Jean-Paul Builes photo by Jake Hanson
BY ERIC OLSON
In 2021, as a reliably drab spring burst into summertime and newly vaccinated Seattleites eked free of winter’s many confinements, I found myself at a July Fourth celebration on the southern banks of the Duwamish River, at a house which residents of that neighborhood know perhaps too well. Dual firepits roared on the riverside lawn, and on a sandy slope down by the water, a hefty DIY fireworks rig promised to replace the cancelled Lake Union production.
The sun set behind the Olympics and pyrotechnics traced high-arching paths over the old Boeing plants, exploding in the precarious direction of the SeaTac flight path. But there could be no disasters on a night like that, for the atmosphere was infectious with goodwill. Some folks swam in the (admittedly polluted) river. Others hauled refreshments over the bridge from Georgetown. By and large, people danced, and danced, and danced, because even the thump-th-thump of the fireworks couldn’t hold a candle to the eight-man band pounding away on the home’s ad-hoc wooden stage.
The electric bass slapped octaves, the snare drum shuffled under a steady ride, and a full horn section seemed to sway the firepits to their bidding. But at the center of it all, tethering the entire performance was the band’s singer who twirled and shook more ferociously than even the most avid showgoer, throwing back the hem of his white blazer, tap-dancing, high-stepping, conducting the group like James Brown at the Apollo. This was Jean-Paul Builes, frontman of Seattle’s “tequila funk” phenomenon REPOSADO, and when he belted out the last notes of his second or third encore, I thought, at last, the crew has taken its final form.
I first met Builes – tall, vintage-styled, broad-smiling, known to most as JP – in 2016 at Columbia City’s Hummingbird Saloon, an unassuming and perpetually red-lit strip mall pub that shares a parking lot with Flying Lion Brewery and Rumba Notes Lounge. The Hummingbird’s jam sessions were a hotspot that year, frequented by local talent like Jimmy James, Shaina Shepherd, and Evan Flory-Barnes. And of course Builes, though he introduced himself as a photographer first, and a musician only if you goaded him about it.
“I was too nervous to play my own stuff,” he told me when I sat down with him the other week. But those nerves faded as Builes built a trio to jam some tunes at Columbia City’s Taproot Cafe & Bar, and the Hummingbird soon after. This was how I first experienced REPOSADO: as a stripped-down outfit of drums and guitar, rarely even a bass. Meanwhile, Builes’ photography landed him in the jazz scene, where he pocketed knowledge for use down the road.
In 2017, a nascent REPOSADO trio – Builes, drummer Joel Rosa, and emcee Torin Frost – made east for New York City. It wasn’t a tour, per se, but a “huge busking road trip” that ended in Builes’ hometown of Sunnyside, Queens. Inspired by the diversity of his old stomping grounds, Builes got a job at Brookside Market and began connecting with local artists. He didn’t know it then, but this skillset – creating musical community through word-of-mouth – would become his hallmark.
Under the elevated 7 Line at the 46th Street-Bliss Street station, Builes heard his songs backed by full-bodied accompaniment. “And I loved it. I loved that big band sound.” Each week a fresh musical brew arose under the tracks and lasted well into the night. It was with this spirit that Builes disbanded the trio and made for Los Angeles, wanting a warmer clime. But LA disappointed, so he ventured north and wound up where he began, in gray-skied South Seattle.
“I had no one in my band then,” he told me with a wry chuckle. “No one.”
He reached out slowly at first, and then more actively as things progressed. “All the right people came along really fast,” he said. “One person knew someone, they knew someone else… ”
Before long, with the help of bassist Danny “D-Train” Praseuth and drummer Raoul Hardin, Builes assembled the kind of big band he’d always wanted. Sparse guitar backing became a sea of Afro-Cuban funk fusion, a little bit Fela Kuti, a little bit Grupo Fantasma. Builes’ confidence soared onstage and so did his singing, a dexterous blend of Spanish and English. During those first few gigs, he says the group was “just discovering its sound.” But with the bounty of chops now consolidated under the REPOSADO umbrella, evolution happened quickly. The band wrote much of its catalogue live onstage.
This eight-man crew flew south for a Puerto Rico tour in December 2019 and came back only to be walloped by the pandemic. “COVID was eye-opening as to how frail the system here is,” Builes lamented. Luckily, they waited things out and returned with a vengeance, as witnessed at a certain July Fourth gig.
Today, the evolution continues at breakneck pace. Bassist Praseuth is REPOSADO’S longest tenured member outside of Builes. Other contributors include six-string whiz Matt Clough, tenor shredder Rob Jellinek, and baritone pro Jeff Miller. Arturo Rodriguez, Brittany Allyson, Joey Ziegler, and Jake Barokas round things out, with occasional organ assistance from Ron Weinstein.
Builes estimates that REPOSADO has employed some 40+ musicians since its inception and doesn’t expect that to slow. “This is a musical community,” he stresses. The band’s long-awaited LP Tequila Funk, recorded at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho, drops in June, with a ’45 to be released at the Tractor Tavern on May 12. The group ordered 300 deluxe vinyl packages – with foldout photography from Bogus Creative’s Jake Hanson – to be sold entirely in person. As usual, Builes wants to keep it local, to hand his record straight to the buyer and hold the middlemen at arm’s length.
When I caught up with him in March, he had just wrapped up a three-gig weekend, not at all irregular. “Cafe Racer Friday,” he said, “Town Hall Saturday morning – that one was for the kids – and Sea Mo’ Saturday night. My knee f***** hurts from dancing.”
Like the rest of the band, Builes has been pushing himself harder than ever, straining against his limitations. “It’s luckily getting to the point where the band can hold so much of the energy,” he told me. “Matt, D-Train, all those guys. When they’re going off like that, I can just sit back and groove.”