Monthly Archives: February 2018

Erykah Badu: ‘Baduizm’ & Remembrances Of A Musical Transition

When Erykah Badu released this album, the soul/R&B/funk genres of music were caught between transition and a holding pattern. All between the era from D’Angelo through TLC onto Jill Scott and Alicia Keys. In the middle of this, there would be Maxwell and Badu here . She did indeed burst onto the scene in 1997 and since then has never looked back. It was apparent that despite the insistence of the 90’s decade hip-hop could not exist as the sole basis for furthering soul and funk music. The zeitgeist of the late 90’s was going to have to provide an alternative to that musical ethic.

It mostly came down to a matter of voids. Lauryn Hill would soon be along to provide one such sound of her own. But there were just too many voids and a future unknown. For her own self, Badu is one of those people who marches to the beat of her own drummer. And that would be a jazz drummer if she had anything to do with it because that was where she came from. Not only that she used her vocal phrasing more like that of a muted horn in the manner of Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. But also in the fact that the improvised flavor of the chord sequences she used told a similar story.

Taken by itself the music here is another matter. In an era where the singles mentality of popular music (abandoned in the 70’s) was again in full command of the music, Erykah Badu’s debut is an album first and foremost. There are standout individual songs. But her music is something like an aural casserole. You have a lot of ingredients mixed together. But they compliment each other to near perfection and it goes down great taking it in. The song “On & On” is not only a great single moment from this album but gives it a great patter with which to follow.

The rhythms,her vocals,the electric pianos and the askew,somewhat jazz phrased melodies all come together to form something very special. And she just keeps varying on that theme with “Appletree”, “Sometimes”, “Drama” and “Otherside Of The Game”. It’s also helpful that she views the romantic matters she sings about here through a very poetic filter,mixing it all up with a conscious and Afro bohemian point of view. And often this results in some straight up truths on songs such as “Certainly” and “4 Leaf Clover” mix ideas of self awareness and existentialism through her own personal filter.

Her sense of storytelling is also important here. While one of the best and most singular tunes here is a “skit” called “Afro”,which brings her humor and an even more jazzy sound to the mix. Erykah Badu’s music isn’t something that you may fully comprehend the first time you heart it. It’s definitely music that has a flow to it. The sound of it, Badu’s vocals and lyrics-the manner in which they kind of slip along the musical bed rather than dance upon it. It’s like one basic idea expanded upon for 14 separate songs that are…disconnected segments of one whole.

The first time I heard it was in a car trip around dusk and it seemed to fit the mood of that time and type of motion perfectly. She has a quiet sound to her voice. On the other hand she takes very unpredictable turns of phrase with it as well. It wouldn’t be a misstep to see her as something of a jazzy singer more than a contemporary soul/R&B one. There’s also an influence of hip-hop in her approach. But definitely not of the stereotypical variety. And it definitely did fill the void whether it was trying to. It clearly comes from the D’Angelo school to some degree. Also Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin On as well.

On the other hand, the sound of Baduizm is very stripped down . That’s another key factor of it. All good things….don’t last forever. They change. Or in the case of Erykah Badu they become somewhat less significant once they begin to influence other artists. I myself remember once reading in the early 2000’s that at that time, Erykah Badu’s music was too new to have musical impact on up and coming artists of the then new millennium. But in its day, Baduzim was a revelation. And it holds up very well today. That’s a sign she had something special going right from the start!

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Silk & Soul Of Nina Simone!

Nina Simone had a very strong 1967 in the recording studio. She began the year with her Nina Simone Sings the Blues album. And then released this album during the Summer Of Love. It featured the same basic musicians as the previous album with Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie. However her musical priorities were somewhat different here. She was not putting quite the same emphasis on her own self written material here. Not only that but she wasn’t laying her heart and soul bare with a sense of instrumental grit and passion.

Realizing that old adage of those who won’t hear an angry shout straining to here a whisper, Nina put another side of herself on display with this time. One she was very adept at,but very much in contrast to what had come before. More over this is an album defined more by highlights than an overall concept. “It Be That Way Sometime” starts off the album with a strangely melodically steady brassy soul number,full of orchestration and horns. “Go To Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” again find her questioning in fine piano based gospel/soul spirit her own desires and necessity.

Those necessary desires ranged from injustice to redemption. On interpretations on “Cherish” and “The Look Of Love”,she dives headlong into her unique range for for two versions of these songs that are very vocally individual in terms of how he projects them. “Some Say” finds her returning to the deeply horn based soul that began the album. “Turning Point” is actually a favorite of mine-basically a show tune telling the story of how children are taught racial hatred. Her one original here “Consummation” is an all out show stopper,a theatrically orchestrated and sung number.

Her one original song here “Consummation” is a theatrically orchestrated and sung number-with Nina holding some very loud notes that go into the nature of human consciousness itself. More musically diverse and positioned for crossover attention than her previous release of the year, this album showcases how Nina’s talents had the potential to be very outreaching. At the same time often too individual to crossover to everybody. One would tend to either be reached intimately by her music or not. Since her music tends to have the latter effect on people, its probably a moot point in the end.

 

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2008 On The Longplay: ‘Circus Money’ by Walter Becker

Fourteen years after Walter Becker’s solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack, he returned with this sophomore release. Ever since the end of Steely Dan’s first run in 1980, we’ve often had to wait years (sometimes decades) for new music to appear by Becker & Fagen,either together or apart. In the beginning the results were exceptional (as on Fagen’s  Kamakiriad or Steely Dan’s first comeback Two Against Nature). But recently, we’ve seen an unfortunate side of this comeback.  Steely Dan were consistently spun off one classic after another on the same album in their heyday.

Of course, some of the trademarks of Becker & Fagen’s sound were crackerjack musicianship, production, songwriting and incredible lyrics. After the success of their first comeback the result were albums like Everything Must Go or Fagen’s recent solo date Morph the Cat-both of which relied on sound and musicianship but lacked in incredible songwriting;I just have to be objective because I LOVE Steely Dan but…..you know. This album isn’t exactly an exception from that in that the album relies more on sound then anything.

Becker had one great idea and that was to up the reggae/dub strains in his music. Most of the songs on this album will, believe it or not, make you feel more like walking with a skank then being jazzy and funky. But it doesn’t mean those elements aren’t present. “Door Number Two” and “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” of two great songs that are very successful:the former jazzier, the latter more reggae. Hardcore fans of the classic Steely Dan sound may be surprised (I would never say put off) by the reggae rhythms permeating much of the music here.

The result (as is typical of much of that genre) is the songs have the illusion of sounding somewhat alike;they really don’t at all but come off that way. Becker rises to the occasion though in a big way by closing the album with “Three Picture Deal”,nearing a complete restoration of everything that makes Steely Dan’s sound so special and unique. Some might want to know why he didn’t begin with that sound and take it from there. But at least by adding the Jamaican rhythms Becker is going for something new in his sound. And it  makes you wonder what the next Steely Dan release is going to pull out of it’s hat.

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Life Between The Notes: Bluey’s Funk Album Odyssey Of 2015!

Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunick decided to change things up in 2013. A long standing member of the flexible lineup oriented acid jazz/funk group Incognito, he began a solo career. Bluey’s sound has by now joined many of the jazz/funk greats such as Donald Fagen and the late Joe Sample in aging to near perfection much like fine vintage wine. Of course a lot of changes have come thick and fast during the years 2012 through 2015. His solo music had enormous potential to showcase the many bright shades of the musical rainbow.

Bluey has elected to expand his musical vision into something that represents the very core of what funk (as a thematic concept) can truly accomplish in terms of speaking directly to people’s souls. “Dance To My Drums” opens with applause,funky drums, popping slap bass and rhythmic backup singing right upfront. The title song has a bass and dripping rhythm guitar based uptempo post disco/boogie funk sunshine to it.”Hold On” keeps that same instrumental vibe-only stripping it down to emphasize the hand clap powered rhythm.

“Saints And Sinners” is a very stripped down electric piano led neo soul/acid jazz style rhythm while “Trippin’ On The Feelin'” features a melodic synthesized symphony in a thickly percussive Brazilian jazz rhythm. “I’ve Got A Weakness For Love” extends the spare instrumentation into a more rhythm guitar led mid tempo groove.  “Tomorrow Never Lies” is a stomping Brazilian tinged jazz funk melody while “Columbus Avenue” has a swinging rhythm accompanied by big heavy piano chords for an acoustic vocal jazz oriented number.

“Caught Up In The Grey” has a sleek contemporary jazz flavor based on the piano. “Been There Before” has a melodically bright groove about its thick rhythm. “More Than Getting By” and “The Poetry Of Life” are both  stripped down acid jazz mid tempo numbers while ‘Sunships On The Shores Of Mars” takes on an acoustic bossa with cosmic lyrical poetry concluding the album. On every level, this astounding album is a fluid journey that references jazz/funk’s past,present and future as one expansive musical continuum.  Very happily? Bluey accomplishes that beautifully with this album.

 

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Yoko Ono-‘Feeling The Space’: A 1973 Jazz/Funk/Rock Journey Of Female Liberation

Yoko Ono’s had her career in conceptual art during the early 60’s-including her association with the avant garde art movement Fluxus. Her musical involvement came through working with John Cage and through her second husband-film producer and apparent jazz musician Tony Cox. She became infamous through her marriage to John Lennon. It was with him that she finally pursued her own recording career. Her first two album was direct companion piece to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band-released in 1970. After this, Ono’s music career gradually expanded outward in another way.

With Ono finding herself increasingly withdrawn romantically from her all too close marriage to Lennon,  it would seem to me that the pair were finding themselves still peripherally involved in the others life. All the while remaining on very different life paths. To hear Yoko tell it? Her musical/art career began to regain serious power during the mid 1970’s,while John’s lifelong emotional insecurities got the best of him during his self named “lost weekend”. Yoko found herself as an empowered woman on a serious mission.

With access to an all star band of musicians such as David Spinozza and Michael Brecker? She was able to continue realizing her vision. Songs such as the flute powered “Growing Pain”, “Run Run Run” and “Angry Young Woman” are soulful, electric piano led ballads while “Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)” and “Man Man Man” both have stomping, swinging cabaret jazzy blues rhythmic flavors about them. “Coffin Car” has a grinding blues/rock vibe that is repeated on the cooler “She Hits Back” while “If Only” is a harmonica led country/blues type ballad.

“A Thousand Times Yes” is a rhythmically clean jazz-funk number not too far from something the Crusaders might’ve done at this time while “Straight Talk” updates the rock ‘n soul shuffle of “Instant Karma” from her viewpoint. “Woman Power” is a stomping, percussive funk rocker with a rapped vocal from Yoko. “I Learn To Stutter” is a live spoken intro to a version of “Coffin Car” where Yoko talks of how the press attack that accompanied her marriage to Lennon deeply effected her emotionally. “Mildred” is a swinging, nightclub friendly piano ballad.

This album finds Yoko having made up her mind about her musical conceptualization for that time period.  She positioned herself as a jazzy soul/funk oriented artist. One with a lot of blues and pop song structure. As for her take on feminism?  She was now totally confident that women (both in and out of her own position in life) should allow their voices to make a difference. In a way? This is something of the graduation from the school of being Yoko Ono. Her marriage to John Lennon was on hiatus. Yet her art surely wasn’t suffering for it. One of Yoko’s most powerful and musically adept releases.

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Anatomy Of 1978: “Love Is” by Bill Withers

Bill Withers is certainly an artist I’ve grown with. Especially his non hit material, which never ceases to be wonderful to hear. And is often extremely funky too.  In 1978 he released his final album of the decade ‘Bout Love’.  It featured on it a song that I first heard recorded and sung by Herb Alpert on his Rise album a year later. When I first heard Wither’s version, it was a bit surprising he’d actually wrote it. As hadn’t paid proper attention to Alpert’ personnel credits. Still its the exact song I’d want to project for this Valentines Day-especially in America. The song is entitled “Love Is”.

Keni Burke of the Five Stairsteps gets the medium paced beat of Russel Kunkel going off with a heavy, rhythmic slap bass riff. Paul Smith adds a high pitched Clavinet (or Clavinet like keyboard) into the mix before the strings and horns kick in playing the main melody along with Withers’ voice. There’s a bridge where the bass and strings scale up before the song essentially builds back up from where it started-with everything building up from a milder sound to a more theatrical one. After another such scaled up refrain, that same pattern builds back up for a third time before the songs finally fades out on itself.

“Love Is” has both the structure of a funk song right on the one musically-with a gospel/folk like chorus-on-chorus melodic content. The funk is assured by Burke’s Larry Graham like slap bass and the overall Sly Stone type groove-mixed in with a healthy dose of disco era lushness with the horns and strings. Wither’s own guitar also plays a wonderfully supplementary role alongside Burke’s bass-especially with its bluesy drawl. Lyrically the call and response lyrics-alternately illustrating both love’s basics and more complex tenants are another aspect of why I love this song.

Holiday’s can be beloved, despised or even abandoned. Depending on the social and political atmosphere of the given time period. Valentine’s Day can be difficult even for those who generally love holidays. Bill Withers song here speaks a good message to such a situation. Suppose that when times of love for one’s individual self seems lacking? Or if someone is unlucky enough to be without love in a somewhat loveless community? Using romantic love as a worldly concept FOR community, empathy, caring and/or spirituality is one of the most positive things a soulful, funky song can offer. Happy Valentines Day!

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald emerged out of his native Ferguson, Missouri (and his first band Blue) to become one of the most important building blocks of the west coast pop/soul/funk sound out of LA-during the late 70’s and early 80’s. His first gig was in singing backup on Steely Dan’s 1975 Katy Lied. And he brought his distinctively jazzy soul way with the Rhodes piano to The Doobie Brothers when he joined them shortly thereafter. In doing so, he totally reshaped their southern rock sound into west coast funky soul such as “Takin’ It To The Street”, “It Keeps You Runnin'” and of course “What A Fool Believes”.

Turning 66 years old today, McDonald has had an equally varied solo career. Especially with his soulfully, distinctively slurred vocal delivery and raspy falsetto. He even made a more  popular comeback in the early aughts with two separate CD’s of classic Motown covers. Both with and without the Doobie’s, McDonald’s career has many exciting moments that got my attention. Especially 1982’s G funk building block “I Keep Forgettin'”. The song that I’m talking about today was from the 1986 movie Running Scared. And its the late Rod Temperton written “Sweet Freedom”.

A snare/tom based drum kicks into a percussion based intro with two corresponding synths-one playing a marimba like sound and the other introducing the main melody with McDonald’s refrain. Other layers of synth, including a brittle bass line come in as the drums fatten up. On the choruses, the rhythm guitar of (likely) Paul Jackson and the horn arrangements of Larry Williams beef up the arrangement. After a re-harmonized bridge ending with a pitch bent synth solo, an extended version of the chorus closes out the song.

“Sweet Freedom” is one of those songs I’ve personally enjoyed, sung and danced around to since childhood. And it makes sense now that its another Rod Temperton composition. It really brings to life that danceable, Caribbean inspired funky soul injected into the mid 80’s American pop landscape. It all had just the right mix of melodic sweetness and rhythm heft to make it work very well. And in terms of keyboards and vocals, this is some of McDonald’s finest work-with Temperton making the most of the artists jazzy twists as well. A wonderful meeting of two soulful icons in a very enjoyable setting.

 

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Pleasure Principle’ by Parlet

Image result for Parlet Pleasure Principle

In historical terms, the clear witticism strung into P-Funk’s lyrical ethos contrasted greatly with the complex and often difficult realities of how the entire George Clinton universe functioned in its heyday. Always dreaming of creating a mini musical collective along the lines of his former employers at Motown, there were two factors that came until play-depending on who you believe. Either George’s grandiose gestures were no substitute for sound management. Or that he simply fell into the music business cliches that he continually rallied against.

One excellent example of this problem was Parlet. Originally conceived of as a somewhat poppier P-Funk girl group called The Parlettes, George trolled Casablanca yet again by offering them “a funky P-Funk girl group called Parlet”. Considering the collective nature of P-Funk’s live shows, this provided some excellent creative possibilities for Clinton’s expansive visions. Five different former P-Funk backup singers made up the group in their three year lifetime. Since the idea of who left Parlet at one time was so complicated, this album offers a more coherent a purely musical perspective.

The title song starts off the album with a classy bass driven, high stepping danceable funk piece that has a swing era jazz feeling about it-from the horn voicing’s to the “la la,la de da de,da da” harmonies of the trio themselves. “Love Amnesia” gets started with this powerful,popping bass/Clavinet line before going into what amounts to a very basic Parliament style jam- with a funky take on the psychic numbing of romance. “Cookie Jar” is one of the more unique P-Funk songs to me as it seems to be based around an acoustic blues guitar line-espousing the idea of a lady being in the position to play the field.

“Misunderstanding” is a complicated, jazz inflected ballad whereas “Are You Dreaming?” is one of the few songs that that put a P-Funk instrumental flavor to a disco friendly Philly soul sound. “Mr.Melody Man” has more of what they often call a “disco ballad” flavor- all more or less dealing with the different stages of romantic regret. Considering this is an album presenting so many musical ideas as yet fairly unique to P-Funk,the entire Parlet venture was a messy and chaotic one right from the start.

The trio consisting of Jeanette Washington, Debbie Wright and Marlia Franklin didn’t have much (if any) experience at front lining. And even less as a collective group. The resulting maelstrom of conflicts with Clinton and an his apparent under promotion of them resulted in both Franklin and Wright leaving Parlet at different times following this album’s release. Musically however it was very innovative to P-Funk’s future.

It showcased George and company’s embrace of disco-dance rhythms into their music before Parliament’s records themselves began to embrace them a year later. So it did seem,with disco being regarded as a very feminized phenomenon,that Parlet were essentially being used by Clinton as a platform to integrate this ethic into their sound. Since,of course the disco elements of this music was used ironically to decry the music’s presumed social attitudes,it’s a wonderfully strong and grooving album-right in key with P-funk’s vision of music culture.

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Anatomy of Two Late Funkateers: “Money’s Hard To Get” by The Temptations

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”,  both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.

Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns.  Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.

Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.

“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”.  Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.

 

 

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Come Get It!’ by Rick James

Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown.  From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.

“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.

“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.

When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.

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