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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Justin Timberlake has had a very full several years. He had a successful comeback tour for his previous two albums-both parts of The 20/20 Experience. That tour was the subject of a Netflix concert film entitled Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. In addition, he also provided voice over work in the Dream Works animated film Trolls-as well as contributing the commercially successful single “Can’t Stop The Music” to the soundtrack as well. Since then, JT has been back in the studio. And at the end of this week, his newest album Man Of The Woods will drop to the public.
This latest album will feature 16 new songs from Timberlake-with two guest stars in the new millennium neo soul songstress Alicia Keys and another with modern country singer Chris Stapleton. So far there have been three videos for three of the new songs pre released from this album-including the duet with Stapleton. The first video/song from this new album to be released came as a bit of a surprise to me. And results showcased where Timberlake seemed to be focusing his musical energies as he was approaching his 37th birthday today. The name of this song is “Filthy”.
A rumbling guitar rumbles into a marching beat and a rocking, up-scaling riff as the intro the song. The drum suddenly changes to funky electronic tone-with a double percussion accent on the second beat. There is a dub-step style wobble bass starting things out on that rhythm. Than a live electric bass/guitar interaction comes into that mix for the song its main groove. Timberlake is rapping/chanting somewhat James Brown style in the beginning. On the chorus, an ethereal synth pad adds a high pitched layer of color. That pattern continues until a digital tone brings the song to a total halt.
“Filthy” is a song with a strong groove and a strong video-one with JT presenting himself as a Steve Jobs style figure presenting a animatronic dancing robot. The groove of the song is also an electro funk one as well. The wobbling bass is normally associated with dub-step, EDM and trap. These are musical genres that usually emphasis more decorative beats and sounds. “Filthy” takes that modern instrumentation and brings it into a solid electro funk groove. Timberlake’s soulful vocal turns also help give the melody that funkified flavor as well. Making the song a good possible new direction for funk to take.
Bettye LaVette’s career is an example how it often seems that soul, in the context of a genre of music, refers mainly to a type of singing and playing. You can have the right singing,the right playing and somehow it just isn’t quite soul. It’s very much a literal term. Very much an individual conception. LaVette here has a new book out,and one knows she has a lot of stories to tell. But I know two things for sure: her recording career was stalled for decades. And he has a reputation for being a headstrong personality with an enormous sense of conviction in the tradition of all the greats in the genre.
This album,celebrating her half century in the “biz” is musically dedicated to all the music that inspired her along the way. For starters,this album is extraordinarily funkified. In a very deep, southern way too-filled with heavily revered drums, electric guitar, bass and keyboards. Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken”, “I’m Not The One”, “The More I Search )The More I Die”, “Fair Enough” and “Time Will Do The Talking” all showcase this predominantly. Her take on “Dirty Old Town” seems to almost illustrate her own attitude and is presented here in two versions,the later longer and far more spare.
The rhythm goes up on the very heavily funky “I’m Tired”, and actually goes very much the opposite direction on the night time bluesy soul of “Crazy” and “Yesterday Is Here”. Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” gets a countrified treatment whereas Sly’s title song goes more to the gospel roots of the song. One appealing thing about LaVette right off the bat is that,as an interpretive singer,she never veers from altering the song lyrics in certain ways to personalize it, have it make more sense that she’s singing them.
On the other hand all the songs selected for thing album already make sense in terms of her doing them. And considering that this is the first full length Bettye LaVette album I’ve ever heard? The fact that comes out so strongly even for a relative newcomer (such as myself ) speaks volumes for her ability to grab the attention of the largely uninitiated. Also it helps if one is a music lover getting into more interpretive singers at a given time anyway as I am at this point. Even still the overall effect I get from this is that I’d never have known they weren’t originals given her take on them.
Anita Baker’s music always felt (to my childhood self ) like what it might’ve been like to be an adult. The music and lyrics came off as so learned and experienced in life. This is one of the key qualities of Baker’s music that I share a common interest in with my friend Henrique. Another quality that Baker’s 1988 album Giving You The Best That I Got is that it presents a relatively small group of musicians. With a sound that’s immaculately produced and compositionally strong all at once. As the follow up to the blockbuster album Rapture this album often suffered from unfair comparisons.
After all, when you have an album like that? Its usually a nearly impossible act to follow. Now I’ve been hearing this album in one way or another since the day it came out? I have to say that this album is packed with great songs and as always Anita’s distinctive voice. Between the styles of Sarah Vaughn, and several years later with Toni Braxton, has any female vocalist been able to almost instrumentally work their way around a song the way Anita does on songs such as “Priceless” and the title cut. These are vital R&B/jazz compositions.
These compositions are to strong grooves Anita made famous beforehand. But on tracks like “Rules”, the barrier that developed between jazz and R&B melted right away. The instrumental sound of these songs are both concise and elegantly produced. And that’s no small feat to accomplish. Michael J. Powell, founder of Baker’s former band Chapter 8, did a masterful job in that regard for this album. Critic/writer Nelson George described the kind of music Anita Baker specialized in as “retro nouveau” in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues. And I suppose it fits as well as any.
Songs such as “Lead Me Into Love”,”Good Love”,”Just Because”,”Good Enough” and “You Belong To Me” assure this album has no filler at all. The level of songwriting consistency is maintained throughout every one of these songs. Elektra was really and sound popping with some of the best fusions of jazz-pop, quiet storm and R&B/funk during the course of the 80’s. That tends to be what happens when musicians such as Omar Hakim, Nathan East and the late George Duke get together with a talent like Baker’s. And if that period of music was a living being? It should be grateful to have had Anita Baker around.