually a playful reflection of the time they invested in the writing and recording process.

“In the French wine/tea making market, the French term ‘Grand Cru’ refers to a great, superior, well aged wine. That’s even more on point, considering how the eight easy grooving, sensually flowing vocals and three instrumentals caress our musical palettes.

“While all three of their releases are driven by an easy grooving electronic percussion-based flow, Bunch’s retro keys and Balloffet’s crisp guitar lines, ‘Grand Cru’ has a very different vibe than their debut and its 2009 follow-up ‘Dreams’. Rhythmically and production-wise, the first two albums were heavily influenced by the duo’s time as members of L.A’s premier African band Bateke Beat, which featured multi-instrumentalist Fidel Bateke, formerly of Fela Kuti’s ensemble from Nigeria.

“The intensely African vibe and guttural voices have given way to a blissful new vocal sensibility, courtesy of the intimate and sensual, deeply soulful singers and insightful lyricists Sabrina Williams (five tracks) and Inès Murer (three). Check out Murer’s unique phrasing and ‘vowelizing’ on ‘Drive Me Away,’ and Sabrina’s harmonic magic on ‘I Can’ for starters.

“Both women bring a dreamy hipster sensibility to the magical foundation created by the guitarist, keyboardist and their longtime friend and collaborator, legendary British Hammond B-3 master Brian Auger, who plays both his trademark instrument and the equally old school (and super cool) Fender Rhodes on eight tracks. Auger has been an increasingly foundational part of the Tea aesthetic since he appeared on a few tracks on Dreams.

“The duo later collaborated with Auger on his 2012 album ‘Language of the Heart’. Here, Balloffet and Bunch let him go full throttle, bringing a mix of wistful grandeur and wild intensity with his soloing on tracks ranging from the hypnotic, lightly funky opener ‘Trapeze’ and the easy flowing, ambient ‘Cargo’ to the high energy rock-fusion jam ‘Domino,’ which also features Balloffet’s high octane electric guitar jamming.

“As a fan of Tea since their debut album, which I gave a stellar review back in 2004, I urge you to check out their earlier, very different works. It’s great to hear the duo (or trio?) back in gear, but don’t let the simmering transcendence of ‘Grand Cru’ keep you from buying or streaming their more Afro-centric previous albums!”

Jonathan Widran,

“Tea, the production team of guitarist Frank Balloffet and drummer-keyboard player Phil Bunch has been on the Smooth Jazz Therapy radar since 2009 and the release of its second CD ‘Dreams’. Since then the duo have collaborated with the legendary Brian Auger for his solo project ‘Language of the Heart’ and consequently it is particularly pleasing that for the band’s latest offering, ‘Grand Cru’, they have enlisted the services of Auger who features on eight of the eleven choice tunes.

‘Grand Cru’ has been described elsewhere as a collection of electro-pop songs that draws influence from jazz, lounge and soul. Indeed the vibe that Balloffet and Bunch effortlessly create engenders a warm intimacy that is precious and this is particularly the case with the decidedly retro ‘Cargo’ and the wonderful ‘Natural’ where Ines Murer on vocals is superb. She also features on ‘Princess’ that shimmers with an understatedly theatrical aura and when she returns one more time for ‘Drive Me Away’ she perfectly complements Auger’s work on Hammond B3.

‘Grand Cru’ provides five further vocal numbers all of which are fronted by the delightfully soulful Sabrina Williams. Among them is the groove drenched ‘Wonder One’ for which Auger again excels and the equally good ‘I Can’ that has an ‘Everything But The Girl’ thing going on. It is right up there with the best that ‘Grand Cru’ has to offer yet all things considered the Smooth Jazz Therapy top track is the vibrant instrumental ‘Trapeze’ that serves as the perfect vehicle for the collective talents of Balloffet, Bunch and Auger.”

Denis Poole, Smooth Jazz Therapy

Reviews of Brian Auger’s “Language of the Heart”

“All the devout Brian Auger fan needs to know about ‘Language of the Heart’ is that it overflows with the immediately recognizable tones of the British fusion pioneer’s Hammond-B3 organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano. All the uninitiated needs to know is that this album favorably compares with the work Auger produced during the heyday of jazz- rock fusion.

“The seven tracks, written and arranged by Brian Auger and Tea—a duo composed of keyboardist/percussionist Phil Bunch and guitarist Franck Balloffet—are wisely dominated by instrumental sounds like that of ‘Ella,’ which brings the disc to a hypnotic close. The organ is Auger’s main axe, but on an ode to his current place of residence, ‘Venice Street Fair,’ he displays the sharp percussive attack that, transposed from the Fender Rhodes piano he often uses, distinguishes his work on the Hammond. His unusual approach renders his style as personal now as it sounded in the mid-to-late ‘70s with the various lineups of his band, The Oblivion Express.

“The intense percussive rhythm and virtually unabated flow of the keyboards, guitars, and bass frame the voice, not vice versa, so that, integrated at just the proper level within this otherwise lush mix, each component of the arrangement has the proper prominence.

“For that reason alone, ‘Language of the Heart’ posits Brian Auger as one of those rare musicians for whom his personal niche anchors him in a particular time without rendering his current output dated in any way.

“The soft currents of the organ speckled with piano immediately follow on ‘Hymn to Morning.’ This cut further reaffirms ‘Language of the Heart’ as the work of a man flush with inspiration, not to mention the resources at hand, including guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Auger’s son, percussionist Karma. who help to render that inspiration vividly real.”

Doug Collette, All About Jazz

(An interview with Brian Auger and Doug Collette)

“Despite being in the music business for in excess of fifty years, Auger has released relatively few solo albums so it is particularly pleasing that he is back on the recording scene with the CD ‘Language of the Heart’. Produced by Franck Balloffet and Phil Bunch (aka Tea) who also contribute on guitars and keyboards respectively, this eclectic collection includes input from guitarist Jeffrey ‘Skunk’ Baxter who of course was a founding member of Steely Dan and also played with the Doobie Brothers. Joining Baxter on guitars is Julian Coryell (son of Larry Coryell) and talking of famous parents, Auger’s son and daughter, Karma and Savannah, also play a part.

“In terms of personal favorites the smoky ‘Ella’ proves to be a Brian Auger instrumental master class and equally impressive is the fabulous ‘Venice Street Fair’. Motivated by the Annual Street fair in Venice Beach, CA, where Brian now resides, this deceptively easy grooving number is added to in no small measure by a guitar solo from Baxter that is right on the money.”

Smooth Jazz Therapy

“Venice, California must be a fab place. It has certainly kept Auger and family in a peace-and-love groove for many a year, and this latest release, as full of glistening Rhodes as it is the trademark Hammond, is no exception.

“What makes ‘Language of the Heart’ a shade different is that Auger was invited to record this as a solo album, even if most of the guys on board are associated with Auger’s other projects.

“So we have him on vocals (well, he can’t leave it all to his daughter!), plus he wrote most of the material and the heartfelt if, dare one say, hippy dippy lyrics. But this is no vanity project -- the presence of ‘Skunk’ Baxter brings a not surprising but most welcome Steely Dan groove to the likes of ‘Venice Street Fair’, although the distinctly Steely ‘Flying Free’ is actually lit up by Julian Coryell who has picked up a gene or three from dad (Larry Coryell).

“This wheel’s still on fire, no matter how the decades pass.”

Andy Robson, Jazzwise

Reviews of Tea’s second album, “Dreams”

“A few months ago I received through the magic of E mail, the latest album from a duo who call themselves Tea. Mixing soul, house and jazz with African flavors, Tea is the brainchild of guitarist Franck Balloffet, from Lyon, France, and Southern California drummer/keyboardist Phil Bunch. Franck & Phil first met as members of Los Angeles’ premier African band, Bateke Beat, which featured multi-instrumentalist Fidel Bateke, formerly of Fela Kuti’s ensemble from Nigeria. The group’s second record, ‘Dreams’, rises to the challenge of fusing lots of different influences while maintaining a distinct personality all its own. The entire record is so lovely and soulful that it is almost balearic at times, (Legendary keyboardist Brian Auger even guests on the album!). I must say that I find the project’s overt melodicism quite refreshing in these days of distorted drums, acid synths and massive, squelchy bass (not that there’s anything wrong with that- but sometimes a guy needs a little melody in his global fusions).”

Bob Duskis, Six Degrees Records

“An intriguing mixture of jazzy sensibilities (take a bow British Hammond organ legend Brian Auger, who guests throughout), modern grooves, Afro-beat and a variety of vocalists including Steve Ikhaman Ngondo, previously with Tabu Le Rochereau. An infusion for a warm summer evening, when the sun’s gone down and the mosquitoes are warming up for an evening meal - break out the margaritas and some refreshing Tea.”

World Music Charts Europe

“Hailing from Lyon, France, guitarist Franck Balloffet and So-Cal drummer & keyboardist Phil Bunch first met as members of the LA-based Bateke Beat - then in the early 90s they set out on their own leading what has turned into a series of soulful Afro-beat projects. Tea is their current creation. From ‘Dreams’, and what is now the second release, the production team of Balloffet and Bunch dispense the track Ibiza and a vibe that can only be described as intense. Sharing its name with the notorious Mediterranean party-island off the coast of Spain, this tune is well titled. Featuring the legendary Brian Auger on the Hammond B3 & aided by the expressive Steve Ngondo on Congolese vocals, this one percolates from beginning to end - highly addictive, and likely most unlike anything else you’ll hear here or anywhere else!”


“A multi-instrumental and multi-talented group of musicians collate into the band known as Tea. The band’s repertoire is composed of members from Benin, Cameroon, Senegal, Congo, Nigeria (by way of a Fela Kuti connection), France, and the US. The songs are contemporary musings reflective of a world traveler -- jazzy ambiance permeates a few of the tracks. Others incorporate a more downtempo or trance-like musical foundation. The instrumentation includes traditional components, though a major portion of the sounds are created by bass, B3 organ, sax, and guitar. Tea is unique enough to warrant few comparisons to other artists. However, some artists that come to mind include, Salif Keita and Daby Toure. Tea is a group best served for any mood. It’s an exhilarating mix of chilled-beats and warm sounds that intoxicate the listener into a dreamy state of veneration.”

Matthew Forss, Inside World Music

“Tea, the production team of guitarist Frank Balloffet and drummer - keyboard player Phil Bunch, has just released its second album ‘Dreams’. A sumptuously intoxicating collection of original French and African songs, it is entirely different from anything you will hear this year and features a high calibre line-up of supporting musicians. The project, which comes in the wake of the critically acclaimed CD ‘Voyages du Jour’, is the latest phase of a love affair that Balloffet and Bunch have had with the LA soul-afrobeat scene since the early nineties and the band Bateke Beat. The duo later emerged with Orchestra Shegemo and recently have been producing and collaborating with a range of artists from this overlooked sub-genre which, in the context of compelling rhythms, never fails to deliver.

“Take for example the hypnotic mid tempo ‘Envie’ that is blessed with the vocals of Chana and a great groove laid down by Balloffet and Bunch. The American born multi-lingual Chana has performed with the Tambu International Assembly and is again in fine form with the mellow ‘Dis Moi’. It’s a tune that affords the opportunity for slide guitarist Chris Darrow to shine and when the vocal spotlight switches to Steve Ngondo the result is the distinctly tribal but totally pleasing ‘Bilobela’. Featuring Hammond B3 from the legendary Brian Auger it has a vibe to die for and Ngondo is just as good for the intense but totally accessible ‘Vibration’. Auger stays with the B3 for the foot tapping ‘Ibiza’ while in complete contrast is the chill influenced ‘Haunty’ for which Ngondo provides the contemplative vocal and Bobby English comes up big on tenor sax.

“Elsewhere, other tracks that catch the attention include the compelling cadence of ‘Lisapo’ where Tea really ratchet up the tempo and ‘Verite’ which shimmers with an irresistible rhythm. However, in an album chock full of delicious surprises, a real favourite is the captivating ‘Desirable’. Chana, with her understated vocals, is again outstanding, Auger is immense on Fender Rhodes and Randall Willis makes a noteworthy contribution on alto sax.

“Different enough to garner significant attention, ‘Dreams’ is a wonderful addition to this year’s crop of new releases.”

Denis Poole, Smooth Jazz Therapy

Reviews of Tea’s first album, “Voyages Du Jour”

“Tea offers a bracing brew of boss nouveau, French and Afro-pop, refreshing as a sweet summer evening breeze washing over lovers in moonlight. It’s the perfect party music for the 21st hipoisie.”

Roger Steffens, The Beat

“The staid album cover -- with a photo of a teabag featured on the CD booklet -- gives no indication of the unique African-laced, chill-flavored cosmopolitan music that lies within. Or the fascinating history of the project’s two chief masterminds. Tunes range from the jungly, heavily African chant- and chill-flavored “Azan Nawa” to the more synthesized Euro-funk and grooves of “Adjegule” and “Heroes of the Sea,” a hypnotic dance-chill track with a touch of rolling blues swirled with African guitars. The fascinating hybrid is seriously hard to resist.”

Jonathan Widran, All Music Guide

“Tea delivers a tight tonic of high quality ingredients that bring together wide-ranging influences from Mory Kante to Brian Wilson. Gentle good vibes with a rhythmic drive that can’t be beat. When you fall under the spell of Tea, seas are calm, weather bright, life is good. Sail on and away a la carte everyday. Go there.”

Doug Wendt, Midnight

“A multi-colored musical fabric of many strands, it can be listened to and enjoyed on many levels, from dance beats all the way to scrutiny of intricate guitar embroidery and percussive synchronicity. Tea is brewed from musical sources known and unknown, far-flung and local, and there’s always some surprise or another that comes bubbling to the surface, as yet unnamed.”

Kirk Silsbee, Contributor, Downbeat