Slave are a band that I’ve desired to talk about for some time now. They were among one of the great late 70’s/early 80’s Dayton Ohio bands along with Heatwave and Zapp. What made them unique in their time however is that they were likely the first Generation X funk band-all of its members still in high school when they formed in 1976. Their first album the following year got them an instant smash funk hit with the song “Slide”,now a mainstay of what many funkateers refer to as “Dayton funk” subgenre. By their 1979 album Just A Touch Of Love,singer/songwriter/drummer Steve Arrington joined the band.
Arrington was only a member of Slave for four years,before leaving to form a successful solo career of his own starting in 1983. But in the early 80’s,Arrington’s unique (and occasionally idiosyncratic) vocal approach allowed Slave to become one of the bands to lay the building blocks for what is now known as the post disco/boogie funk sound. Their first album of the 1980’s (and second album to feature Arrington) was called Stone Jam. Its one of the few Slave albums to remain consistently in print over the years. One of its most well known (and successful) jams is called “Watching You”
Arrington throws the strong dance beat along with Mark Hicks high,clean guitar tone that revs up into the main chorus of the song. This features Ray Turner’s high pitched synthesizer melody and and the late Mark “Mr. Mark” Adams delivers a great walking,slapping bass line holding the whole thing together. The falsetto choral vocals transition to Arrington’s narrative vocals on the refrains. The bridge of the song has Arrington’s drums showcasing M. Mark’s powerful bass line as a solo-with Turner’s synths on the accents. A new chorus with both vocal parts continues until the song fades.
My friend Henrique and I often have a lighthearted dialog about a “super hip young brother in the early 80’s” driving around in a sporty little car trying to impress the ladies around him. “Watching You” brings up this image strongly. Its got the thick,bass/guitar oriented groove that was Slave’s stock and trade. That combined with its playful lyrics of young black people giving each other the admiring,romantic eye made the song and the Stone Jam album Slave’s biggest commercial success since the bands debut four years earlier. And this helps to define “Watching You” a post disco funk masterpiece.
Leon Ware is someone I’m not sure a lot of people outside the soul/funk community are too aware of. Among people I know such as Henrique Hopkins,Henry Cooper and Calvin Lincoln,he is very likely an icon. He maintained a solo career from 1972 up through the end of his his life. And was a fine singer. Mainly however,he was one of the finest composers in the soul/funk/jazz spectrum during the early 70’s. His style used a lot of jazz styled chord progressions,which he blended with strong pop hooks and heavy hitting lyrically romanticism.
Mister Ware composed two songs that inspired the singer/songwriter side of my soul and funk musical interests very strongly as a younger man. Those songs were Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and (perhaps Ware’s best known composition) “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. That particular song was recorded by several different people. But became a huge success for Michael Jackson in 1972,and helped launch his solo career. As far as Marvin Gaye was concerned,Ware gave the most help to him than he did for many other artist by composing the entirety of Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You when the artist suffered from writers block.
That occurred just after Ware was the man behind the 1974 Quincy Jones album project Body Heat. This albums gurgling,swampy groove also included the memorable soul hit “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded the same year by Average White Band). And it helped Quincy’s heavily arranged jazz sound to get deeper and funky. Ware extended his talents onto Quincy’s next album Mellow Madness-itself featuring the debut of the Brothers Johnson. In the late 70’s and early 80’s,Ware continued his solo career and continued writing songs for artists like Melissa Manchester.
Ware passed away after nine years of suffering from Pancreatic cancer on February 24th. Even so,I’m one of those people who views the combination of jazzy chord progressions, soulful melodicism and and funky rhythm to be the most successful fusion of black American uptempo music. Along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Leon Ware celebrated the connections between all those elements as a songwriter. Which probably explains why he and Quincy Jones were such close associates. His influence can be felt today in the songwriting of artists such as King and Thundercat. And will therefore live on.
Jamiroquai were a band who,two decades ago now,were the musical lifeblood of my personal interest in funk and disco. Its a story that’s been told on this blog at least once. They’ve had their lineup changes over the years for sure. Even still over the years,their mid to late 90’s albums are ones that I still continue to return to many times. As a matter of fact,they tend to define how how I view the contemporary nu funk movement as a whole. That being said,never been one to give into blind idolatry of any musical figure either. And Jamiroquai have been no exception to that rule.
Following their (unintended) 9/11 release of A Funk Odyssey, Jamiroquai album releases became less and less frequent. Albums such as 2005’s Dynamite were promoted with the over modulated hip-hop influenced single “Feels Just Like It Should”. And with their 2008 album Rock Dust Light Star fading seemingly as quick as it came, Jamiroquai seemed to have faded into the annals of the past. Early this year,they announced the release of their 8th studio album Automaton. The title track was released first. But this EDM influenced song didn’t speak so much to me as the newest lead off single from the album “Cloud Nine”.
A deep piano chord,an ethereal synth and vocal pulse provide the intro to the song. A string burst opens into the refrain of the song. This consists of a thick disco beat-with a polyphonic synth playing the lead melody. And assisted by a pulsing rhythm guitar and bubbling synth bass line playing the higher ends of the changes. The rhythm guitar and bubbling bass are higher in the mix on the choruses-along with the string burst that leads into the heavily echoed bass/synth line on the bridge. The refrain and chorus are lightly improvised upon until it fades-accompanied by a jazzy synth solo before it ends.
“Cloud 9”, as far as I’m concerned ,is Jamiroquai’s strongest single since “Little L” came out 16 years ago. It showcases the band moving in their own career arc much the same as funk did during its first generation. Much as Jamiroquai were a live percussion/horn based jazz/funk band with extended jams and instrumentals when they started out,they are now a post disco/boogie funk group with strong jazz/funk melodic influences by the time their 8th album is about to drop. Only the future can tell if Jamiroquai’s future is going to remain in this strong progression. But “Cloud 9” is an excellent step in this direction.
Larry Coryell is a somewhat unique musician for me to discuss. My friend Henrique informed me of the guitarists passing this past Sunday-at the age of 73. Generally speaking when doing a tribute to a fallen musician,I come at it from the point of view of strong knowledge about their music and often their back round. In the case of Mister Coryell,the exact opposite is true. Haven’t actually had much experience (if any) with his music at all. Still,an outsiders perspective might be an interesting place to come at him from. So I’ll start out discussing my only experience with him.
Again,this is a family musical story about me and my father. He was my first inspiration in terms of music and knowledge of it. This story started out with one of our many musical discussions when I was in my late teens. The subject was Miles Davis and his innovation of jazz fusion. And my father mentioned Larry Coryell as an artist who also innovated fusion. The only album he had by Coryell at that time was a cassette of a 1970 album called Spaces. With John McLaughlin,Miroslav Vitous,Chick Corea and Billy Cobham aboard, the album is apparently considered a ground zero for fusion along with Miles’s Bitches Brew.
Perhaps from listening to so much music,particularly electric jazz in all its forms,the memories I have of the Spaces album have also faded somewhat with time. Do remember that it was the first jazz records I heard that was heavily based in acoustic guitar. In the ensuing years,I began to listen to other acoustic jazz guitar maestros such as Earl Klugh. The only other time within the next two decades that I heard Coryell’s playing again was when I reviewed the Larry Young song “Moonwalker” on this blog,which featured Coryell’s playing on it.
In a case similar to the also recently departed David Axelrod, my musical case with Larry Coryell represents something that I’ve often disliked being done by other people. And that is embracing an artists music only after they pass away-the cult of the dead being a motivating factor in appreciating a musician. All that being said,if any of you out there haven’t checked out musical innovators who are still living,it would be a great idea to do so. There’s something so creatively rewarding about embracing art while the artist themselves are still with us. Even if their music will never simply die with them.
Walter Becker is one of those players whose proven himself the ultimate “comeback kid” as it were. The Queens native met Donald Fagan while the two attended Bard College. And of course they would soon be the core of Steely Dan. While the songwriting of Steely Dan was a collaborative effort between the two,Becker’s instrumental influence generally came through his guitar solos. They grew from a virtuosic blues rock style in the early 70’s to an intricate,crisp jazz tone later on. A serious of exhausting events led Becker to leave Steely Dan following their Gaucho album-remaining musically inactive for a decade.’
In 1993,Steely Dan reformed and began touring. Becker released his solo debut album 11 Tracks Of Whack a year later. With a somewhat more stripped down musical approach and vocal style closer to that of Eric Clapton,his albums were as critically successful as Fagans. But didn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. It would be another 15 years later that his sophomore album Circus Money. This was an independently released project from 2008 that featured the same superb studio players Becker had worked with in the past. It also started out with just the right groove on the song “Door Number Two”.
A bass and light snare based beat,crystalized sounding piano and bluesy rhythm guitar provide the intro-along with a moody electric piano solo. The basic rhythm of the chorus than comes in. This is a bossa with a clean guitar burst playing a single chord on every other bar or so-with the piano,keyboard and slippery bass line playing along with the female backup singers vocalizing the choral lyric. The refrain finds Becker singing a bluesy line with more piano improvisations behind him. Chris Potter provides a great bop sax solo on the bridge and extends it into the chorus that fades out the song.
Years of being a record producer and even a one time member of the sophisti pop group China Crisis really helped to enhance Walter Becker’s musical flavors as a solo artist. It wasn’t until revisiting “Door Number Two” for this overview did I realize that it has the vibe of a lower key “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The bossa Latin/boogaloo funk is there in the rhythm. Still Becker’s love of jazz comes through all the way-with musicians Keith Carlock,Jon Herington,Jim Beard and Ted Baker all solo right in the pocket of this groove. And it all makes for a great example of jazz with a raw rhythm attitude.
It’s almost too fitting that the anniversary of Public Enemy’s debut album should fall during Black History Month. For people like me–’90s kids from majority-white towns where “Black History” meant half a class period on George Washington Carver every February–Public Enemy was our connection to an invisible history of Black radical thought: from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Their music opened me up to ideas I didn’t even know existed; ideas that, in the wilderness of White (supremacist) America, were truly life-altering. Discovering P.E. as a teenager was an experience as radicalizing as discovering punk rock; more so, in fact, because they represented a threat to racial hegemony that even the likes of the Clash did not. They were insurrection in musical form, with a visceral cut-and-paste aesthetic that continues to sound cutting-edge to this day.
None of that, of course, was the point of Public Enemy. More than any other rap group of their era, P.E. was music by and for Black people; the radicalized white kids like me were collateral damage. But I can only speak from my experience, as someone for whom Fear of a Black Planet and, especially, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were an introduction to an entirely new kind of politics, a new way of seeing the world. If nothing else, I have Public Enemy to thank for introducing me to a rich canon of African American literature and art: to Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and for that matter to James Brown, John Coltrane, and Gil Scott-Heron. Without that initial spark of interest I felt the first time I heard “Bring the Noise,” I might have missed out on a whole universe of ideas that have made me a definitively better person.
Granted, not everything about the group has aged well. Public Enemy may have exposed millions of listeners like myself to Black Power and the Panthers, but they also regurgitated a lot of less progressive influences: the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Louis Farrakhan, most famously, along with a host of conspiracy theories and pseudo-history that contemporary listeners are likely to file away as Hotep bullshit. Their politics are more akin to a firebrand anarchist zine than a well-reasoned essay–which is probably why they appealed more to my teenage self than they do to me as an adult. But there will always be a place for firebrands, and P.E. were as incendiary as they came: it was what made us sit up and listen in the first place. And in early 2017–a time when racism in America is arguably the worst it’s been in my lifetime–their fire might just be needed more than ever.