The Aura Of Miles Davis: A Story About Miles’ Final Columbia Album

Miles Davis began 1985 having just received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the highest musical honor in the country of Denmark, in the last month of the previous year. Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg was so inspired by Miles’ achievement that he composed that he decided to compose a suite for him to record. The only major arranger Miles Davis had continually worked with before was Gil Evans. And even later on in their collaborations, Evans wasn’t as fully involved as he’d been when he’d helped to begin Miles’ career as a bandleader with the 1949 album Birth Of The Cool.

The album that came from Mikkelborg and Miles’ collaboration was called Aura. It was recorded early in 1985. Miles Davis was in the process of leaving Columbia for Warner Bros Records at the time. Despite the historic three decade association between Miles and Columbia, Aura wasn’t released until 1989 due to a contractual conflict of interest. It was music of many moods flowing together. It was composed based on notes corresponding to all the initials of Miles Davis’s first and last name. As for the rest of the album, I wrote an Amazon.com 9 years ago that digs deeper into what Aura was and still is.


Miles Davis,just about to leave Columbia records after a lucrative 30 year career with the label turned to Danish composer and musician Palle Mikkelborg to record a ten piece suite in Copenhagen in the late winter of 1985. After a frenetic fusion intro there are nine compositions titled after different colors of the “aura”: white,yellow, orange,red, green, blue,electric red,indigo and violet. Most of these songs,while musically very much in keeping with the early 80’s part of the “electric Miles” period showcase impressionistic “sound paintings” that not only bare a striking resemblance to Miles’ work with Gil Evans on albums like Sketches of Spain at least in terms of arrangement.

The main difference is that on these Miles plays against the melody most the time rather then with it,which while very much in the jazz improvisation tradition gives the music that sense of organized chaos common in Miles’ electric music:the idea melodies and rhythms that are completely different from each other and never coming to a resolution.In this context it could be seen as mixing different shades to make primary colors. The only really funky tune here is “Orange” which is indeed very fiery in nature. “Electric Red” and “Violet” are a slower burning kind of groove whereas “Blue” expresses a light reggae feeling for another musical “color”.

“Indigo” is the only real acoustic piece here. Some of these songs also feature the guitar of John McLaughlin who worked with Miles back in his Bitches Brew days. While the complex,almost ambient nature of ‘Aura’ might qualify elements of this album as off putting and some jazz fans might find some of these songs leaning towards the new age sound it is definitely one of the more unique and individual recordings in Miles’ vast catalog and he has many.


Aura is a true example of why albums matter a lot with instrumental jazz musicians such as Miles. When I first heard it,it was in the form of 30 second previews at a listening station when the remastered CD first came out. It sounded like dull electronic “new age” music in that context. And always avoided it. Upon purchasing the CD later and listening to it, it became clear these were songs that developed in sound and even genre as they went along. In that context,its innovative orchestrated jazz fusion. Therefore I recommend seeking out the Aura album on its own terms-to take in its brilliance.

*Listen to the funkiest song on this album called “Orange” here!

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “Every Ghetto,Every City” by Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill might’ve started out singing with her musical family in South Orange,New Jersey. But initially,she was a child actress appearing on As The World Turns and Sister Act II: Back In The Habit. During high school her friend Pras Michel convinced her to join his band-followed soon by her cousin Wyclef Jean. The Fugees was born,and the young singer/rapper/songwriter was on her way to a solo career with her one and only solo album thus far in 1998 entitled The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. I posted my Amazon review of this album here already. Yet there was an incomplete part of the picture.

Lauryn Hill and her solo debut has been a consistent conversation point between myself and Henrique Hopkins. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is often considered the beginning of the neo soul sound. At the time it came out, the original funk music of the 60’s,70’s and 80’s said more to me personally than even Hill and artists like her’s best efforts. Yet I noticed Henrique was planning on doing an article on a song called “Every Ghetto,Every City”. He doesn’t generally write on Andresmusictalk talk anymore. But he likely won’t mind me giving my own spin on this song.

A clapping,dripping intro starts the song off with a swirling Clavinet solo. Once Hill’s vocals-doing her own lead and backups pop up,the ultra funky drum shows up along with the hardcore bass popping along. This represents the majority of the song-both the refrain and chorus-separated mainly by differences in key.  The two refrains break the song down the clapping intro and the bass line-accompanied by a light organ swirl. That is basically the same way in which the song fades into its home recording type outro-with Hill’s second chorus leading the whole way.

“Every Ghetto,Every City” is essentially a 5+ minute mini autobiography of Lauryn Hill. She talks about the fun,inspiration and later difficulties she lived with growing up in the hood during late 80’s/early 90’s. Lyrically and musically,it shares many similarities to Stevie Wonder’s 70’s approach to funk-with its slow burning Clavinet based groove. She even references his song “I Wish” in the lyrics. Even though the use of the word “nigga” irritated me (I agree with Maya Angelou that even in baccarat crystal,poison is still poison), Lauryn Hill delivered on some seriously powerful funk for the late 90’s here.

 

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Ju-Ju Man” by Passport

Passport are one of my favorite jazz-funk fusion bands.  Klaus Doldinger,a Berlin native who’d studied in Dusseldorf and come in Oscar Peterson tribute bands and recorded solo records in America, is the saxophone player who formed the group in the year 1970. The band still exists today. In the 70’s and 80’s,they were perceived as a mainly European centered Weather Report-not having WR’s major international acclaim. Yet whether they were making progressive jazz/rock,jazz-funk,Brazilian jazz or even new wave inflected pop later, they generally seemed to always find just the right groove for their songs.

It was my father who first exposed me to Passport. He found their 1974 LP Looking Thru in the attic of his parents house when a tenant left some vinyl behind.  Hearing that got me looking for more albums of there’s. One I did find was 1976’s Infinity Machine. This was in an early to mid 70’s lineup of the group which included drummer Curt Cress,keyboardist  Kristian Schultze and bassist/guitarist Wolfgang Schmid. Today I have all their 70’s and 80’s album on CD. In any case Infinity Machine opened with a bang with the elongated instrumental “Ju-Ju Man”.

After a brief little drum kick,the song begins with a bumping uptempo percussion kick-with Cress’s drums fan-faring in with a strong swinging groove. Than a melodic 14 note Moog bass riff takes hold-with Doldinger’s sax accenting it. Afterwards,Doldinger solos with Schmid’s bass and guitar as call and response. After the sax breakdown of this choral/refrain sequence,Doldinger takes an elongated sax solo with Schmid’s bass the the Moog right along with him. After another solo on lead synthesizer,the main chorus/ refrain of the song repeats until it concludes the song.

“Ju-Ju Man” is some of the most vital,energetic and melodic jazzy funk I’ve heard this side of the Headhunters. The rhythm is driving,the solos are off the hook powerful and there are several parts of the song that are instantly hummable. Its also the type of jazz/funk that’s totally solo based. Curt Cress,as the drummer gives Doldinger and Schmid as primary soloists all the room to do their solos without merely vamping at “tennis without a net”. So in the end,it exemplifies Passport as one of the 70’s jazz/funk/fusion groups who really knew how to keep grooving and soloing locked right into place.

 

 

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “Skin I’m In” by Chairmen Of The Board

Chairman Of The Board are a true example of just how deeply seeded the Motor City soul sound of Motown became by the end of the 60’s. The late “General” Norman Johnson was the groups lead singer. He had started out in a group called The Showman. And when Motown’s classic songwriting trio Holland/Dozier/Holland left Motown to form their own label Invictus (also home to George Clinton’s Parliaments at the time), Johnson was paired with Eddie Curtis,Danny Young and the Canadian native Harrison Kennedy to form Chairman Of The Board.

The band had their debut hit in 1970 with “Give Me Just A Little More Time”. Musically it was squarely within the classic Motown style soul sound. What made it so unique was Johnson’s hiccuping,idiosyncratic lead vocals and very strong songwriting. By the mid 70’s, most of the members of the group were on the way to solo recording. The groups place in funk history was confirmed by their final album in 1974 entitled Skin I’m In. It was produced by another Motown alumni in Jeffrey Bowen. And one of its key numbers was its title song.

A swirling,bluesy rhythm guitar and bass bursts open the song. That guitar gradually mutates into a fuzz tone. And as the slow,funky drum slogs its way in,that rhythm guitar is accompanied by a fuzz toned one. As the song progresses,Johnson’s rangy vocals build up the song musically with Clavinet riffs and horns that build in intensity during the choral sequences. After a thunder like burst of sound, an instrumental bridge consisting of bell like synths and piano scaling returns the songs to its horn/Clavinet/bass and guitar oriented chorus until the song fades itself out.

“Skin I’m In” is the very funkiest song I’ve ever heard from Chairman Of The Board. Of course, was somewhat prepped for it by my literary funk research during the late 90’s and early aughts. Musically its a supreme example of slower rhythms making a song funkier-and full of a psychedelic soul blusiness in the instrumentation and melody. Johnson’s lyrics about black Americans consistently being kept from progressing in America is “united funk” at its finest too-with him exclaiming on the choruses “Its so HARD to live in the skin I’m in!”. So this is prime mid 70’s funk with a message!

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “I Love Makin’ Music” by Johnny Gill

Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.

Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers.  One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.

A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.

“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.

 

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Harriet Brown Does “Prince Weird” Right

brown

Is there any other musical influence as pervasive, yet elusive as Prince? Practically everyone in the contemporary pop landscape is influenced by him on some level–from Bruno Mars to Beyoncé to Young Thug–yet hardly anyone is able to capture what really made him great. D’Angelo has some of his electrifying stage presence; Miguel channels a bit of his sex appeal (albeit in watered-down, heteronormative form); DāM-FunK evokes his studio wizardry and occasional cantankerousness; but none of these are adequate replacements–nor would any of them claim to be.

Especially inimitable, and especially missed, is Prince’s weirdness. While the aforementioned Bruno Mars can do a serviceable enough version of “Let’s Go Crazy” at the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine him plumbing the psychosexual depths of a “Shockadelica,” let alone an “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It’s that ineffably eccentric quality that sets Prince apart from his imitators: most of whom, quite frankly, know better than to even try.

To be clear, I’m not trying to set up an argument for Inglewood-via-Bay Area artist Harriet Brown as the one true inheritor of “Prince weird”; that would be hyperbole in the extreme. But of the legion of contemporary artists whose music echoes the Purple One’s, Brown is the one who seems to get “it” most. Just listen to the digitally-manipulated voices he puts on in the intro of his recent album, Contact, shifting from “Bob George” low to “Camille” high; or the way his elastic falsetto bends almost comically on the line “sometimes I think I’m an alien on your planet” from “ESP.”  Or hell, just look at the guy: that exaggerated bowl cut, like an Akira character come to life, with an inscrutable, gender-bending stage name that doesn’t seem to have any real-world frame of reference (unless he’s just a really big fan of the author of Brave Girl Eating). “I like people not exactly knowing everything going on with me,” Brown told the LA Weekly in a profile last month–an awfully Princely statement if ever there was one.

But I also don’t want to give the impression that Brown is just an imitator; his sound certainly channels Prince, but it doesn’t sound like an ’80s throwback. If anything, he sounds a bit like if Prince had evolved more gracefully into the ’90s and 2000s, subtly incorporating the influences of hip- and trip-hop into his sound rather than clumsily attempting to appropriate them. In other words, Contact is forward-looking, 21st-century music: music that builds on the past as a foundation, rather than trying to retreat into it. And that may be the best credit to Prince’s legacy of all.

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Eminence Front” by The Who

Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist of The Who-one of the most long lived 60’s rock bands next to The Rolling Stones.  Townshend is often regarded for his onstage theatrics. He is also a talented multi instrumentalist. And an early proponent of synthesizers in early 70’s rock. The best example of this is the bands 1971 hit “Baba O’Reiley”,which was built around a European classic style melody played on the ARP 2600 synthesizer. After a very successful 60’s and 70’s, Townshend and the bands lead singer Roger Daltrey began to pursue solo careers at the start of the 1980’s.

Still The Who weren’t over quite yet. This came to my knowledge with a question I never got answered until learning about it online a few years back. From the mid 90’s onward,I’d often hear this song with an intro that had a terrific groove to it. Sounded like a prog/fusion style song,but it was during an era when classic rock radio didn’t often announce the names of artists for those not in the know. It wasn’t until hearing the song in a TV commercial that I was able to research it online through that stated what the song was. It was a song from The Who’s 1982 album Its Hard entitled “Eminence Front”.

A percussive drum box opens the song as a solo sound. The main groove of the song gradually builds in during the into. First it brings in a highly digitized,arpeggiated synthesizer. This is followed by a lower synth riff, as well as a jazzy Fender Rhodes solo floating over the higher notes. The main groove of the song adds a slow crawling drum groove,Townshend’s bluesy guitar. The chorus of the song brings John Entwistle’s thumping,fuzz toned bass in-along with a guitar build up on the outro of it. The Rhodes drives everything in the groove until the song finally fades itself out.

“Eminence Front”,written and sung by Townshend, deals lyrically deals with how the drug end of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle holds back creativity. And I can respect that alternate side of the coin. What really gets me is everything from the instrumentation to the vocal choruses of this song have a special musical interconnection. The song has the theatrical melodies of progressive rock opera (which The Who helped pioneer),but also a thick groove and harmony vocals of hardcore funk. It brings to mind the way the Stones embraced funk in their rock music: based on funk and soul’s current incarnations.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “I’m Back For More” by The Tavares

The Tavares are a group I’ve seen albums by in so many budget vinyl bins over the years, I didn’t have much context of their significance in the soul/R&B/funk world. Perhaps on their records being so common in Maine is a matter of geography.  This New England based group from New Bedford, Massachusetts got their start as different incarnations of The Turnpikes. Along the way,that group attracted future musicians such as Aerosmith’s drummer Joey Kramer and P-Funk/Talking Heads icon the late,great Bernie Worrell. By 1973, the five Tavares brothers alone signed to Capitol for a succession of R&B smashes.

One member of the group Butch Taveres is turning 69 this year. And so far,the only music I am all that aware of them for is their participation in the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack-in that case covering The Bee Gee’s composition “More Than A Woman”. For some reason,always associated the singing siblings as being primarily based in slow jam ballads and Philly style disco songs. But just yesterday,I learned they had a far funkier side that showed up on the final song of their 1979 album Madam Butterfly entitled “I’m Back For More”.

A slow shuffling drum,bluesy filtered Fender Rhodes piano and a snarling,jazzy bass walk accompanies the harmonies of the Tavares along with horn and string accents on the intro alone. During the refrains of the song,its the drums,Rhodes and strings that carry the song along with the groups close and often jazzy harmonies. On the earlier bars of each refrain statement,the drum kicks up a bit more than shuffles. On the latter choruses,a wah wah guitar joins the musical mix. On the final choruses,the horn charts take presidents with the groups call and response exchanges as it fades out.

“I’m Back For More” brings to mind the feeling of three songs that define the funkiest side of the disco era for me. It has the rhythmic and horn/string cadence of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”,the jazzy keyboards and swagger of Edgar Winter’s “Do What” from 1979 and a melodic element similar to Toto’s “Georgie Porgy” from a year earlier. Its the type of song that bridges disco,funk and classic harmony vocal based 70’s soul with such a strutting,funky yet laid back kind of groove. Cannot think of a better song to pay tribute to Butch Tavares with,personally.

 

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Games People Play” by The Spinners

The Spinners were a Detroit band who at one point were actually co credited with the name of their home city-the Detroit Spinners. Also as the Motown Spinners at times because original members Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, the late Bobby Smith and Pervis Jackson recorded a number of singles for the famous Detroit label. Their biggest hit on the label was of course “Its A Shame”,sung by GC Cameron. Cameron was succeeded by the late Phillipe Wynn. Wynn was part of a three lead singer lineup of the band at Atlantic Records-for a series of albums produced by Philly maestro Thom Bell.

That period of the Spinner’s recording from 1973-1976 was their most commercially successful. While they’d go on to make some superb records after that,its that early/mid 70’s period that defines them in the public consciousness. Pervis Jackson was one of the three lead singers of the band. Though he passed away from cancer in 2008, his bass vocals were a key part of their five part vocal harmonies. There was one time where his vocals became more the star of the show. And that was on another huge smash hit for them from their 1975 Pick Of The Litter album called “Games People Play”.

A spacious drum thump starts out the song. A high pitched rhythm guitar,filtered piano and close knit bass line provide the basic melody along with accompanying horn lines. A string riser segues into that intro extended out into the refrain of the song. A second statement of the song extends out into a different chord-focusing on the horns and strings playing along with the lead vocals,which include female guest singer Evette L.Benton. The chorus of the song finds the groups vocal harmonies singing the the melodic string and horn orchestration. Its on this chorus that the song fades out.

“Games People Play” is one of my very favorite Spinners song. Its some of the finest produced mid tempo cinematic soul of the mid 70’s Especially the vocal exchanges. For Pervis Jackson’s part,his moment on this song occurs during the beginning of the third refrain where his bass voice sings “12:45”. As I understand it, that lyrical phrase became his nickname for a time. The end result is one of the best vocally oriented musical studio soul sounds of its era. Thom Bell was a master of highly musical vocal productions. And this is one of many fine examples of this from the Spinners during the 70’s.

 

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Go For Your Guns: 40 Years Of A Funky Voyage To Atlantis With The Isley Brothers

Go For Your Guns

Go For Your Guns is an album whose 40th anniversary occurred over a month ago. And it was something that pretty much demanded to be over viewed here. My interest in the Isley’s 70’s music flowed from Rickey Vincent’s book on funk during that time. He referred to them as the epitome of funky manhood-with Chaka Khan as the female equivalent of the time. How I ended up with a CD of  Go For Your Guns is a story in and of itself. And has a good deal to do with my great appreciation of this album over the years. Its actually included in my Amazon.com review I’ll include here.


Normally I tend not to do this. But there’s a personal connection with this album in my own life surrounding this album. During the Ice Storm of 1998,power was half out and everyone everywhere in the state of Maine was snowed in and/or iced in. It was an uncomfortably claustrophobic environment. The second day out,the driveway was cleared out just enough so people could get in and out of it. So we all ended up taking a drive to the nearby Borders Books & Music where,in their music section,they’d actually open and re-package a brand new CD if you wanted to listen to it.

I was in the R&B/soul section,where I always went first and say this album. I’d never heard any 70’s era Isley Brothers. Read about them during that period in Ricky Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One but had only heard them at that time via their newest album at the time Mission to Please. So I listened to the album and,since the price was exactly right for me that’s what I took home that night. I put my headphones on and listened. Listened in a context of great risk that the power might go out again and the family would swing into instant emergency mode. That didn’t happen. Yet this album made me feel very confident that better things were coming. Now,I’ll tell you why.

“Pride” starts the album out with some high octane wah wah and electric piano as Ron declares “when you finally break it on down/it’s your pride”-the Isley’s crowning manifesto of masculine consciousness that I think of as their most self defining funk jam of that era. With it’s creamily textured guitar and keyboard lines,the complicated melodic exchanges of the ballad type funk in “Footsteps In The Dark” evoke the lyrical imagery of a mature yet tentative romantic relationship with an uncertain future.

Chris Jasper’s pulsing synthesizer seems to call out from both above and below the spongy and melodic funk of “Tell Me That You Need It Again”-with Ron’s strong minded seduction oozing out of both the music and lyrics as well as the Isley’s ever did during this era. “Climbin’ Up The Ladder” goes right for the jugular of Ernie Isley’s guitar for a furious rocker with a clean,tight bluesy melody-again with Ron in his powerfully growling lower vocal range.

“Voyage To Atlantic” is a slower rocker focusing on an elaborate romantic fantasy. “Livin’ In The Life” and the instrumental companion title song are some of the most flat out amazing music the Isley Brothers ever made. It is the probably the most effective heavy metal funk ever made. The groove is solid and tight. Yet the synthesizers and Ernie’s guitar on the title song assault the music with a heavy biting steel. So the song accomplishes everything by embodying both funk’s instrumental cleanliness and rock’s instrumental passion.

Overall the one quality that defines this album is complete and utter confidence. It isn’t all necessarily testosterone fueled male ego by any means. Ron Isley goes out of his way to try to bring the feminine characters in this song to understand where he’s coming from-tending to respect their intelligence rather than demean them. More over however,on both an instrumental and vocal level,this album comes at the listener with the fervor of a sociopolitical musical preacher.

Some of the messages are non specific enough to be appealing to just about everybody,but the message is that love of the world begins with self confidence you can bring out in others. And the Isley’s all had plenty of reason to be confident with this album. As the 70’s wore on they gained progressively more and more control over every aspect of their music-from writing,producing and arrangement. Of course it wouldn’t be long after this that this would turn into some ugly ego regarding the generational differences of how the two sets of brothers conducted creative matters.

I do think that the strong level of confidence this album projects gives the listener the most positive overall view of the funk era. It certainly affirmed my appreciation of the music during a tense time for those around me even. And even at times when my confidence in funk itself was swayed for whatever reason? This album reminded me of what I loved about the music that no one could ever mistaken the sentiments of. So in that context along with the high quality music,this is one of a handful of funk albums I recommend as downright essential.


Go For Your Guns is album that hit me the moment I heard it,had the same effect when writing this review and its likely it always will. The Isley Brothers,especially during the 3+3 era combining the two generations of brothers in the family,dominated their funk in the recording studio much the same way they dominated the stage when performing live. Their music and persona was always a smoldering,passionately poetic funky fire that burns very strongly on every song on this album. Encourage all of you reading this who haven’t yet heard the album to check it out. You might just have a similar reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

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