Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Right On Time’ by The Brothers Johnson

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One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.

As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.

Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.

Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.

Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.

Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Keep Your Eye On Me’ by Herb Alpert

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Herb Alpert really never stopped recording in the years between his Tijuana Brass and his late 70’s comeback album Rise. And he never stopped recording between that album and this either. Yes both of albums have two important things in common. They both bridged different areas of his career. They also allowed him to reinvent his music for different generations. The Herb Alpert that made this album was not the relatively new record label mogul developing very individual artists like Gino Vannelli and recording albums with people like Hugh Masekela.

THIS Herb Alpert is a well oiled record mogul pressed into service to developing careers of videogenic megastars such as Janet Jackson. So he didn’t have to go far to find the right producer for this project. Jam/Lewis,even though really only four years into their career as producers were at this point already establishing what 80’s funk would sound like with Janet’s Control. So it was no surprise what so ever that their rhythmic but highly stylized dance/funk style would have the effect it did on Alpert as well. So here we have it: Herb Alpert’s Jam & Lewis album!

Starting off with the title cut,we’re instantly dealing with a bassy,deeply funky number where the sound of Alpert’s horn is used more as a percussive effect than anything,pushing out the melody in spurts rather than extended notes. “Diamonds” and “Making Love In The Rain”,the two Janet Jackson songs here were seen as the real draw on this album and really have more of Janet’s sound with Alpert more as a guest musician. And they are strong numbers for sure.

But there’s much more here than that. “Hot Shot” and “Traffic Jam” are two more heavy instrumental funk grooves where “Cat Man Do”,”Our Song”,”Rocket To The Moon” and especially the closing “Stranger On The Shore” really bring Alpert back as the star of the show as the primary instrumental soloist. And his distinctive,hyper melodic,vibrato heavy “bull fighting” trumpet style hasn’t changed one iota for this occasion either. On “Pillow” Herb takes over on vocals himself with Lani Hall so,in any spot where he may be vocally weak she can take over a little bit more. This dual lead harmony effect also serves to bring out the moody melodicism of the composition.

I’ve only really listen to this album once but I can already say from listen to it that this is the sort album that you will tend to get more out of each time you listen to it. It owes as much to the artist as it does to the producers. They both know how to keep the songs musically and melodically filled with just enough surprises to keep the music fresh and interesting with each listen. Again as with most things from this era a lot of people are bound to give this album some less than stellar commentary simply because it’s based in the production of the late 80’s.

And that’s not an era seen as very potent in pop music. All the same there was still enough of the kind of arrangement and melodicism that made music of the previous couple decades what it was. And in the era before the beat heavy hip-hop beats took over both R&B and jazz-pop even as the dominant rhythmic pattern that’s,along with Herb Alpert’s musical potency is part of what helps this to be a stand out album all the way.

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Reach For It’ by George Duke

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Somehow it hit me listening to this…just how much of my adult musical understanding comes out of the artistry of the late George Duke. Painted his portrait several times. Made a friend because of him,who had me speak to Duke himself on a radio show and later taught me how to play chords on the keyboard to the man’s song “Capricorn”. Obviously this is not the first time I’ve heard this particular album.

It was the first record by him I ever heard of. And the first of his I ever saw sitting in the record store CD racks. It was a major album for the man career wise. So many jazz/funk lovers and fellow musicians have aurally eaten this album whole over the decades. So hear is what I hear when listening to it.

Opening up with the cinematic bass synthesizer of “The Beginning”,the album goes right into the powerful guitar/bass interaction based jazz/rock fusion of “Lemme At It”. Opening with a fanfare on the electric piano,”Hot Fire” deals with some heavy duty Afro Cuban rhythms and melodies. The title track of course finds the classic half rapped/half sung slow bass synth funk stomp holding down what amounts to a “P-Jazzfunk” masterpiece.

“Just For You” is a melodically complex pop/soul ballad with an electronically symphonic instrumental chorus. “Omi (Fresh Water)” and “Diamonds” are both kinetic,uptempo Brazilian fusion jams while “Searchin’ My Mind” is an EWF like uptempo pop/funk number sung by singers Dee Henrichs,Deborah and Sybil Thomas.

“Watch Out Baby!” is a grinding hard funk stomp with the bass/guitar rhythmic chunkiness of Stanley Clarke and Michael Sembello leading the way. “The End” concludes the album similarly to how it began,while the additional unreleased bonus selection “Bring It On Home” deals with a down home bluesy soul instrumental. What George Duke and his extremely talented band of players does here is really quite amazing. For the last several years before this?

He’d musically sought to locate and lock down the unifying rhythmic/melodic threads between jazz, soul, rock, blues and the music of Brazil. The unifying factor he discovered was a strong sense of musical Afrocentrism. And that’s the quality that this album,across it’s oozing mix of musical genres,possesses in abundance. Exciting, joyous and adventurous jazz/funk that I feel is among the most essential of it’s particular spectrum

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Funky Reflections On 1987: ‘The Right Night And Barry White’

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Personally I don’t think it’s possible to count how many times I’ve seen this CD on the racks of the local record store and never been moved by or aware enough of it to pay any mind. One key issue that had me re-thinking this oversight was a blog written by my oft quoted friend Henrique about an excellent song from this album. It again provided a strong reminder just how much funky music charted high both on radio and with the public during 1987. So it all gave me to understand that this was an album that I DEFINITELY wanted to check out. After doing so? It also shows just how much I missed out on not looking into this from the outset.

“Good Dancin’ Music” and “Sho You Right”,the song the directed me back to this album are both hard hitting,bass synth driven electro funk extravaganza’s with some of the most intricate uses of instrumental harmony I’ve ever heard. “As Time Goes By” is transformed from it’s original ballad style to percussive cinematic funky soul number with a sauntering Caribbean vibe. “For Your Love (I’ll Do Anything)” is a slow crawling,slap bass driven groove while songs such as “There’s A Place Where Love Never Ends”,”Love In Your Eyes”,”I’m Ready For Love”,”Share”,”Who’s The Fool” and the nostalgic title song all fall into his classic ballad style.

This album did an amazing job of showcasing how the more electronic instrumentation of the time was still perfectly able to support the man’s arrangements-especially as well integrated it all was. The music ideas and classic romantic monologues are all used to full affect on here as well. During the years I was growing up? Even if they were coming out fairly close together? Each and every new Barry White album was treated as a major comeback-almost as if he’d somehow disappeared off the map between those releases. In any case? This is one of those albums that I truly wished had been a part of my musical life a lot longer than it has been.

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‘Kick’ At 30: INXS Get A New Sensation

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INXS had an amazing period of growth in the 1980’s. In the first couple of years of the decade, the Australian band were a hard touring post punk/new wave outfit. By 1984’s The Swing, the sound of songs such as the hit “Original Sin” got the heavy funk treatment from the production of Nile Rodgers. From that point on, INXS would be a funk/rock powerhouse. Their songs punctuated by an equal combination of big guitars, grooving horns and bass lines and the versatile, soulful voice of its late lead singer Michael Hutchence. This all came to a head 30 years ago today with the release of Kick.

Kick was part of a massive revival of funk/soul sounds in pop music. Whereas more straight ahead guitar rock had been the dominating force during the earlier part of the decade. In fact, the first time I heard of INXS was the video for the song “Need You Tonight”, whose visuals abstract on the cover art for the album itself.  Their grooving sound and extroverted visual presence made this quite an experience for me. Now I’ve heard the entire Kick album for the first time all the way through. And am going to share with you my observations of it-largely from a funk and soul based perspective.

“Guns In The Sky” starts off the album with pounding, spare drums and brittle lead rock guitar of the Farriss brothers Jon, Andrew and Tim. This is matched with lyrics that lashes out against  people’s obsessions with fire arms.  “New Sensation” is a rhythm guitar fueled fusion of funk and rock-especially its horn fueled chorus. As my boyfriend Scott originally pointed out, there is a banjo (or a very banjo like guitar sound) playing just under the rhythm guitar lick.  “Devil Inside” starts out with a round percussion based sound-with mild rhythm guitar and bass accents of Garry Gary Beers

“Devil Inside” also gradually mutates heavier guitars kick in for a slinky rocker-the hardest edged rock piece on the album. And also the longest song on the album.  “Need You Tonight” is built around stripped down “naked funk” as well as call and response vocals of course. That segues without a break into the hip-hop style drum based number-with jazzy phrased synth pads in the back round while Hutchence’s vocal arrangement is structurally similar to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. On this song however, the lyrics focus squarely on the racially unjust South African apartheid system.

“Tiny Daggers” is a very Stonsey slower 12 bar blues number, with a rocky twist. Also a soul-pop melody on the chorus. In terms of totally melding a rock soloing attitude with a funk rhythm section, “Wild Life” and “Calling On Nations” pull off the fusion without a hitch- in a similar manner to “New Sensation” from earlier in the album. The shuffling “Mystify” and the title track both have mid 60’s “rock ‘n soul” flavors to them-with the sax of Kirk Pengilly’s honking solos. “Never Tear Us Apart”, the albums lone ballad, is an update of the 6/8 time 60’s soul ballad-featuring string and another Pengilly sax solo.

“Tiny Daggers” has the driving drums,melodic piano and jangling rhythm guitar of a Springsteen style heartland area rocker. Its resemblance to another hit from this era, Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” brings out an idea I have about the album. With its dead center funk/rock fusion, which Andrew Farriss declared was always part of INXS’ sound, Kick’s dead center funk/rock fusion sound-along with its lyrical themes combining hedonism and social awareness, is something of  an integrated band equivalent to what Prince was doing with his Sign O The Times album in 1987.

Kick is an album that, having heard it all the way through, is a bit of a time capsule of that re-focusing of pop/rock music towards funk and soul was going by 87. Some of the songs are more stronger funk based, others are more straight rockers, and others totally combine them together.  It also went right along with the momentum INXS themselves were on with funk/soul based pop hits like “What You Need” and the aforementioned “Original Sin”.  INXS’s own stylistic trajectory matching up with the times goes with has made Kick so enduring and iconic for late 80’s funk and pop/rock.

 

 

 

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Bruno Mars: Memories Of Doo Wops & Hooligans

Bruno Mars has symbolized how much the 2010’s have seen an occasional (sometimes too minor) rebirth of song and instrumental oriented soul/funk/pop music. And that’s of course speaking strictly on a commercial level. A child star in his native Honolulu, the man born  Peter Jean Hernandez continued to perform covers in LA after a failed stint with Motown before becoming a well known songwriter. What interests me most about him is how he recorded his full length 2010 debut album with a live band called The Hooligans. Who are with him to this day. As for that album itself…..


The first time I heard the name Bruno Mars when at a summer pride festival when a local band in my area called The Blast Addicts did a version of his song “The Lazy Song”. I’d seen this album around but paid it little attention. Over time I’ve had more exposure to his young hipster attitude and his inspired state show,I began to realize this might just be a talent worth exploring.

It’s been a very long time since I heard an artist whose songs were inspiring interpretation so early in the game. While references to him as “the new Michael Jackson” were a complete turn off at first,considering how few artists will ever likely live up to a vibrant talent on the level of MJ again, But what was this man going to have to say on his own terms?

The first two songs on this album “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are” do in fact possess that epic production sound so common today,however the pop-soul song craft of the compositions themselves are really quite amazing. My personal favorite track here is the slinky funk/reggae of “Our First Time”,with it’s beautifully jazzy chord changes.

“Runaway Baby” is a high octane,guitar based funk rocker where “The Lazy Song” pulls pop,soul,funk and light hip-hop rhythms together for a song celebrating the sometimes slacker spirit of youth. The same impulse carries on into the sparse new wave style “Marry You”,though this time seeking a commitment through naivety. “Talking To The Moon” is a moody,reflective piano based ballad.

Damian Marley shows up for the heavy reverbed reggae of “Liquor Store Blues”,an ode to drowning sorrows where “Count On Me” is a sweet little acoustic based song with a strong Caribbean flavor. The ending finds Mars as a soul man supreme on the heavily Stax inspired “The Other Side” recorded,of course with Cee Lo Green. Brimming with youthful charm and innocence this singer/songwriter/musician also shows great potential for a significant,long term creative expansion as he grows artistically.

He puts a great deal of thought into his writing and his musical ideas. And while it’s clear he operates on many levels firmly within the contemporary musical idiom,his basic musical flavors come out of 60’s and 70’s sunshine pop melodies-through the filters of the soul,funk and reggae music he clearly loves. Probably the idea pop album for this particular time period.


This review of Bruno Mars’s first album was written by me five years ago, around the time I was taking an interest in his second effort Unorthodox Jukebox. Bruno’s music has since then been covered more on this blog by my friend Henrique Hopkins. He really helped to bring songs like “24 Karat” and the already iconic “Uptown Funk” to my initial attention in the doing. In any case, always felt it wise to approach Bruno’s music in an album context on my end. And am starting with his first here. Which shows how much tremendous growth Bruno’s music has made in the years since he made his solo debut.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Red Top” by Steve Miller

Steve Miller, a Milwaukee native, had very strong connections to jazz growing up. His mother Bertha sang in a very jazz oriented manner. And his father George, called Sonny, did some record engineering in his spare time off his job as a pathologist. While attending the University Of Madison, Miller and his longtime friend Boz Scaggs formed The Ardells-eventually joined by keyboard player Ben Sidran. This began the circle of musicians who’d eventually become The Steve Miller Band. Their psychedelic blues sound evolved into a more pop friendly sound during the early 70’s.

By the early 70’s, The Steve Miller Band had a series of eclectic hits from the rock of “The Joker” to the synth pop/new wave of “Abracadabra”. After the band took a hiatus in the mid 80’s, Miller began recorded a series of blues and jazz oriented solo albums. One of them was 1988’s Born 2 Be Blue. It reunited him with Ben Sidran, who acted as a producer and keyboard player on the album. My father had the cassette of the album in the late 80’s. And there was one Lionel Hampton song Miller recorded at the end of the album that became an ear worm for both of us at the time. It was called “Red Top”.

Gordy Knudtson’s drum kickoff starts off the song-with the late sax great Phil Woods blowing away the melody before a break for Miller vocally introducing the chorus. Knudtson’s drum takes on a more New Orleans type flavor. Sidran’s synthesized organ plays a strong foundational role in this as well-along with Miller’s bluesy guitar riffs accenting it all. Billy Peterson’s bass line bounces right along with the drums. On the bridge, the rhythm all swings for Woods to take a full sax solo. After this the song has an extended chorus before coming to a stop on a reprise of the intro.

“Red Top” has been recorded by a lot of people since Hampton composed the song. There’s something about Steve Miller’s version that really brings it to a new generation. The song of course as a straight up 12 bar blues structure. But between Ben Sidran’s keys and Gordy Knudtson drumming, there’s a strong Crescent city jazz/funk flavor to this song that takes the actual melodic structure of it to another level. Miller himself seems right at home in this particular musical setting. And its actually among my personal favorite things I’ve heard Steve Miller record.

 

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Aja At 40: Welcome To The Land Of Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja was an album whose success has been based far more on its quality than its commercial potential. In 2010, it was even inducted by the Library of Congress into their United States National Recording Registry. It even won a Grammy in the the year of its release for being the best engineered non classical record of the year. For me, it represented the precision musicianship of the jazz funk era musicians who played on the album at some of their personal best. Also in 2010, I wrote a review on Amazon.com about the album and how I personally heard it.


Time has a way of testing a work of art that might be today’s masterpiece but tomorrow’s rubbish pile. One would probably find that not only would this album ace such a test with flying colors but could actually still be considered something of a yardstick of it’s kind. I am not sure but before this album very little music that qualified as jazz-funk,fusion or pop/jazz ever quite had the same level of all around success this one had in pop and rock circles and especially among pop radio listeners. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one the music featured here is a fully realized refinement on what was accomplished with The Royal Scam and unlike that albums more jagged moments both the production and arrangements on this album are clean as a whistle. For another thing none of that took away from the daring and adventurous flavors here. So you have this mixture of elegance,sophistication and a strong groove that only those really in the know about funk can provide.

The production of the Clavinet on “Black Cow” pretty much tell the story and some of the songs people don’t remember as well here such as “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” there’s some of the most intricate and uniquely textured piano work Donald Fagen had committed to record thus far and trust me: on that area he’d more than earned a few brownie points already. The title song has one of the most complex melodic constructions your liable to find in a pop record.

And of course it’s not easy to get Steve Gadd’s amazing fusion style drum solo at the songs conclusion out of one’s memory even after the passing of time. The popular hits from this album “Deacon Blues” and of course “Peg” showcase another surprising element of this album. Those familiar with Steely Dan before this album realize lyrically they tended to specialize in warped tales,usually of people no one wanted to know. These songs maintain their lyrical style but the tales they tell are a bit more accessible in tone and are among the more lighthearted and quaint in their catalog.

Yeah they were probably making a few funnies about the stereotypical simplicity of pop music lyrics but….a lot of it just is what it is and that’s kind of different for their usually double meaning approach. “Josie” ends the album on a similar note although the lyrics on that one may be just a tad slinkier and the groove just mildly edgier. At this point you could say this was Steely Dan’s best overall album and it’s certainly their best known.

But it’s also important to know their “laboratory in the studio” approach to recording across their previous two albums really opened the door for this to happen. So this was the conclusion to a long enduring musical experiment rather than something that came out of this air. That taken into considering the amazing thing about this is…..all these years later it still doesn’t sound like a product of hard labor.


Aja was an album that I first heard playing in my family’s car “boom box” when, as I recall, we were going to pick apples. Its an excellent example of a record where the melodic and very welcoming jazz/funk fusion grooves of the album deflect from Steely Dan’s typically cryptic and “insider commentary” based nature of their lyrical content. There’s a lot on the musical end of this album that I was able to project into a YouTube video I did about the album recently.  Aja is a record I could go on and on about here. But in the end, its best for the music to do the talking in this case.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Little Things” by India.Arie

India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.

India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.

The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.

“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of  its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.

 

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” by Sting

Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.

As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.

Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.

“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.

 

 

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