Maxwell ended an 8 year hiatus on the music scene with his 2009 album “BLACKsummers’night”, which was supposed to be part one of a three part series. We’re still waiting for parts 2 and 3, but Maxwell can be seen across the country on the touring circuit this summer. Maxwell is one of those artists in the ’90s who led the move back towards a more organic, musical and poetic style of R&B influenced by the classic years of the genre, which itself became a sub genre called Neo-Soul. Maxwell of course always had a strong funk connection as well, with his debut album, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite” being produced by ’70s vetrans Leon Ware and Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin. “Phoenix Rise” is the last song on the album, a funky instrumental that provided an instrumental vision of rebirth and redemption, which is a cool way to start this blog for April. Instrumentals, whether from James Brown, Booker T & the M.G’s, The Meters, Young, Holt & Unlimited, and many other bands, were one of the key musical forms that began the funk revolution in the 1960s.
“Phoenix Rise” is like a 2:41 wake up call. If my local R&B/Jazz station KBLX was still independent, this track would be an excellent one to play on the morning drive time, to simultaneously mellow people out and invigorate them. The song begins with a modern digital keyboard tone, playing a sweeping pad sound that sounds like waves washing up against the sand. The groove is introduced in stages, percussion making way for drummer Chris Dave’s big fat drum beat. Dave’s drums are well recorded, up front, definitely informed by the type of funk drumming that was heavily sampled in hip hop’s golden age, at the very least in how loud and upfront it’s recorded.
After eight bars of the drummers beat, sliding guitar lines are introduced, followed by Derrick Hodge’s bass, which plays some funky thumps and pops, the pops loosely form a bassline, but what they sound like more than anything are a muscle car revving it’s engines up, accenting the other instruments groove. Soon the bass and guitar settle into the main phrase, a vaguely Afro-Carribean accented phrase, doubled by a guitar playing in the low register, a common technique used to strengthen the sound of the bassline in the early days of recording. This phrase reoccurs every four bars, it’s a very funky phrase that also manages to be uplifting through it’s Afro-Carribean rhythmic accents. Single note guitar lines burstling with rhythmic activity liven up the groove as the main phrase takes root.
The horns of Keyon Harrold and Kemet Whalum III come into play right after a rock guitar is added. At the 2:00 mark the song breaks down, hitting the slowed down half time type feel that has been popular in hip hop since the 1990s and comes from the south, which has been very popular in roots funk musics like New Orleans brass music and D.C go-go. The half time section gives the horns a chance to play a soulful phrase as the bass moves a long in a reggae tinged lope, a la The Police’s intro to “Roxanne.” As soon as the “Phoenix” of the song rises, it disintigrates, as the horns hit some riffs and the whole song just fades out.
This song came out in 2009, which happened to be the year I lost my father. The idea of a funky instrumental, named after a mythological Egyptian bird was very appealing to me at the time, and remains so today. It’s a slice of mature, well polished funk with an Afro-Diasporic tinge that gets one energized. From footage I have found on YouTube it seems Maxwell and his band use it to open up their concerts, and it’s a great choice to do so! So enjoy the rebirth and reinvigoration of the “Phoenix Rise” this weekend and hereafter!