Monthly Archives: December 2017

Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘The Big Throwdown’ by LeVert

LeVert were already three albums into their career , and had already more than defined their sound.  Produced by Gerald Levert, Marc Gordon, Craig Cooper and Midnight Star’s Reggie Calloway ,this is an album that,in it’s day encompassed a very broad spectrum of tempos,flavors and contemporary textures that,regardless of the tempo always has a hard driving and intense quality. Gerald as a vocalist was without doubt the son of his father;about five seconds listening to him you’ll notice how it’s hard to tell them apart at times.

The first tune on the album “Casanova” has strong shuffling hip-hop beats that in a fiery way. It predates the new jack swing sound just bursting on the scene but the relatively slow,slogging funkiness of the tempo is more in keeping with the sound achieved by Kashif on his Love Changes; a bridge crossing 80’s funk and the hip-hop based style of uptempo music that would be prominent in the future. LeVert were in a lot of ways best known for their slow songs and “Good Stuff”, “Don’t U Think It’s Time”, “My Forever Love” and “Love The Way You Move Me”.

All of those songs encompass…what I’ll describe as a cross between O’Jays-like vocal harmonies and the rhythmic ballad style of the Isley Brothers- with some rocky guitar flourishes round and about along with some tasty drum programming. “Sweet Sensation” is a shuffling uptempo kind R&B. Its therefore more in keeping with Luther Vandross and 80’s Gladys Knight & The Pips.  And it fits right in with the “retro nouveau” musical approach of 1987,  But any smoothness that style is normally associated with is sharpened up with a very strong jubilant gospel flavor.

The last three tunes on the album “In N Out”, the 8+ minute “Temptation” and “Throwdown” all showcase LeVert finding the funk with all the energy of both their own flavors and what Cameo were achieving during that period: driving rhythms and beats and some light electro flourishes that serve to emphasize the vocals,not burry the rest of the music. 1987 was a year that found R&B and funk in the throws of some very strong musical transitions and even so LeVert were managing to make everything involved in that respect sound genuinely effortless.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Let It Loose’ by Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine

By the late 1980’s when this album came out, so much had changed for Gloria Estefan. An And for just about everything in the Latin-pop/freestyle field of dance music-which had come to rely a lot on people such as Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam as much as Gloria. And it was Estefan who more or less got the ball rolling. This is the album where her roll as a singular Latin diva really began to shine on her own. It’s not clear despite her top billing over Miami Sound Machine (which would continue on the next album) if this album is her solo debut or the final group effort.

Actually, this album wound up being something of a mixture of both as “Emilio And The Jerks” are credited for production. So it’s likely they would be more considered to be her backing band here than her being in more of a participatory role. What mattered most here is just how wonderful an album this is overall. There are some times where an album is based more in uptempo music or ballads. On this album anything, regardless of tempo, is very well done. Now this was recorded in 1987 so the album is arranged with a heavily “contempo” electro-dance style sound.

All the same, every synthesizer used here is used as a rhythm element. So this album is primarily based in rhythmic uptempo numbers such as “”Betcha’ Say That”,the title song,”Give It Up”,”Love Toy” and “I Want You So Bad” so for those who couldn’t get enough of the huge hits “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “1-2-3” will find the rest of the album is very consistent AND equally as poppy. So there’s no filler material here. There are two ballads here-both very different. My favorite is “Can’t Stay Away From You” which is of course the more rhythmic of the two.

“Anything For You”,which with it’s big ballad sound really showcases the more vocal style of Estefan’s music to come. I’ve always been the first one to say that with all the saturation radio play of their hits Gloria and Miami Sound Machine were one of the more unheralded pop phenomenon of their time and their music was highly impressionable on the big Latin pop boom of Ricky Martin and such a decade or so later. And during the the mid to late 80’s the electro/synth dance music of the day got just what it needed in the pulsing Latin rhythms of the freestyle movement.

The freestyle dance approach is one Miami Sound Machine (among others) helped to pioneer. So I’ll always remember this album less as a period piece (as some people might) and as an important step forward in terms of how,at different times, Latin musical styles have helped rescue pop music from rhythmically stifled time periods even when it seemed other significant musical genres could not. Let It Loose would not be the final album credited to Miami Sound Machine. At the same time, it represented them as a significant part of 1987’s vital focus of live and electronic sounds in dance music.

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Bridges’ by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

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Gil Scott-Heron released this album at a very key time for his particular creative bent. This came out during the beginning of the disco era and for many, outside the influence of the Philly sound, there just didn’t seem to be too much room for complex sociological dialog in the music. There were songs with MESSAGES, yes. But in terms of the deep poetic insights you’d find from someone such as Gil Scott? It all seemed to be getting away from us at a time when it was needed most.

Heron was intensely aware of these changes in music. And had every intention of maintaining his vision and style. Even in the face of so many uncertain changes in the music industry. This album was recorded using TONTO, the massive synthesizer complex that had worked miracles for Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers during their early/mid 70’s height. Even at this point,  it was all too easy for this huge instrumental complex to create a sound that was both very much in the now and futuristic.

And musically, Bridges is indeed futuristic sounding funk for the people . Aside from Brian Jackson’s multi instrumental talents, the Fender Rhodes as well as the sound of the massive TONTO weaves it’s electronic, bubbling chords and bass lines into the musical tapestry to create unique sounds. Just as much as what Stevie and the Isley’s had done with the same instrument. The mood it sets goes right along with the emotional accompaniment of Gil Scott’s vocal style. The bass oriented sounds in the production is pushed up front. And the improvised jazz-funk element gets the same effect.

Song wise the album ranges from uptempo, positive spirited melodic funk such as “Hello Sunday! Hello Road”, the amazing “Racetrack In France” and “Under The Hammer” to slower and richly varied in texture and melody type tunes such as “Vildgolia (Deaf,Dumb & Blind,”We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Delta Man”. The range of subject matter of these songs (as usual with Gil Scott) is densely layered-ranging from enlightening muses both the concept of prejudice itself to the escape from it. Along with the usual historical contexts.

Songs such as the acapella “Tuskegee #626” tackle a well known historical atrocity (in this case the Tuskegee Experiments) but does so with a very bright and almost sunny melody. This showcases Heron’s understand of the very sharp contrasts in the lifestyles of not only the African American culture. But how it also extends those contrasts into other aspects of life for Americans of other nationalities. This welcoming, humanistic album would be followed the more darkly reflective Secrets- also using TONTO for that as well.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had certainly proved their meddle in terms of how they were able to continue adapting their art their own way during an era. An era when artists were losing more and more control of what they did. And when you listen to this, and realize the influence it’s had on so much musical poetry and the hip-hop world today, (and Gil Scott is for all intents and purposes a hip-hop artist anyway) than you know your in for something very special and meaningful.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Alphabet City’ by ABC

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Officially, this was not ABC’s final album of the 1980’s. At the same time it did a lot to some up these survivors of the 1980’s. In many ways, the 80’s had a few different pop cultural periods. And when each one was over,it was over. There was new-wave/synth pop early on, then it evolved into a more dance/pop sound. And by decades end, it was getting into different house/DJ dance music variations. ABC had seen themselves through the first two of those movements very cleanly. Even surviving a bit of a near miss with their second (and underappreciated) 1983 sophomore album Beauty Stab.

ABC  came back with vigor to spare on their follow up album How to Be a Zillionaire .  And stayed on track from that point on. Even if (as the decade wore on) pop music was becoming less and less fashionable, especially with more adult listeners, ABC remained on a roll after this. Even as pop music listeners found other things to listen to. But creatively and commercially, they remained at their peak when their  fourth album here. And it shows. Basically this album features songs that,both musically and lyrically are more balanced than anything since their debut The Lexicon Of Love.

Alphabet City is presented as something of a loose follow up to that debut- with bluish cover art and a movie poster like liner notes. And the songs here very much stick out as well oiled 80’s pop basically. And it brings in all their elements from the Motown inspired “When Smokey Sings”,with a similar rhythm to the Smokey/Steve Wonder track “Tears Of A Clown”, praising Smokey and (seemingly) Marvin Gaye as influences to the band. Excellent artists to be inspired by musically anyway. Especially for pop/soul oriented people.

“The Night You Murdered Love”, “Think Again,”Rage And Regret” and “Ark Angel” all have a more down to Earth pop/funk-dance sound without a lot of the heavy sound attack of the proceeding album. Rhythm and catchy melody are the key to these songs. “King Without A Crown”,”Rage And Regret” and “One Day” showcase a heavy contemporary (for 1987) sophistifunk. The album closes with one of it’s finest cuts “Minneapolis”. Needless to say,it’s totally a Jam-Lewis/SOS Band styled number musically,not dissimilar to what you might hear on a record such as Sands of Time.

To be honest. it’s kind of too bad Jam/Lewis didn’t produce ABC as they did Human League and Robert Palmer. Their style of polished, electronic sophistifunk would’ve been ideal for ABC’s stylized sound and probing melodies and lyrics. Over the years I’ve heard ABC’s singles and always been on the cusp of picking up a compilation of them. But being an album listener I had this feeling it might be the best way to deal with their particular musical bent. And it was an excellent choice too. ABC craft these wonderful little mini synth/pop/dance/funk symphonies,complete with strong arrangements and harmonies.

But they definitely carry that over into album length concepts as well. All of ABC’s first four albums are very strong musical affairs. Full of liveliness,energy and some extremely clear buts of writing. And to hear them all back to back..well at least on my end I know what I’ve been missing all this time. As my friend Henrique pointed out? The funk/soul music that 1987 produced balanced classic live and cutting edge electronic sounds in the audio equivalent of fine wine. On Alphabet City, ABC showcase how this musical ethic was strong and vital on both sides of the pond in its time.

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: ‘Freedom’ by Santana

Considering the revivalist creative spirit of the 80’s, it was still surprising that a musician as innovative and distinctive as Carlos Santana was not only still around but had never went away. Signed to Columbia,his music kept reaching the people. And thereby producing an audience-especially when one of his fusions of the contemporary sounds of the given time period impacted strongly on them. All the same, the Mexican American spirituality and Carlos’s 60’s type idealism hadn’t left him either.

During 1987, with social movements such as the ones to end Apartheid in Africa and even the AIDS activism of Act Up were showcasing that positive social protest was alas not dead during the last years of Reaganomics. On this album Santana expanded the hybrid band he was going for to include both Genesis’s Chester Thompson and Graham Lear (himself a Gino Vannelli alumbi) as drummers,along with bringing back keyboardist Tom Coster and bassist Alphonso Johnson into the mix.

In addition to guesting blues icons Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, this album also marked the return of another Santana alumni in Buddy Miles-lead vocalist for this potent album.  “Veracruz” opens this album on the note much of it maintains: heavy duty uptempo danceable funk with Minneapolis style synthesizer riffs and some mean bass lines. With the harmonica solo of Junior Welles here its clear that,outside the instrumentation this song is also squarely in the 12 bar electric blues tradition.  Never a surprise in any funk but it really sticks out strong on this one.

“Once It’s Gotcha” is right in the same heavy funk vein. “Songs Of Freedom”, “Deeper,Dig Deeper”and “Praise” are all right there too. And on them Santana has re-introduced something that the best of funk is always wise to embrace: a strong humanitarian consciousness in the lyrics. “She Can’t Let Go” is a slower tune with a chill styled aura about the moaning electronics and the dynamically intense melody of the chorus. “Love Is You” is a very pretty instrumental-with a strong contemporary jazz/pop flavor with Coster’s glassy synthesizer playing the dreamy melody with Santana’s spirited soloing.

“Before We Go” has a deep gospel/soul flavor about it while “Mandella” is a deeply fluid African inspired instrumental jam that gets everyone on board instrumentally. The album rounds out with the break rhythm oriented and brooding dance/rock of “Victim Of Circumstance”. Two things characterize this album from start to finish. For one, every song on the album are strongly based in soul/funk and are very danceable. This doesn’t have the typical bed of percussion that you’ll find on most Santana albums. Its more integrated into the steady rhythms,which always stay firmly on the one.

Yet Freedom still holds onto the funk era ethnic identification that Santana always held. The production is just as contemporary as it had been on Santana’s previous album Beyond Appearances. Difference is a more live instrumental flavor is strongly showcased here. Another important element of this album is that it truly lives up to its title both lyrically and conceptually. The focus is squarely on both romantic love and the love that humanity has (and should have) for one another as well.  Santana are respected both by musicians musicians and as “classic rock” survivors.

That well rounded respect of Santana’s musical ethic is why I’d highly recommend this album. Both in lyrical and instrumental terms. And to anyone who thought the entirety of the 1980’s represented musical soullessness. Its an album of the band that I personally discovered long after it came it. But it still felt extremely familiar. True, Santana didn’t have the capability of ever being soulless as far as I’m concerned. And in a way, that is a big reason as to why this album can effectively serve as such a high example of what it is.

 

 

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Goin’ Places’ by The Jacksons

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Pop chart statistics may mislead you otherwise but, in terms of The Jackson’s’ early years at Epic this has to be their more consistent and enjoyable album. Whereas some of the production on their self titled debut from the previous year is somewhat by-the-numbers Philly soul and is also recorded rather flat this album is mixed up a lot hotter and,while still deeply ingrained in the Philly sound the grooves,rhythms and sense of funk are much strong emphasized. So this second Epic album is a lot more punchy, aggressive and uptempo than the debut.

I didn’t realize until recently that “Music’s Takin’ Over” was really huge in New York during this time-according to an interview with Chuck D of Public Enemy my friend Henrique heard. And I can see how it would be a huge funk monster because the guitar and bass riffs are MEAN and Mikes voice has a lot of strength on the song.The title song is the only tune here that doesn’t really represent anything entirely new for the group and kind of sounds just a little behind the times.

“Diff’rent Kind Of Lady” is one of two (again) self written songs and is another incredible groove that has this great sense of tension in the rhythm and a tad of Vocorder in the end.”Even Though Your Gone” and “Find Me A Girl” are more glossy Philly ballads than the kind heard on the debut and actually serve as good selling points for this album.There are a couple more great uptempo tunes in the heavily,percussive bounce of “Jump For Joy”-one of the most genuinely “positive thinking” type songs I’ve heard and the happily funky orientation of the music really delivers on the promise.

There are some excellent celebratory synthesizer squiggles at the conclusion of the song that help to bring it even more to life.”Do What You Wanna”,another self written tune has a really crisp Philly jump to it and..is yet another positive attitude kind of song.Michael singing “Don’t be phony just be for real” may seem slightly awkward now but at least then I could sense he believed it even for himself.

The pointed anti war ballad “Man Of War” points to the Jackson’s’ future Utopian vision of unity over conflict. This more than any other Jackson’s album from the mid/late 70’s really pointed the most to an individual musical and conceptual direction for the brothers.And even though this is still a very much ignored part of their recorded legacy that should at least be taken into consideration.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ by Van Morrison

Van Morrison followed his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher  with one of his best albums of the decade. And perhaps one of the grandest achievements of his career. This album found Van reaching back into the flavors that has made his music such a treasure and creating a musical tapestry that will stick right to your soul. In fact there are elements of this album that do recall his breakthrough twenty years before this with the genre defying/defining Astral Weeks. The music is a mix of mid,down and uptempo songs with a strong jazz and classic pop flavor.

This man is not only someone mindful of blues/R&B. But on this album,  he is clearly bringing the breezy orchestral pop/jazz flavors of Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach before him. Van plays piano,sax,harmonica and guitar throughout this album and on the back of the CD you’ll find little pictures of Van playing these instruments. That is kind of appropriate for this album as it starts of with a lushly orchestrated jazzy sax instrumental “Spanish Skies”,perfect for an evening at a really elegant cafe or night spot or just a stroll on a warm moonlit evening with a loved one perhaps.

The like minded instrumental “Celtic Excavation” showcases the same flavor and both tunes are significant highlights of this album. There are of course plenty of his classic mid tempo Celtic soul type tunes in “The Mystery”, “Queen Of The Slipstream”, “I Forgot That Love Existed”, “Give Me The Rapture” and “Allow Me”. These songs all have more of a jazz/nightclub type groove than anything on the more folk influenced arrangements on the previous album. And are very much a production update of Van’s classic sound he made so distinctive for himself during the 70’s.

His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is  a  beautiful expression of the joy and pain of personal isolation. And the arrangement here carries the song right along from start to finish. “Alan Watts Blues” is one of the more rhythmic songs here that actually has a light jazz-pop-funk flavor to it. In some ways, it recalls some similarly styled music on his 1980 album Common One. One song that stuck out strongly to me was “Did You Get Healed?”. As soon as I heard the upbeat soul/gospel rhythm and the melodic female backup vocals I realized this is a song  before.

Had heard “Did You Get Healed?”  many times as young man, in fact. Played around the house by my father. It struck me as a hummable tune I’d enjoyed. And had  now found it’s way back into my life. . In terms of his output of this decade this album is one of his musically most  strong and rich. All of the songs on this album will likely take you into a musical experience-with their fluid sound and depth of soul. And along with the many great icons of soul, I cannot think of many artists I’ve listened to over the years who’ve been able to produce the same accomplishment seemingly at a whim.

 

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: “Just Gets Better With Time” by The Whispers

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In much the same manner as Earth Wind & Fire, The Whispers took a hiatus of several years after 1984. Those four years were ones where the Caterpillar of funk and soul were in an interesting chrysalis. And ready to re-emerge with a captivating butterfly of classic structures with contemporary dressing. This was 1987. The group were still on the Solar label and were about to burst out with something that was…not quite unexpected. But in terms of it’s impact? I have a feeling this was at least a little surprising.

“I Want You” is a pounding Minneapolis/Jam & Lewis style dance/funk jam while “Special F/X” is deep,pulsing synth based number with accenting rhythm guitars-funk that’s also very much informed by the groups choral vocal harmonies. “Rock Steady” is a big,synth brassy uptempo dance/funk monster with an irresistible melody and that hook that made it so famous. “No Pain,No Gain” is a pounding,gritty mid tempo synth funker while “In The Mood” and “Give It To Me” are soulful urban contemporary jazz/pop ballads while the title song and “Love’s Calling” have that doo-wop shuffle the Whispers were always renowned for in terms of slow jams.

One of the best things about this album is that,typical of Whispers albums,it was able to feature nothing but strong songs and performances that were moving forward in step from their time. With people such as Babyface participating in the writing? Many of the grooves on this album strongly benefit from the freestyle dance and new jack based uptempo approaches.

Those were the cutting edge  styles that were then beginning to add a heavy new muscle to funk oriented dance music of the late 1980’s. This album and it’s hits easily stands with the best of such releases of the 1987-1989 time frame. And did so from a thoroughly vocal group perspective. Definitely worth picking up for 80’s funk and dance admirers as well as Whispers fans!

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘The Cost Of Loving’ by The Style Council

The Cost Of Loving is an album that I’ve heard many times. And have a special affinity for. Paul Weller’s earlier records for with the Style Council were fairly diverse musically  And they met with mixed results from both fans and critics. . For the most part, the results of this album commercially weren’t mixed. And they weren’t that great either.  Its possible that lack of accolades this album receives has to do with this music by and large is not only uptempo. But is based in different varieties of funk. The Style Council themselves went through an interesting process in the conception of this album too.

Some of the tracks from this album were also featured in a short film The Style Council made called JerUSAlem.  The album itself was recorded in the autumn of 1986. But was released early in 1987. And its overall sound is very much bound to the international musical explosions pf that year. Obviously inspired by the music that Jam & Lewis were putting out during this time period “It Didn’t Matter” resulted in,musically one of the finest singles the band had put together thus far with it’s strong synth bass line,rhythm guitar and fairly slow dance beat-great in the mid 80’s funk context.

“Right To Go” is just out and out funk with one of the finest and most obvious bass lines of any of their songs and features an Reagan/Thatcher-based political rap by the UK’s own Dynamic Three. “Heavens Above” ups the tempo a bit and concentrates heavily on the drumming and the rhythm and a well executed use of horns. On “Fairy Tales” and the title song there’s a bit more of a balance between the slower beat and the horn oriented sound. There are also three ballads here in “Waiting”,which is beautifully structured 80′ soul in the same way as the Dee C Lee sung “Angel” and “A Woman’s Song” are.

Perhaps it was the heavy funk and R&B content from someone like Weller, who apparently had other expectations of himself, from the following he had earlier. Earlier Style Council music by and large focused on 60’s R&B and soul-jazz. With only the occasional nod to this type of music. And with very sleek production as well. However this album thoroughly acknowledged the 70’s in the music. And because of the closeness to that decade maybe it wasn’t given the kind of recognition it  deserves. Especially considering the high quality of the songwriting,musicianship and general atmospherics.

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Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter Turns 40: Joni Mitchell In Dreamland

 

Joni Mitchell did something very special in the mid to late 1970’s. Something that impacted on me personally roughly 25 years later. She began to combine folk oriented singer/songwriter instrumentation with jazz chords and harmonies. Her approach at this evolved from working with Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder to fretless bass icon Jaco Pastorius-all between 1974 and 1974. In particularly on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,  Mitchell’s music was her own unique hybrid. Neither jazz or folk. This all came to a tremendous head with her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

It was an album where the cover art (as was typical done by Mitchell herself) drew me into its musical world. It depicts three images of herself. One seems to be a herself as a teenager. The other is a character she portrayed at a Halloween party named Art Nouveau. This was based on a black man she met who complimented her at that time. Mitchell describes her soul as “not being that of a white woman”.  And that she often writes from a black perspective. Embracing the jazz aestetic, from be bop style poetics to the music itself, all became a part of what made this 1977 double LP what it was.

The song “Cotton Avenue” starts the album with an overture, one where Mitchell is playing six differently tuned guitar tracks simultaneously. The song itself is a swinging number-heavily textured by Jaco’s atmospheric bass lines.  The faster “Talk To Me” and the slower “Jericho” both explore the approach of Mitchell’s guitar with Jaco’s bass-playing in an almost Salsa like rhythm on the former, and back to the jazzy swing on the latter. “Paprika Pains” is a 16+ minute cinematic number, showcasing Mitchell’s improvised piano with full jazz orchestration.

“Paprika Plains”‘s music also serves as the soundtrack to a first person description of a late night bar gathering of Canadian First Nations tribe’s people-poetically touching on matters of alcoholism and despair. “Otis & Marlena” is a fairly conventional country tinged folk number. Its based in the acoustic guitar. Its a character sketch of two people vacationing in Miami while “Muslims are sticking up Washington”. “The Tenth Worlds” is primarily the work of Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, one which focuses only on his fluid Afro-Latin percussion and improvised vocal chants.

Weather Report member Alex Acuna joins in for “Dreamland”, my personal favorite number on this album.”Dreamland” merges an even broader (and somewhat slower) Salsa percussion sound with the highly hummable, Caribbean folk style melody of Mitchell’s. Chaka Khan provides a very tribal sounding back up vocalese right along with Mitchell’s on the song. The title song is somewhat similar to “Talk To Me” from earlier in the album-as well as “Coyote” from her previous album Heijra.  The more rocky “Off Night Backstreet” and the folk oriented “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” close out the album.

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter represents the official birth of what could best be described as a Joni Mitchell sound. Its true that jazz always accommodated other musical styles into it. Mitchell wasn’t new at doing that. But she did manage to expand on the possibilities of jazz fusion at the same time as she did the same for her own songwriting style. That coalition of personal and overall creative intent would is likely a lot rarer a thing than it might seem. And just for creating a welcoming and enticing entry point into Joni Mitchell’s musical hybridizing makes this album one of her most iconic ones.

 

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