Jamiroquai’s keyboardist Toby Smith passed away about 12 days ago-at the age of 46. Along with the bands front man Jason Kay, Smith was a prominent co-writer of much of their classic material. He left the band to spend more time with family during the making of their 2001 album A Funk Odyssey. To me,Jamiroquai’s music serves itself best across their albums. So in tribute to Toby Smith,I wanted to cover my Amazon.com reviews for their first three albums and A Funk Odyssey. Since I already posted my Amazon review of their 1999 album Synkronized here before,that is excluded from this list.
Emergency On Planet Earth/1993
Let’s face it. The music world of 1993 was very very divided. There were those concerned mainly with matters of media credibility and those interested in the creation of their particular art. On both ends of the pond soul and funk music at this time generally wasn’t created. It was being programmed. That mixed with the whole credibility situation wasn’t making for much harmony.
Than came a British fellow named Jason Kay (known as Jay) and a talented quartet called Jamiroquai. Putting themselves out there in a mix of other groups in the “acid jazz” genre (often used as short hand for most varieties of funk) with people such as Brand New Heavies and Incognito this band didn’t exactly have the jam band tendencies of the former,nor the house/dance leanings of the latter. But they did something very special that meant a lot to myself personally.
Equally capable of top notch musicianship and melodic invention,another thing Jamiroquai understood was the value of instrumental production. The music is well mixed,with the right touches of reverb and echo when needed. Basically it’s going for a 70’s jazz/funk/soul sound that’s produced authentically. Jay’s vocals,long and very incorrectly compared with Stevie Wonder have a high to mid range lilt about them that are elastic enough to fit these songs.
A better musical comparison might be Curtis Mayfield,especially the soul stepping funky soul groove of the opening “When You Gonna Learn” and it’s environmentalist poetry. “Too Young To Die” extends to a similar groove with a more anti war message. On “Hooked Up” and “Revolution 1993” it comes out what fantastic musicians they are well with polyrhythmic jazzier funk grooves with a more instrumental leaning.
“Music Of The Mind” is similar though on the more mid tempo end of that area. Headhunters style Clavinet type stop/start funk is prominent on “Whatever It Is,I Just Can’t Stop” where as “Blow Your Mind” has this lean sophistifunk sound with Jay’s scatting George Benson style with the violin. The band also did for the didgeridoo in funk what EWF did for the kalimba: to bring it into the consciousness of the bands sound and hopefully the listener.
The title song,with it’s disco friendly dance-funk sound reprises the environmentalist concerns where “If I Like It,I Do It” again brings the Mayfield/Impressions type funk/soul to the forefront. Although clearly under the wing of his influence,it was likely too many comparisons that commercially doomed this band. Jamiroquai stand as very much their own musical animal. Sometimes sweet as funk can be,other times as deep in the groove as you could get. They epitomized everything a 90’s era funk band could be. And even for the doubters they have,this album stands very very strong.
The Return Of The Space Cowboy/1994
Have to say here that I’ve never seen a band completely slide past the very common “sophomore slump” problem in a finer way that Jamiroquai. As a matter of fact there is significant growth to be heard here on every level from their excellent debut Emergency on Planet Earth. Almost every funk band of the 70’s came to full flower through a process. Some started out more Latin rock bands. Others closer to jazz. Some straight up soul. Jamiroquai in fact did the same thing.
While their debut definitely was something new,there was still a lot of elongated jazz-funk style songs there that were just plain unheard of on “R&B” albums in this era. It was definitely still part of the process. Longer more instrumental songs aren’t nearly as common on this album. And when they show up,their somewhat more tightly constructed. Also Jay’s voice and lyrics show more emotional depth and a deeper thinking process here. Whatever the case,this is where Jamiroquai truly came into it’s own creatively anyway.
Primarily this album is dominated by uptempo,melodic sophistifunk songs with heavy use of keyboards and bass/guitar interaction. The title song,”Stillness In Time”,”Light Years”,”Mr Moon” and the dynamic “Scam” (my personal favorite here) all fall into this place. Taken together these all have the effect of sounding like a greatest hits album all by itself-literally from the first song mentioned to the last tracing funk’s development from about 1974 to 1978 or so within only four songs. Around the middle? More fascinating things are happening.
“Half The Man” is really the only song the band ever did with anything close to a genuine Stevie Wonder influence with it’s high pitched synthesizer melodies,rather slogging tempo and lyrics of romantic anxiety. “Manifest Destiny” is a terrific,soul searching journey where Jay acknowledges “the shame of his ancestors” regarding abominations such as slavery. And also makes points that indicate there was something to be learned from African culture as opposed to it being exploited. An important point to make.
“Journey To Arhemland” is a more rhythmic use of didgeridoo this time around while the ballad paced,harp led “Morning Glory”and the closer “Just Another Story”,with it’s complex keyboard/synthesizer melodic interactions close the album out. Closing out with a live,somewhat DJ/turntable heavy live version of “Light Years” one understands that Jay,a former break dancer with a bit of a…past really did (and I think still does) understand the music that he’s making and how it needs to be done. Mostly props should go to him for forming a band as talented as Jamiroquai.
Although the sound quality of the album is somewhat flat and muddy,likely to achieve the “retro analog/mono” flavor they might’ve been looking for,the band interplay on the mid 90’s Jamiroquai albums was extremely strong. As years passed Jay would become most associated with them,to the point where people believed Jay was in fact Jamiroquai. It was a similar issue that occured with Sade-a lead singer used to identify with an actual band. What’s really important however is the music. And it’s important that it existed the way it did,at this time too. Flat out haters aside,so many aspiring modern funk bands could learn a lot from Jamiroquai’s musical example.
Travelling Without Moving/1996
If your lucky enough to have followed them from the time of their debut album Emergency on Planet Earth(and even I wasn’t that fortunate) Jamiroquai were one of those bands you were probably hoping would break into the mainstream. The mid 1990’s was certainly a puzzling time for music. The keeping it real ethic of the early part of the decade was evolving into….well a number of new and different musical ideas.
But during the 1996-1997 period in which this was released at least there was a melting pot of different musical brews to draw on. A funk revival,gestating during the early part of the decade via hip-hop samples and some rock jam bands was starting to take root more heavily. This was good news for Jamiroquai. Their music always had been commercial..well if it had been the mid 1970’s anyway.
They key was in the production and craft. They weren’t just another rhythm section trying to recreate the JB’s or Sly & The Family Stone. They more freely acknowledged the dance-funk era of people such as Slave,Heatwave (to whom I’d make a close comparison actually),Brass Construction and even Quincy Jones’ early Michael Jackson productions. The fact they had a singular identity all their own as well was big in their favor. And they have that identity every workout they could give it on this one.
The first song “Virtual Insanity”,one of the few of the more hopeful and analytical message songs of the era is a fairly basic funk tune,save for a light samba style bridge. But do to the changing of eras perhaps it captivated the MTV crowd and,due to this era’s obsession with media credibility bought Jamiroquai their own pop pass for that era,getting them international hits and making Jay K (and his hats) something of cultural icons of the day.
“Cosmic Girl”,”Alright” and the title track,with more obvious hip-hop scratching all add to the sophistifunk flavor of the album. The first two were the two other big pop hits. But this isn’t a hit parade type album by any means. “Use The Force”,with it’s full on Afro Latin percussive/Fender Rhodes jamming is of the same type you’d see on their first two albums and “High Times” adds a slight bit of an edge with a heavy rock guitar/snarling sax solo and a…..well not very pro-drug message when you actually listen to the lyrics.
The reggae number “Drifting Along” is a strong reminder of how that genre is really the main point gluing the 80’s and 90’s generation directly with the 70’s,which was meaningful considering the heavy “antieightiesitis” hanging on at this point. There are a couple of didgeridoo numbers that aren’t all that interesting but “You Are My Love” is another great uptempo and horn fueled sophistifunk song where “Everyday” and “Spend A Lifetime” are elegantly crafted soul/funk ballads.
“Do You Know Where Your Going To”,a bonus track not named on the back of the CD is a potent reminder of how close the then burgeoning drum n bass sound was to wah wah fueled blacksploitation styled funk,as both of these musical techniques are employed together here. So in addition to getting Jamiroquai at that moment where they did achieve that success they deserved.
It had little to do with their musical style actual,great and underappreciated as it was. It had to do with their pop charts and very two sided press,especially how the press really played up that very iffy Stevie Wonder angle. Honestly,that influence was never as strong as it was made out to be. You’d think this sudden mass popularity would be given to a Jamiroquai album that was really grabbing for the public’s attention.
That isn’t what happened here at all. They just made a record that was a very smooth extension of where they were taking their music with their first two albums. And it was likely just a degree of luck that they were in the right place and time to be successful with it.
That fact of it being still one of their most creatively potent albums is why I recommended so highly,not just the fact it was popular. Not a bad place to get into the band. Yet not the be all and end all either. No matter what it is an important reminder when,for a short time anyway Jamiroquai and their sound…came close to ruling the pop music world.
A Funk Odyssey/2001
Jamiroquai’s fifth album and first of the new millennium had the disadvantage of being one of two famous albums released on September 11’th,2001-the other being Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft. There’s some irony this album was released at the moment the life of everyone in the world seemed to change in one morning. It didn’t have much of a chance for success stateside especially. World events just didn’t really allow for it.
For one thing the rave friendly front cover art completely dispenses with the bands “Buffalo man” trademark. Not only that no formal personnel are listed. This gives the impression that Jamiroquai had suddenly become just a trade name for Jay Kay. And this would be a disguised solo album for him. Somehow,with only his image on the front cover it did seem that way on first glance. If that wasn’t an indicator enough of something very different,even a cursory listen to the music inside would tell the tale.
From the very beginning this album is a very radical departure for Jamiroquai. “Feels So Good” starts out with a very glossy,electronic fusion of 80’s New Romantic dance and funk music,very light on the usual 70’s unfluence. On the other hand “Little L”,”You Give Me Something” and “Love Foolosophy” bring back that heavy dance/funk sound on three well crafted numbers with a heavy late 70’s Michael/Jermaine Jackson flavor to them.
“Corner Of The Earth”,a surprising hit with a symphonic bossa nova flavor contains another of Jay’s Earth conscious lyrics and this type of tune is returned to on the closing “Picture Of My Life”. “Stop Don’t Panic” and “Main Vein”,with their heavy orchestration bring that cinematic TV/blackspoitation flavor to the surface where the totally 80’s electro/hip-hop sound of “Twenty Zero One” not only sounds nothing like Jamiroquai but also completely outside their previous conceptual relm.
Overall this album is lyrically a very reflective and poetic album especially on “Black Crow”,an ode to the atrocities of war on civilians (quite appropriate and convenient for this exact time really) is actually the one jazzy funk type song most similar to their earlier material here.
When I first got this it took me a few listens before I fully absorbed what Jamiroqui were trying to pull off here. I am still not sure. Interestingly enough,for the most part the title is still a little confusing because of all the musics this album embraces,it isn’t the closest to hardcore funk in their catalog
‘A Sophistifunk Odyssey’ perhaps? Maybe the title has to do with an odyssey away from funk as opposed to into it. Either way,whoever else plays on it there’s definitely the feeling this might have in fact been a Jay Kay solo album under the Jamiroquai banner. His own vocals,lyrical concerns and style are dripping out of every pore of this album. And it comes through loud and clear.
When looking back on the way these albums progressed in terms of funk,Toby Smith helped in Jamiroquai’s sound evolving along the same lines as the 70’s funk icons-from jazzier instrumentals earlier on to disco,boogie and electro funk sounds later on. In terms of the personal history discussed here,it also points to a time when funk was only a good word internally and among hip-hop samples. And all the way up through the the post 9/11 world. Though he’s gone now, Toby Smith did live to see the modern “funk odyssey” of today’s retro funk/disco movement spread and become successful.