Monthly Archives: June 2016

Stanley Clarke: His First Solo Decade

Stanley Clarke painting

Stanley Clarke showcases yet another example of how the City Of Brotherly Love sometimes comes across like the most musical city north of New Orleans. Since NYC and Miami lays between them,it’s more complex than that. That describes Stanley’s approach to bass playing too. He was of course one of the premier jazz fusion bass players of the 70s alongside Jaco Pastorious-with whom he recorded.  He also had a distinct style on the two different bass types-a Larry Graham inspired slap on the electric,and a smooth vamp on the upright acoustic. That helped give his playing style it’s distinctiveness.

I’ve covered one Stanley Clarke song from his most recent album Up,as well as having him be a part of my list of key funky bassists. Thought of covering one or three of his songs on this blogs Anatomy of THE Groove feature. But there’s something about the breadth and expansion of Stanley’s career that lent itself to something else. Recently I’ve been doing individual articles that focus on a large number of songs by such artists with vast musical catalogs. So here is a rundown of the Stanley Clarke numbers that made the funkiest impact on me personally out of his now 44 year old solo career.


“Vulcan Princess”/1974

This song rips right out of Stanley’s self titled sophomore album as a vital extension of Return To Forever’s   (with whom he was bass player still) “Vulcan Worlds”. This version takes the powerful Minimoog based melody into a phat funky slap bass groove on the refrain. Actually,my very first time hearing Stanley Clarke playing funk.

“Hot Fun”/1976

It is very easy to lean on the title song of Stanley’s 1976  release School Days. While that has one of the most iconic funk bass lines in history,something about the horn arrangements building up this song and it’s slap bass improvisations really bring out the funk. And showcases Stanley really developing as a cinematically strong composer.

“Modern Man”/1978

Stanley Clarke really paved the way for his ability to score arrangements with this song. With it’s multiple sections ranging from jazzy ballad to melodic uptempo pop-funk,this busily cinematic groove also showcases Stanley playing a lot of higher toned bass links and really working very well with his developing vocal abilities.

“Just A Feeling”/1979

Stanley’s partner in funky music,the late George Duke,provided some bluesy chromatic walks on the Yamaha electric piano on this bouncy disco-funk tribute to Louis Armstrong. On the choruses,Duke and Tom Scott on wah wah lyricon provide a sunny and triumphant melody.

“Together Again”/1979

On this very hummable disco pop number,Stanley Clarke plays all the instruments. Again it points to his talents to score a number that could’ve easily been a film or television show theme song of the time. Has some similarities to a Bob James composition in that area,only with a more stripped down instrumental style.

“We Supply”/1980

With it’s slow dragging beat,horn charts,synth washes and intense slap bass ruffs from Stanley this song was a great way for Stanley to bring in the 80’s with one of the heaviest P-Funk inspired grooves the man ever came up with.

“New York City”/1982

Stanley Clarke was working with Carlos Santana a lot during this time. Both artists were pursuing a vocally oriented boogie/post disco pop-funk sound. Stanley’s Let Me Know You album is defined by it and this stripped down number-with it’s drumming that seems to gradually slow on the intro and the bubbling bass licks help this tribute to NYC come right to life.

“Are You Ready (For The Future)”/1984

With it’s use of sequencers,brittle synthesizer riffs and drum machines this song is one fellow blogger Zach Hoskins might refer to as “the Jheri curl sound”. With it’s use of processed,ghostly back vocals and chipmunk’d leads,the real star of the show on this song is Ray Gomez’s scratching rhythm guitar along with Stanley’s equally chugging lines.

“Time Exposure”/1984

The title song to Stanley’s 1984 album stands as a synth pop/new wave showcases for some of Stanley’s heaviest slap bass riffs-even playing in a duet style with his own higher pitched riffs.


It’s true that Stanley Clarke has recorded many albums and many songs since the mid 1980’s. At the same time,very little he has done since that time has stood out in terms of individuals songs. He became more of an album artist. And one of the best in terms of bass at that. Of course he continued to parlay his talents in scoring films and television. So it felt important to showcase how funk helped Stanley to develop the compositional style that has served him well-both creatively and commercially.

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, cinematic funk, elecro funk, Funk Bass, funk rock, jazz funk, Moog bass, Ray Gomez, slap bass, Stanley Clarke, upright bass

Grooves On Wax: Black Wax In Black Music Month

James Brown Showtime

James Brown’s albums up to the beginning of the mid 60’s seem to be helpful in showcasing what was influential on the future Godfather Of Soul. This 1964 album,his debut for Smash,is an excellent example of this. JB starts out with a spirited cover of the R&B classic “Caledonia”,originally by Louie Jordan & The Timpani Five. As a studio album overdubbed with applause,these songs find JB singing the blues on a number of rhythm & blues shuffles-removed for the most part from his typical live show of the era.

Key Jams: “Evil” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”

Mirium Makeba

Miriam Makeba is an artist I’ve always interesting in hearing more from. This is an excellent album from 1967 for her. It really does a lot to bring out the sound of African soul-with a lot of elements that would eventually go into the world fusion sound in the future. Especially with the songs not all being sung in English. She even adds a folk song called “A Piece Of Ground”-which runs down the horrid inequity of apartheid in South Africa.

Key Jam: “Pata Pata”

Odyssey Of Iska

Wayne Shorter made this 1971 avant garde jazz album as he was transitioning from Miles Davis’s second quintet of the mid/late 60’s onto fusion pioneers Weather Report. And it really shows as Gene Bertoncini’s guitar-with it’s rhythmic overdrive along with former quintet made Ron Carter’s bass and Alphonse Mouzan’s drumming give this album the kind of Afro-Brazilian jazz/funk process sound Miles himself was already diving headlong into.

Key Jams: “Storm”,“De Pois Do Amor,O Vazio” and “Joy”osibisa-woyaya(16)

Osibisa are a  British,mostly Ghanan Afro pop group who were first described to me as being called “Obsidica”,and sounding like the Isley Brothers. Neither of those things being true of course,this 1971 album is in the Afro-Latin funk/rock/soul collection jamming much in the style of Mandrill and Santana.

Key Jams: “Beautiful Seven” and “Move On.

robertaflack-quietfire-cover

Roberta Flack is someone who today could almost be considered the godmother of neo-soul. Her understated vocal approach and naturally based instrumental style was a precurser of that. Especially on her earlier albums.  On these records though,they caught some heavily funky fire on a song or two. This 1971 release actually has a bit more than others-especially her ultra gospel drenched version of the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody”.

Key Jams: “Go Up Moses” and “Sunday And Sister Jones”

Edwin Birdsong

Edwin Birdsong,keyboardist and songwriter for the Roy Ayers Ubiquity who later worked with Stevie Wonder,really put himself out on this ultra funky 1972 debut album. He was a heavy purveyor of sociopolitical “people music” message songs as well. Even the lone ballad “It Ain’t No Fun Being a Welfare Recipient” tells the kind of story you generally don’t hear on too many slow jams. Birdsong’s holds-no-barred approach to humanitarian lyricism really inspires my personal funky emotions.

Key Jams:”The Uncle Tom Game” and “When A Newborn Baby Is Born,The Gets One More Chance” 

Open Sesame

Kool & The Gang totally reinvent the chemistry of their groove on this 1976 album,in their positions as The Scientists Of Sound. The jacket folds in half on the front to find portraits of the band members in the garb of Morrish royalty. From the casting of the “genie of sound” on the title song onward,this album finds their sound in direct transition from the heavy jazz/funk based sound of their earlier music to the disco era soul/funk melodicism of their under appreciated late 70’s pre JT Taylor period.

Key Jams: “Open Sesame”,“All Night Long” and “Super Band”

brick------_goodhigh-_101b

Brick’s sophomore album was where I discovered this heavily jazz based disco funk band. This 1976 debut album for them really helped put together their “disco jazz” type of music very well-with songs that featured more instrumental oriented jamming on many of the songs rather than the more heavily constructed pop type songs they would be known for on their following recordings.

Key Jams: “Dazz” and “Brick City”

Melba Moore

Melba Moore’s Broadway experience really helped her theatrical variety of heavily orchestrated soul balladry and disco/dance records she recorded during the 70’s. This 1978 album from her,produced by the Philly team of McFadden & Whitehead,contains one of my very favorite songs by her in the funkified “You Stepped Into My Life”.

Key Jams: “You Stepped Into My Life” and “It’s Hard Not To Like You”

Ohio Players - Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee -

The Ohio Players final album for Mercury from 1978 has gotten very mixed views from fans of this classic funk band. Yet from the very beginning,they make it more than clear that the then burgeoning disco sound was not yet effecting their heavy funkiness. As a matter of fact,this particular album is home to some of the hardest hitting funk the band ever made.

Key Jams: “Funk-O-Nots”,“Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee” and “Dance (If You Wanta)”

Pleasure

Pleasure’s jazz-funk sound out of Portland,Oregon is one that I am just beginning to explore. This 1980 album of theirs has become something of a big deal in recent years. With their sophistifunk production and jazzy instrumental solos,the band seem to have made their mark in the annals of funk as it transitioned from the 70’s onto the 80’s.

Key Jams: “Now You Choose Me” and “Yearnin’ Burnin'”

brass-construction-attitudes-20120328040716

Brass Construction’s title song for this 1982 album was one I thought came from Cameo due to a mislabeled MP3 sometime ago. It led me to the vinyl album,which is now recognizable as the bands transition to the stripped down,electro/naked/boogie funk sound of the early 80’s. It’s almost completely uptempo funk based saved for the jazzy mid tempo ballad “ETC”.

Key Jams: “Can You See The Light”,“Forever Love” and “Attitude”

slave-bad-enuff-1089025-1437603644

Slave were the last and youngest of the classic Dayton,Ohio funk bands,and were some of the architects of the boogie funk sound. That’s very prominent on this 1983 album,their first album of the 80’s without Steve Arrington. Actually,it’s a strong transition from their original live band approach to their more electro funk oriented sound that was about to come.

Key Jams: “Steppin’ Out” , “Turn You Out (In & Out)” and “Show Down”

isley-jasper-isley-broadways-closer-to-sunset-blvd-bonus-track-version-5954759-1448546073

Ernie and Marvin Isley along with Chris Jasper struck out as their own trio in 1984. This debut album from the same year is actually one of the strongest boogie funk albums of its era. That’s because the brittle drum machines are accented by the same powerful percussion the 3+3 Isley Brothers were known for.  That rhythmic approach mixed with layers of synthesizers,bass and guitar make this an superb extension  of the Isley sound as heard on the Between The Sheets from a year earlier.

Key Jams: “Serve You Right” and “Break This Chain

 

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, Afro Funk, avant-garde, Blues, Brass Construction, Brick, Edwin Birdsong, electro funk, Funk, funk albums, Isley-Jasper-Isley, James Brown, Kool & The Gang, Melba Moore, Miriam Makeba, Ohio Players, Osibisa, Pleasure, rhythm & blues, Roberta Flack, Slave, Uncategorized, Vinyl, Wayne Shorter

Prince Summer: “17 Days” (1984)

Prince was a very busy man in 1983. He was getting things together for his first major motion picture. It was originally for a script called Dreams. And of course this script evolved into the movie Purple Rain. During this period he recorded material for this films soundtrack,a second Vanity 6 album (which eventually became the Apollonia 6),Sheila E’s solo debut and a third album for The Time. Prince also recorded a number of songs on his own during these sessions that,while a bit off the cuff for album tracks,became some of the best known 45 RPM single B-sides of his career.

One of these B-sides is a song referred to in it’s entirety  as “17 Days (The rain will come down, then U will have 2 choose. If U believe, look 2 the dawn and U shall never lose)”. My mother first brought Prince into the family’s home with a 45 single of “When Doves Cry”. Like many kids who love turning over rocks and logs,I insisted on hearing what was on the side. From the first moment I heard “17 Days” as this songs B-side,it showed me there was a lot more to Prince musically that I didn’t know. After all these years of my exploration of the song,may I present to you my full overview of “17 Days”.

An complexly chorded filtered psychedelic guitar opens the song. Then the rhythm gets going. It’s a slow drag of a drum beat accentuated with some clanging,shuffling percussion. Throughout this,an equally filtered bass line seems to have been slowed right down in the mix as it slowly scales up and down. First a hard 2 note rhythm guitar assists this groove-followed by a high pitched synthesizer that continually accents the melody of the song. After the Vanity/Apollonia 6’s Brenda Bennet provides backup choral vocals to Prince’s,the groove intensifies on the bridge before fading out back on it’s main theme.

In all honesty,this might be one of the most amazing funk numbers Prince recorded during his 1983 Purple Rain production. I’m not 100% certain of this. But a lot of the instrumentation on the song sounds as if it comes from a slowed down tape. And of course the drums and percussion are slow on their own. Because it is a bluesy jazzy chorded type of heartbreak oriented groove and lyric,it really brings out how a lot of the most powerful funk is on the slow side rhythmically. So to me,this song stands with “Erotic City”(from the same vintage) as among the very funkiest B-sides Prince had recorded.

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Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Brenda Bennett, drums, Funk Bass, guitar, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, percussion, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Psychedelia, Purple Rain, slow funk, synthesizers

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Billy Jack Bitch” by Prince

Prince recorded so much music in his lifetime,there were going to be moments that would be left neglected by some people. The Gold Experience was such an album. It was recorded in 1993 during the most bitter stages of his legal battles with Warner Bros. The end result is that it was the very first album released under the name of O(+>,itself actually functioning as the title for his 1992 album a year before this was recorded.  The album was released on Warner’s yet distributed by Prince’s own NPG Records on September 26th,1995. Because of all the hype surrounding Prince’s name change,this album seemed to be a big deal.

It was a man named Andy,who worked behind the counter of the local branch Strawberries Music chain,who first bought this album to my attention. He asked me if I was a Prince fan. Said I hadn’t heard a lot of his music,which was not a lie at the time. It was that conversation that actually got me interested in revisiting Prince’s music and learning about his history-which was then a bit more recent than it is today. I picked up a pre-owned CD of The Gold Experience a year later. I still seldom listen to it all the way through. One song that I just happily revisited on it was “Billy Jack Bitch”.

Prince starts off the song singing the songs title,accented by a vocal sample from Fishbone’s song “Lying Ass Bitch” over a fast funky drums of Michael Bland-along with a higher and lower toned synthesizer squiggle. A snare kickoff brings in the thick,pulsing bass line of Sonny T. along with the pumping organ of  Tommy Barbarella. This rhythm keeps the same flow through several verse/chorus exchanges before Barbarella takes a steamy organ solo on the bridge-just around the same time Prince accents his melody with sheets of rock guitar. The NPG horns fanfare away just as the song begins to fade out.

Prince and the New Power Generation really do their stuff so well on this song. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me very recently,this is a pretty straight up P-Funk style jam out of the “One Nation Under A Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep” school. Rhythmically it’s a wonderful blend of the NPG’s band interplay with Prince’s instrumental and production touches-not to mention the harmony vocals of Lenny Kravitz-which brings the two contemporary funk/rockers together. That along with the tightly chorded horn voicing’s that come in at the songs concluding segment.

Lyrically this song has similar content to Michael Jackson’s Tabloid Junkie” from the same vintage. The focus is more personal-as Prince accuses the songs antagonist of “calling him silly names” as well as not being willing to confront him face to face. The song was recently confirmed  to have in fact been a direct statement about Minneapolis Star Tribute gossip columnist CJ,whom Prince saw as an enemy of his within the press. Even though it did have it’s place in the rather paranoid anti tabloid sentiment of it’s day,Prince and the NPG endowed it with some strong Minneapolis style P-Funk power.

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Filed under 1990s, Billy Jack Bitch, diss songs, drums, Fishbone, Funk Bass, horns, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Bland, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Powe Generation, NPG Records, organ, P-Funk, Prince, rock guitar, Sampling, Sonny T, synthesizers, Tommy Barbarella, Warner Bros.

Sammy Kershaw’s blues – Improvisations

sammy kershaw
Sammy Kershaw’s got the blues
By Ron Wynn
Though he’s enjoyed his greatest commercial success as a country artist, Sammy Kershaw’s always enjoyed all types of music. But even some longtime fans might not know that blues is a part of his idiomatic foundation alongside the country and Cajun sounds that have permeated and defined his biggest hits.
It’s taken a while, but Kershaw has finally released a blues LP. “The Blues Got Me” was actually completed in 2008 and mastered in 2009. However an extremely busy touring schedule, coupled with other releases, kept it on the shelf until May, when Kershaw decided it was time to get this one out. “I’ve been doing some of the songs in my live shows for a long time,” he told The Scene recently. “I had even put one or two of these on other albums, but did them in a country vein. So I just felt like the album had been on the shelf for a long time, and let’s get it out there.”
“I grew up in the dance halls and heard all kinds of music,” Kershaw continued. “The blues has most definitely had an impact on me, just like country and Cajun and Zydeco. A lot of times, when you’re talking about blues and country, it’s really the same feeling, but you’ve got different arrangements and instrumentation. They both speak to the soul, and they’re both about the soul, about expressing your true feelings from the heart about whatever your situation is in a song.”
“The Blues Got Me” includes a rollicking cover of Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down,” a poignant reworking of Solomon Burke’s hit “Honey, Where’s The Money Gone” and a dynamic rendition of the Allman Brothers’ “It’s Not My Cross To Bear.” But the most intriguing part of “The Blues Got Me,” aside from the stylistic departure, is it’s also a compositional showcase for Kershaw, who either wrote or co-wrote seven of the compositions.
“I don’t even consider myself a writer that way,” Kershaw explained. “But when we started cutting the songs, I just sat down and started writing and it really started flowing that way. I kept the blues in mind with all the tunes I was doing. Before I knew it we had a bunch of material that was ready to go, and I was really happy with what was happening.” Kershaw also points to Zydeco and swamp pop as two other influences that seep into the numbers, citing everything as part of what he heard in his youth.
Sammy Kershaw’s third cousin is the legendary Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw. He got his first electric guitar at 11, and a year later was touring the Southwest with area bandleader J.B. Perry. He endured some tough times personally and professionally during the ’80s, even at one point departing the music business for the retail world. But a tape submitted to Mercury Records by a friend in 1990, followed by a triumphant showcase performance, led to a deal and the ’90s proved his breakout decade.
Over that time, Kershaw enjoyed huge success doing traditional country and honky-tonk, as well as more pop-influenced material. His 1991 release “Haunted Heart,” one of two early ’90s platinum LPs he enjoyed, is still regarded by many as his finest, particularly the single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful.” But he also had big hits on the other end of the country spectrum, among them a fine cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance” and the 1994 LP “Feelin’ Good Train.” His last big hit that decade was “Love Of My Life” from the LP “Labor of Love,” which peaked at number two.
Kershaw pursued both music and politics for several years, finishing second twice in bids for Lt. Governor of Louisiana, while also recording for a variety of labels with limited success and exposure. But he’s bounced back in a big way the past couple of years. The 2014 LP “Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones” ranks alongside “Haunted Heart” in the Kershaw catalog. It features 13 Jones’ classics, plus one stellar original, “The Route I Took.” “That one I didn’t care whether it sold one copy or 100,000, that one was one I had to do,” Kershaw said. “George Jones has been one of my idols pretty much all my life. He’s one of those people who has so much soul and honesty in their voice, someone that you know when they sing, every thing that comes out is truth.”
Along with “The Blues Got Me,” Kershaw’s also issued another release this year “I Won’t Back Down,” which in addition is the first album he’s produced himself. It includes a fine version of R.B. Greaves’ “Take A Letter Maria,” plus the  strong title cut (a Tom Petty number), and a seasonal fun tune, “Grillin’ and Chillin’.” Kershaw is currently maintaining a busy performance schedule, while planning future releases.
“I want to put out a gospel album next, and then one of the swamp pop and rock and roll I grew up hearing,” Kershaw concluded. “I’m also working on my autobiography. I started out in the dance halls as a kid and I’ve been on the road 46 years. I still love my job and I really love all kinds of music. I think that music is something that unites people, and that’s what I want to do with all the projects that I’m going to put out there from now on.”
 When talking about his music philosophy, Sammy Kershaw always comes back to the same things: Don’t mess with the classics. Let a song breathe. Wrap up a record while it’s fresh. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Kershaw is talking about recording or fine wine, but if we’re using metaphors, in the case of Kershaw’s latest project, The Blues Got Me, it’s a vintage that’s been bottled up for seven or eight years. Not that he’s been working on the album for that long; actually, Kershaw recorded the disc years ago and hasn’t touched it since.
“We didn’t change anything,” he tells The Boot. “We didn’t change a thing. It’s seven or eight years old. That’s it, period. It’s done.” Kershaw doesn’t believe in nitpicking. He trusts what he captured with the original recording.“I don’t want to lose the feel,” he explains. “And there’s a certain feel when you first record a song, there’s a certain feel you get in the studio from all the musicians. It’s fresh and exciting, and I want to keep that fresh and exciting feel on that record.
If we go in there and start nitpicking it every day — look, I could have a guitar player do his ride 50 times in one day, but by the time it’s over, you can’t tell which one you like out of 50.” The way Kershaw approaches guitar solos — and all aspects of recording — is much more organic. He likes to let it ride. “Nothing was planned,” he says of recording The Blues Got Me. “All four of us were sitting in a room … with a board and microphones, and that’s it. There was no planning out rides, there was none of that.
When I wanted somebody to ride, I’d just nod at them, and we’d take a ride … there was no planning. We just sat and did it. It was very raw.”To hear Kershaw talk, it sometimes seems as though all of the choices on his album were a happy accident. Take, for example, his cover of Solomon Burke’s “Honey, Where’s the Money Gone”: It just so happened that Kershaw heard Burke’s recording of the tune on the drive into the studio one day … and he decided to cut it.
“We Googled it and listened to it a couple of times, wrote the lyrics down, and cut it,” Kershaw recalls. “It was something I lived before, and I just loved the song.”
On The Blues Got Me, Kershaw also covers Chuck Berry‘s “No Money Down” and the Allman Brothers‘ “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.” His “no nitpicking” rule definitely applies to covers.
“A hit is always a hit,” he reasons. “I’ve done a lot of cover tunes in my career, but I’ve never changed the song, because the song was a hit for a reason … people liked it for a reason.”
Kershaw also won’t record a song, cover or otherwise, if he hasn’t lived it.
“When you listen to my music, it’s honest music,” he notes. “I’ve lived everything I sing about. If I haven’t lived it, I won’t sing it.” Even though he only sings songs that he’s lived, Kershaw is usually performing tunes written by someone else. But this album is different: He wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs on The Blue Got Me. That choice was “kind of unheard of for me,” he admits, but — another happy accident — the songs “… just came to me, and so I put them on this album.”
The Blues Got Me is a record that Kershaw has been wanting to record for nearly 35 years. But in many ways, “blues” is just the overarching genre umbrella; underneath that umbrella, Kenshaw says, is a lot of Louisiana-inspired music that’s hard to classify.
“There is some blues traditional-sounding things on here, but there’s also, like, Cajun-y-seasoned blues,” he says. The album also has “one song in there that’s got kind of a New Orleans shuffle … it’s just a zydeco-flavored blues song. It’s just different types of music that we have in Louisiana, and I don’t know … where you would put the music except in blues.”
Now that his blues album is finally out, does Kershaw feel the need to explore more genres? Not necessarily, the singer says — not unless the spirit moves.“Look, I just do what I feel. I just do what makes me happy,” he muses. But along with traditional country music, Kershaw does have plans to record a gospel album and a swamp-pop album. He likes having special projects in the works.
“I love all kinds of music … and when I’m not working on a country record, I don’t want to be not making music just because I’m not ready to make another country record,” he admits. “I’ve been doing this for 46 years, so special projects, to me, that’s exactly what they are — they’re special projects.”
As his career continues, Kershaw is adapting to the changes in the music industry. He says that “radio’s not gonna play me again,” but he’s fine with that. For him, the name of the game is finding a way to stay relevant while staying honest. He has his own label now and will continue to cut country records and special projects alike. And he’s thanking God for those years of making music. “I’m gonna use that gift He gave me,” Kershaw concludes. “I’m gonna use it all I can ’til I can’t use it anymore.”
(This piece originally ran in Nashville Scene’s Cream blog).

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Filed under 2009, Blues, Cajun, Country Music, country/soul, Doug Kershaw, Ron Wynn, Sammy Kershaw, swamp pop, Zydeco

“Nina” and “Miles Ahead” – Flawed but fascinating – Improvisations

Nina & MilesMiles Ahead/Nina: Flawed but Fascinating

Improvisations

By Ron Wynn

After recently seeing Cynthia Mort’s “Nina” a few weeks in advance of viewing Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead,” both seem to me flawed but fascinating. Each has a magnetic lead performance, neither attempts to provide the kind of substantive portrait that a documentarian would seek, and depending on your agenda, you can find them satisfactory, decent or atrocities. That there have been folks who’ve devoted lots of words and space while differing in their assessments is another indicator of just how difficult the whole biopic field has become.

Mort’s “Nina” was embroiled in controversy almost from the beginning, in large part due to the casting of A-list actress Zoe Saldana to portray the dynamic, often controversial NIna Simone. Charges of “colorism” were launched, and those cries became even louder when word surfaced about the alleged use of skin darkening makeup and a fake nose to enhance the facial contrast between Saldana and Simone. Add the presence of another international star in David Oyewolo to portray her manager Clifton Henderson, and many critics branded this little more than stunt casting designed to get Hollywood backing and major market circulation.

Mort’s response did validate, to a degree, the casting charges. She acknowledged that there were others considered for the role (though she wouldn’t list their names) and also said Saldana initially turned down the part, returning only because she truly wanted the film made. But the bottom line on “Nina” is that it is a far better film than some claimed. Saldana does a marvelous job of communicating Simone’s very complicated, mercurial personality, though it only skims the surface as far as truly documenting her artistic versatility. However it does spotlight her integrity and determination to do the music she cared about rather than what would be the most commercial, and it also highlights a fierce dignity, cultural awareness and solidarity that were unquestionably at the core of her music.

What “Nina” isn’t, and this is the implicit weakness in any biopic, is an exhaustive cinematic summation of Simone’s career, a breakdown of what made her unique and distinctive as a stylist, or a thorough recitation of all her career highlights. Folks who look to Hollywood productions for that kind of detail will always be disappointed, and “Nina” is no different. It has to condense and take shortcuts, and sometimes the juggling of exact and reworked for creative impact details tend to blur to the point that no one should take for granted that everything they see her actually happened. Netflix’s Oscar-nominated Simone documentary would be the place to go for those who want a comprehensive look at Nina Simone. As a work of dramatic intensity with some biographical elements, “Nina” succeeds despite its weaknesses.

If the evaluation is based wholly on acting skill and storytelling impact, then Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” also can be deemed a success. It was understandable that with a career as majestic, extensive and varied as Miles Davis, no biopic that was only in the two-three hour range could fully do it justice. Plus Cheadle announced from the very beginning he had no desire to even attempt some kind of career-spanning epic. So, despite learning to play the trumpet to ensure accuracy, Cheadle instead opted for a work that focused on Miles Davis off the bandstand, while still giving you glimpses of what made him such a star on it.

You do see in the various “gangster” episodes of Miles Davis the things that also came through in his music. These include an adventurous spirit, a desire to never do what’s expected, a character who could be obsessively selfish one minute and remarkably kind the next, and someone who never felt they were treated the way that they should have been by those in positions of power, whether they be music executives or police officers.

As a lifelong Miles Davis fan and someone well versed in his various adventures, musical and otherwise, Cheadle’s portrayal was quite credible in many ways. But where “Miles Ahead” didn’t quite click was in communicating the greatness of his music, which since it didn’t set out to do that anyhow, is probably an unfair criticism. Only in the jam session portion at the end does some of the wonderful energy and vitality that was in all Miles’ great music come across on screen, and then it’s as much due to the assembled group as to anything else coming from the film.

The standard Hollywood biopic will never really satisfy the hardcore music fan, because they are about exaggerated personality and dramatic conflict first and foremost. Even those that do come close to also revealing what made the central character so important like “Ray” or “Get On Up” still have to focus more on things that will hook audience members who are casual listeners or in many instances totally unfamiliar with the music of the person being profiled, especially if we’re talking about non-rock or pop musicians. It is unrealistic at this point to expect the sort of adherence to fact and concern about technique and artistic evolution in a Hollywood biopic that you’d routinely demand from something on even the History Channel, let alone a stand-alone documentary.

Thus, in terms of the job that they were required to fufill, both “Nina” and “Miles Ahead” are basically serviceable works considerably elevated by outstanding lead performances, and augmented with some scenes from key moments in both performers’ lives that everyone should know. Given the general state of 21st century cinema, that qualifies as the best one can expect when commercial studios are in charge of any production.

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Filed under 2016, biopics, David Oyelowo, Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, indie movies, jazz history, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Ron Wynn, Zoe Saldana

Michael Jackson-The First Solo Career

Photo of JACKSON FIVE and Michael JACKSON

Michael Jackson shared one major thing in common with fellow Motowner Stevie Wonder: both of them had two distinct solo careers. Stevie’s was as a child prodigy musician who mostly played harmonica and bongos. And only singing a little bit. Of course his breakthrough was still on the Motown label. But on independent, fully adult terms. Michael had his first career in his early/mid teens on Motown as well. He differs from Stevie mainly in that his adult solo breakthrough came through the guidance of Quincy Jones and his crew of musicians. And it happened on the Epic label rather than Motown.

Michael’s solo career on Motown was linked very closely to the Jackson 5ive’s. His brothers often continued to sing backup for him during this time. And he continued to work with the writers and producers who made up The Corporation-the creative team who helped to create the Jacksons’ sound while they were on Motown. In addition to providing the teenage Michael with fresh new material,they also developed his strong vocal ability into that of an interpretive singer-even as his voice began to change. And it’s that first solo career (from 1972 to 1975) that I want to represent Michael Jackson with today.


“I Wanna Be Where You Are”/1972

This is probably my personal favorite of Michael’s solo hits from before his voice really changed. The rhythm guitar/harpsichord heavy uptempo funkiness has a strong J5 flavor still. But Leon Ware and T-Boy Ross’s songwriting has a lot of those jazzy chord changes,from major to minor,that Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson were using at the time. Michael handles the melodic complexity of the song with seeming ease and emotional power.

“Ain’t No Sunshine”/1972

With it’s fuzzed out guitar and slow shuffling beat,this Bill Withers cover comes instrumentally right out of the early P-Funk albums from Funkadelic in 1970-71. But it’s raw blusiness is slickened up far more than anything George Clinton was doing at this time. Always loved Michael’s spoken intro where he says “you ever want something that you know you shouldn’t have? The more you know shouldn’t have it,the more you want it”.

“People Make The World Go ‘Round”/1972

One thing that really makes this song stand out as an interpretation is how much different it is from the Stylistics original. Thom Bell’s slow tempo is raised up a notch,and the music is a more less orchestrated. Not only that but the lyrics are simplified,to the point of being totally altered,to make more sense that a 14 year old is singing it. It was a moment when someone else’s song was tailored more to Michael’s maturity level-rather than the more experienced and adult sociopolitical elan of the original.

“Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day”/1972

This Stevie Wonder interpretation is amazing. It sounds based more on the faster,more clavinet driven live versions Stevie performed in the late 60’s than the studio original. Also Michael begins utilizing more of the vocal hiccups and ad libs from his Epic era solo career here. What shocked me is to hear the chorus at the very beginning sung in Michael’s fully changed adult voice,but the rest in his higher childhood one. Almost as if vocal parts were recorded at totally different times.

“All The Things You Are”/1973

Michael Jackson became fascinated with the Philly soul sound of Gamble & Huff during his mid teens. And this interpretation of the Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern showtune really showcases the orchestral proto disco funkiness spirit of the city of brotherly love. Michael utilizes his changing voice beautifully here-singing the more dramatic parts in his childhood voice and the more nuanced ones in his mature voice.

“Euphoria”/1973

Leon Ware provided this jazzy,cinematic mid tempo Clavinet/string orchestration based funky soul to Michael Jackson at a time when he was right on the cusp of finding his identity as a solo performer for Motown. He’s spelling the words out of the song title in the manner a parent might  do for a child. Yet the choruses make it clear Michael is really beginning to understand the meaning of the word euphoria.

“We’re Almost There”/1975

Michael’s voice had fully matured by the time his final Motown album Forever,Michael dropped in early 1975. This amazingly cinematic groove from Brian and Eddie Holland-with it’s funky wah wah and high stepping Afro Brazilian dance rhythm really allowed Michael’s voice to soar to the romantically hopeful revelry of the lyrics.

“Dapper Dan”/1975

This album track from the Forever,Michael is the one song from that album that you won’t find on any of the many Motown era solo Michael Jackson best of compilations out there. But it is by far the funkiest song on the album. Written primarily by Hal Davis,it channels the sort of New Orleans stomp that an Allen Toussaint might cook up for Dr.John at that time. And showcases Michael getting down hard with some super heavy funk.


Michael Jackson has been dead for seven years as if this writing. I was motivated to explore this side of Michael’s artistry because it showcased his personal interests guiding those people still guiding Michael. And his first four solo albums recorded on Motown helped prepare him to develop his focus in terms of the kinds of writers,producers and musicians he’d work with as a grown adult. His second solo career is well illustrated in the Guinness Book Of World Records. But his solo trajectory really took off while still on Motown.

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Filed under 1970's, cinematic funk, Funk, Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Motown, Motown Sound, Philly Soul, Stevie Wonder, The Corporation

Bernie Worrell: Rest In P (1944-2016)

bernieworrell

George Bernard Worrell was playing concertos at age 8,went to Julliard and the New England Conservatory Of Music and was a founding member of P-Funk. He wound up working with Bill Laswell,Fela Kuti and was a member of the expanded Talking Heads in the early 1980’s.  He died today of stage four lung cancer at age 72. The man was truly a musical genius who actually created whole new layers of solo and orchestral sounds on different keyboards. Here’s what I feel are some of his most powerful moments. I have nothing more to say. Listen and dance to the music!

“Atmosphere”/1975

“Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic”/1976

“Flashlight”/1977

“Dissinfordollars”/1993

“When Bernie Speaks”/2004

-Bernie you WILL be missed. Again,rest in P!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 2016, Bernie Worrell, classic funk, Funk, Funkadelic, Julliard, keyboards, New England Conservatory Of Music, P-Funk, Parliament, synthesizers

Purple Rain at 32: Remembering The Day Prince Gathered Us Together To Get Through This Thing Called Life

purple-rain

Purple Rain is probably the big reason why most people are still discussing Prince. That was one of his major motivations for making the film and it’s soundtrack-to bring a broader audience into his sound. Interestingly enough,there is nothing in this album that Prince hadn’t been building to in some way since 1980’s Dirty Mind. Even Revolution members Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin felt there was less of Prince’s trademark funk sound on this 1984 soundtrack. What this album did do was give the American public that impression that Prince was a full on rock star who served up an order of funk on the side.

That being said, Purple Rain comes out of his peak musical period. One in which he was brimming  with instrumental and melodic ideas. The key element of this album was drama. It’s accompanying film was a dramatic,semi autobiographical musical. There are plenty of Bic lighter raising moments on this album for sure. There are also some uptempo songs that still get people dancing even today. Growing up,I only knew one song from it well. But upon first hearing it 20 years ago,it felt like music I’d grown up on. That’s how dramatic it actually was-the sonic familiarity to engender false memories of it.

Many of Prince’s albums over the years deserve a rundown of it’s overall affect. As well as one that breaks it down song by song. Reviewing these albums on Amazon.com usually does the trick on that level for me. Today I’m going to do something a little different in analyzing Prince’s major breakthrough album. Purple Rain had nine songs on it. This article is going to give you that description of each song as it appears on the album. This is especially important as these relate to the plot of the film and the concert footage to be found within. So here we go with Andre’s rundown of the songs from Purple Rain.


“Let’s Go Crazy”

They key to this hard guitar rocker is fast paced,gospel joy. He even uses the synthesizer like a church organ in the intro-declaring that “we are here today to get through this thing called life”. Prince delivers several major guitar solos in the songs-including a slow dragging,feedback laden Jimi Hendrix-like grind at the end of the song. The 12″ inch take of this song is also worth checking out-with it’s stomping,chromatic walk of a piano bridge as heard in the film when Morris Day is first introduced.

“Take Me With U”

The big beat of the drums and orchestral synthesizer of this song leads you into thinking the song will be one thing-just before Prince segues into an acoustic guitar derived psychedelic pop/rock mid tempo number with Apollonia as his duet partner. It’s actually a very close relative instrumentally to other Prince songs such as “Manic Monday” and “Raspberry Beret’. It’s unexpected stylistic shifts match how it’s place in the movie shifts from Prince admiring a custom guitar in a shop window to driving with Apollonia through rural Minnesota on his motorcycle.

“The Beautiful Ones”

Basically this song is a very theatrical synthesized version of a European classical derived ballad. Prince sings and screams this song in a shaky falsetto. It’s one of the concert scenes of the film-one where the looks exchanged between himself and his leading lady Apollonia Kotero really help visualize all the electrified instrumental color of this song.

“Computer Blue”

This is actually one of my favorite songs on this album. It’s generally a very robotic synth rock number-very similar in style to the chilly electronic approach of his previous album 1999. On the bridge,the melody shifts as Prince plays a rather more jazzy melodic theme known as “Fathers Song”-actually composed by his real life father John Nelson. That juxtaposition of new wave/synth pop and electronic jazz bring this to life.

“Darling Nikki”

Prince unintentionally ushered in the age of the “Tipper sticker” on albums with this particular song. Again,it’s a very European classical styled rock opera number-heavy on the drum pedal at the end with Prince screaming “COME BACK NIKKI,COME BACK!” at the top of his lungs. His vivid tale of an encounter with a nymphomaniac was intended to repel Apollona in the film. Again,Prince writhing shirtless on his piano as Apollonia wells up with tears (and stomps out of the First Avenue during the songs performance) illustrates one of the darker,most hurtful elements of “The Kid’s” personality.

“When Doves Cry”

This was the first I ever heard of Prince. Never noticed it had no bass line. Didn’t know what a bass line was at age 5. It’s still not an easy song to describe. It’s very close to Prince’s earlier stripped down Minneapolis funk/rock sound. There’s also a synth playing a straight up European classical string section on the outro. Lyrically it’s a very dark song-with Prince musing on domestic discord/abuse as depicted by his parents in the film as being antithetical to peace: “why do we scream at each other/this is what it sounds like when doves cry”.

“I Would Die 4 U”

Prince spends the first half of Purple Rain as a very self centered character,with strong overtones of misogyny thrown into the mix. By this point,his film father’s suicide attempt has led him to understand himself and those around him. This is one of the more funk structured songs on this album-with brittle bass synth and synth brass playing call and response all the way down-with Prince declaring “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand”

“Baby I’m A Star”

Prince is back with the straight up tent show style uptempo gospel attitude on this song. With the synth horns on the latter half,this is likely the funkiest thing on the whole soundtrack-very similar in musical character to what The Time did on the soundtrack. It also has some strong singalong moments on the chorus.

“Purple Rain”

Most people who know Prince know of this song. With it’s live sound-especially Prince’s highly echoed voice and the string arrangements,it’s one of those arena rock ballads that’s always sure to get the Bic lighters raised by the audience. Hearing Aretha Franklin sing it recently on PBS,it reminded me how much gospel/soul still remains a part of this song-originally his apology to Apollonia for his poor treatment of her in the film.


Interestingly enough,Purple Rain not my favorite Prince album. Not even of his 80’s output. All the same,there’s something addictive about these songs. Each one of them has a certain allure. Some of it might just be the idea that this was the most public display of Prince’s normally somewhat shy persona.  One feels as if they know this man whose playing and singing to them. These songs are up close and personal-not distant. Often more rock then funk and soul-for certain. But it’s not music that anyone can dismiss or ignore. It got Prince noticed. And his purple musical journey was only just beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, Apollonia, ballads, electro funk, Lisa Coleman, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Wave, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain, Wendy Melvoin

‘Butt Of Course’ by The Jimmy Castor Bunch (1975) from Andre’s Amazon Archive

Butt Of Course

It was in Portland that I located this particular album. There was a compilation album by the Jimmy Castor Bunch that was heavily circulating around my area on CD at the time. Much as was the case of many of the “united funk” greats of the early/mid 70’s? Their music was set up more in the context of concept albums than the singles equation. One could take a song out of this and have it work as something of a novelty record. But the overall idea was broadened by the longer stretch of length. Already listened to this 1975 album twice-including tonight. And in the end it does wind up being one of those album one might just need a couple listens to.

“E-Man Boogie” starts out the album with an ecstatic starts out with a percussive funk/rocker while “Bertha Butt Boogie” is the story of the title character-set to a slow,loping groove with a country style instrumental reference that continues over onto the soulful ballad “One Precious Word” “Hallucinations” continues on with a rhythmic guitar heavy melodic funky soul jam that ends with a faux news report on multiple societal ills-culminating in what sounds like an A-Bomb detonating. “Potential” is a classic percussion/wah wah style Castor funk number playing on variations of the title with the band members.

“You Make Me Feel Brand New” featuring the sax playing the vocal and “Daniel” done up with the Caribbean element turned up a bit more are the two interpretations while “Let’s Party Now” concludes the album with a Philly-like dance stomp. By the time this album came out? The disco era was already in full swing. This was a band that had always specialized primarily in jazz oriented funk grooves. Ones filled with often eccentric instrumental and melodic turns. That element is not present on this album at all really. This is basically a flat out funk/soul/dance album that really establishes the bands signature sound and approach. It’s one of their finest straight up funk releases as a result and I highly recommend tracking it down.


Originally posted on June 22nd,2015

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Filed under 1975, Amazon.com, Funk, funk rock, Jimmy Castor, Music Reviewing, percussion, Saxophone, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, wah wah