Author Archives: dunderbeck1980

Bruno Mars: Memories Of Doo Wops & Hooligans

Bruno Mars has symbolized how much the 2010’s have seen an occasional (sometimes too minor) rebirth of song and instrumental oriented soul/funk/pop music. And that’s of course speaking strictly on a commercial level. A child star in his native Honolulu, the man born  Peter Jean Hernandez continued to perform covers in LA after a failed stint with Motown before becoming a well known songwriter. What interests me most about him is how he recorded his full length 2010 debut album with a live band called The Hooligans. Who are with him to this day. As for that album itself…..


The first time I heard the name Bruno Mars when at a summer pride festival when a local band in my area called The Blast Addicts did a version of his song “The Lazy Song”. I’d seen this album around but paid it little attention. Over time I’ve had more exposure to his young hipster attitude and his inspired state show,I began to realize this might just be a talent worth exploring.

It’s been a very long time since I heard an artist whose songs were inspiring interpretation so early in the game. While references to him as “the new Michael Jackson” were a complete turn off at first,considering how few artists will ever likely live up to a vibrant talent on the level of MJ again, But what was this man going to have to say on his own terms?

The first two songs on this album “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are” do in fact possess that epic production sound so common today,however the pop-soul song craft of the compositions themselves are really quite amazing. My personal favorite track here is the slinky funk/reggae of “Our First Time”,with it’s beautifully jazzy chord changes.

“Runaway Baby” is a high octane,guitar based funk rocker where “The Lazy Song” pulls pop,soul,funk and light hip-hop rhythms together for a song celebrating the sometimes slacker spirit of youth. The same impulse carries on into the sparse new wave style “Marry You”,though this time seeking a commitment through naivety. “Talking To The Moon” is a moody,reflective piano based ballad.

Damian Marley shows up for the heavy reverbed reggae of “Liquor Store Blues”,an ode to drowning sorrows where “Count On Me” is a sweet little acoustic based song with a strong Caribbean flavor. The ending finds Mars as a soul man supreme on the heavily Stax inspired “The Other Side” recorded,of course with Cee Lo Green. Brimming with youthful charm and innocence this singer/songwriter/musician also shows great potential for a significant,long term creative expansion as he grows artistically.

He puts a great deal of thought into his writing and his musical ideas. And while it’s clear he operates on many levels firmly within the contemporary musical idiom,his basic musical flavors come out of 60’s and 70’s sunshine pop melodies-through the filters of the soul,funk and reggae music he clearly loves. Probably the idea pop album for this particular time period.


This review of Bruno Mars’s first album was written by me five years ago, around the time I was taking an interest in his second effort Unorthodox Jukebox. Bruno’s music has since then been covered more on this blog by my friend Henrique Hopkins. He really helped to bring songs like “24 Karat” and the already iconic “Uptown Funk” to my initial attention in the doing. In any case, always felt it wise to approach Bruno’s music in an album context on my end. And am starting with his first here. Which shows how much tremendous growth Bruno’s music has made in the years since he made his solo debut.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Red Top” by Steve Miller

Steve Miller, a Milwaukee native, had very strong connections to jazz growing up. His mother Bertha sang in a very jazz oriented manner. And his father George, called Sonny, did some record engineering in his spare time off his job as a pathologist. While attending the University Of Madison, Miller and his longtime friend Boz Scaggs formed The Ardells-eventually joined by keyboard player Ben Sidran. This began the circle of musicians who’d eventually become The Steve Miller Band. Their psychedelic blues sound evolved into a more pop friendly sound during the early 70’s.

By the early 70’s, The Steve Miller Band had a series of eclectic hits from the rock of “The Joker” to the synth pop/new wave of “Abracadabra”. After the band took a hiatus in the mid 80’s, Miller began recorded a series of blues and jazz oriented solo albums. One of them was 1988’s Born 2 Be Blue. It reunited him with Ben Sidran, who acted as a producer and keyboard player on the album. My father had the cassette of the album in the late 80’s. And there was one Lionel Hampton song Miller recorded at the end of the album that became an ear worm for both of us at the time. It was called “Red Top”.

Gordy Knudtson’s drum kickoff starts off the song-with the late sax great Phil Woods blowing away the melody before a break for Miller vocally introducing the chorus. Knudtson’s drum takes on a more New Orleans type flavor. Sidran’s synthesized organ plays a strong foundational role in this as well-along with Miller’s bluesy guitar riffs accenting it all. Billy Peterson’s bass line bounces right along with the drums. On the bridge, the rhythm all swings for Woods to take a full sax solo. After this the song has an extended chorus before coming to a stop on a reprise of the intro.

“Red Top” has been recorded by a lot of people since Hampton composed the song. There’s something about Steve Miller’s version that really brings it to a new generation. The song of course as a straight up 12 bar blues structure. But between Ben Sidran’s keys and Gordy Knudtson drumming, there’s a strong Crescent city jazz/funk flavor to this song that takes the actual melodic structure of it to another level. Miller himself seems right at home in this particular musical setting. And its actually among my personal favorite things I’ve heard Steve Miller record.

 

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Aja At 40: Welcome To The Land Of Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja was an album whose success has been based far more on its quality than its commercial potential. In 2010, it was even inducted by the Library of Congress into their United States National Recording Registry. It even won a Grammy in the the year of its release for being the best engineered non classical record of the year. For me, it represented the precision musicianship of the jazz funk era musicians who played on the album at some of their personal best. Also in 2010, I wrote a review on Amazon.com about the album and how I personally heard it.


Time has a way of testing a work of art that might be today’s masterpiece but tomorrow’s rubbish pile. One would probably find that not only would this album ace such a test with flying colors but could actually still be considered something of a yardstick of it’s kind. I am not sure but before this album very little music that qualified as jazz-funk,fusion or pop/jazz ever quite had the same level of all around success this one had in pop and rock circles and especially among pop radio listeners. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one the music featured here is a fully realized refinement on what was accomplished with The Royal Scam and unlike that albums more jagged moments both the production and arrangements on this album are clean as a whistle. For another thing none of that took away from the daring and adventurous flavors here. So you have this mixture of elegance,sophistication and a strong groove that only those really in the know about funk can provide.

The production of the Clavinet on “Black Cow” pretty much tell the story and some of the songs people don’t remember as well here such as “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” there’s some of the most intricate and uniquely textured piano work Donald Fagen had committed to record thus far and trust me: on that area he’d more than earned a few brownie points already. The title song has one of the most complex melodic constructions your liable to find in a pop record.

And of course it’s not easy to get Steve Gadd’s amazing fusion style drum solo at the songs conclusion out of one’s memory even after the passing of time. The popular hits from this album “Deacon Blues” and of course “Peg” showcase another surprising element of this album. Those familiar with Steely Dan before this album realize lyrically they tended to specialize in warped tales,usually of people no one wanted to know. These songs maintain their lyrical style but the tales they tell are a bit more accessible in tone and are among the more lighthearted and quaint in their catalog.

Yeah they were probably making a few funnies about the stereotypical simplicity of pop music lyrics but….a lot of it just is what it is and that’s kind of different for their usually double meaning approach. “Josie” ends the album on a similar note although the lyrics on that one may be just a tad slinkier and the groove just mildly edgier. At this point you could say this was Steely Dan’s best overall album and it’s certainly their best known.

But it’s also important to know their “laboratory in the studio” approach to recording across their previous two albums really opened the door for this to happen. So this was the conclusion to a long enduring musical experiment rather than something that came out of this air. That taken into considering the amazing thing about this is…..all these years later it still doesn’t sound like a product of hard labor.


Aja was an album that I first heard playing in my family’s car “boom box” when, as I recall, we were going to pick apples. Its an excellent example of a record where the melodic and very welcoming jazz/funk fusion grooves of the album deflect from Steely Dan’s typically cryptic and “insider commentary” based nature of their lyrical content. There’s a lot on the musical end of this album that I was able to project into a YouTube video I did about the album recently.  Aja is a record I could go on and on about here. But in the end, its best for the music to do the talking in this case.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Little Things” by India.Arie

India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.

India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.

The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.

“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of  its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.

 

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” by Sting

Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.

As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.

Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.

“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “From Us To You” by Stairsteps

The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit.  The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait  yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.

By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.

Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout.  The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.

“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love You Like A Woman” by Koko Taylor

Cora Anne Walton, best known as Koko Taylor, came from being the daughter of a sharecropper in Tennessee to become one of the many singers on the early 50’s Chicago blues scene. First arriving with her truck driving husband in 1952, she was discovered by Chess Records talent scout/songwriter/session player extraordinaire Willie Dixon. She made her first singles during the 60’s. Including her first version of Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle”. While she got her first recording contract later in the decade from Alligator Records, Taylor’s best known musical outlet was through her live performances.

My parents both saw Koko Taylor perform twice in the early 1990’s. It was at the Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine. My mother, normally not a concert fan, described Taylor as one of the most powerful stage presences she’d ever experienced. Through a blog dealing with the printed word, the sensations of the live concert experience isn’t always possible to convey with great accuracy. So it seemed appropriate to focus on one of her studio recordings that came close to capturing Taylor’s presence. One of them is the opening track of her 1969 debut album entitled “Love You Like A Woman”.

The songs groove consists of a heavy funky drum at the heart of the music. The rhythm guitar plays some chunky lines surrounded every little break in the rhythm. The bass plays an elaborate set of runs and walk downs whenever the rhythm needs it. Throughout most of the song, the horn section plays the roll of accentuating Taylor’s vocal leads. On the chorus of the song, the horns play a more sustained and melodic role in the song. The drums and a chicken scratch style of guitar makes up the a B section to that chorus. Several chorus/refrain sequences are played out before the song fades out.

“Love You Like A Woman” is a late 60’s song that encompasses that era in black American music very thoroughly. The song surely has soul-with its right on time message of a lady having to rule the roost in a household. Its also played with the utmost amount of funk-instrumentally influenced by the approach of James Brown and Stax. Structurally however, the song is all the way 12 bar electric blues. Much as with her contemporary Etta James, Koko Taylor was (especially with the help of Willie Dixon) able to show the versatility of the blues form in the era when soul and funk music was ascendant.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Kiss The World Goodbye” by Mtume

James Mtume almost seemed to be born into the royal family of funk. Everything seemed to come into place for it. He was born in Philly as the son of jazz sax icon Jimmy Heath. He went on to play with Miles Davis  during the last few years before Miles’ late 70’s retirement period. That combination of being a Philadelphia native and having a strong back round is usually the key ingredients in a recipe for a funk icon. At first,Mtume had his mind on athletics. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.

After learning about music somewhat through the jazz musicians coming in and out of his adopted father,local Philly jazz pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman,he had the abilities as a musician to begin his career as a session player on the West Coast by the early 70’s. He recorded a couple of albums as a leader.. These were both in a more free jazz style. In 1978 he’d teamed up with percussionist/arranger/producer Reggie Lucus and formed the funk outfit Mtume. They would hit pay dirt with 1983’s sexy “Juicy Fruit”. Yet one of their most telling grooves is the title song of their 1978 debut album Kiss The World Goodbye.

The drum kicks off the slow,percussive crawl of the rhythm for starts. A grinding guitar plays a funky blues riff that swiftly dovetails into another guitar line-this one a amp’d up rock one. This is assisted by some incredibly phat popping bass playing a lower version of the first guitar riff. This is the main body of the song-one that relies heavily on the one. As the song progresses,these main rhythmic elements are accented by both horn charts and synthesizer squiggles on every other chord or so. And this is how the groove goes on until it all fades out.

Taken as itself,this song is not only a great way for Mtume to debut as a band concept. But it is also so far removed from the electro/boogie sound they’d be known for 6-7 years later that is really showcases their musical arc. Mtume actually had four year gap from 1980 to 1983 where they didn’t record anything. But on this 1978 song,their focus was not only based more in the funk/rock aesthetics of Funkadelic,Ohio Players and Slave but the arrangement on this is especially thick. The instrumentation is so closely mixed,this song is among the most musically dense hard funk of the late 70’s.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “One-Eyed Jack” by Gary Bartz

Gary Bartz is a Baltimore native. He was a Julliard graduate who played with musicians like McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. He formed the Ntu group as a leader-combining a number of different afrocentric forms of music that complemented each other. My friend Henrique had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Bartz one time. He discussed with me Bartz place as a “post Coltrane soprano sax player”-someone who was able to cut through the music of the electric jazz era with his sound. He now teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory Of Music in Ohio, when he’s not on the road.

Bartz generally toured with his own group. But he also seemed to have loved playing with funk musicians too. That came into play during the mid 70’s-when that particular groove became a bigger part of his sound. By his 1980 album Bartz, he was prettying much acting as an adjunct of the band Mtume. With James Mtume and Reggie Lucas writing, producing and using their band as Bartz’ backup musicians. Since its the only Gary Bartz album I presently have, it was easy to discover one particular song from this collaboration that stuck out for me. Its called “One-Eyed Jack”.

A passionate “OOOOOOH!!!” and a five beat drum intro gets the song right into gear. From there on its a slow, dragging drum beat. The bass is slapping hard on the one. A rhythm guitar, one with a wah wah sound and an acoustic piano are all speaking in similar musical phrases with the horns bouncing right along with them-led by Bartz’s sax. Mtume’s Tawatha sings the vocal hook throughout the majority of the song-accentuated by additional space funk synths. There are two refrains-which have the rhythm guitar/bass playing a smoother and more melodic jazz/funk phrase.

Even before the extended chorus fades out this song, “One-Eyed Jack” will likely call to mind mid 70’s P-Funk. In the spirit of Mothership Connection and “Undisco Kidd”. Bartz taking part in another band rather than totally leading it also showcases his versatility here. Henrique also mentioned Bartz’s favorite TV show was the documentary series  Unsung. His only hope for it was that it would showcase more unsung jazz musicians than merely soul,funk and hip-hop ones. Considering these kids of jazz soloist and funk band crossovers? Bartz’s comment is more than apropos in this case.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons

The Jackson’s were already prepping for their second album self written and produced in June of 1979-just when the finishing touches to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album were being completed. It made sense then that musicians such as Michael Boddicker, Jerry Hey and Paulinho Da Costa played strong instrumental roles between both albums. The Jackson’s Triumph  album turned out to be no mere extension of MJ’s swiftly developing solo music. It was one of the most truly collaborative albums they made together. With Michael, Randy and Jackie Jackson being its creative triad.

Each member of the family played a different part. Michael and Jackie contributed much in the way of songwriting. While Randy did the same with more instrumental touches as well. The brothers fully flowered independence earned them their most successful album in nearly a decade-both in terms of critical acclaim and commercial status. I’ve had a decades long relationship with Triumph now. And had actually grown up on a truly epic video to very musically like song that turned out to be the opening track of the album. The name of this song, of course, was “Can You Feel It”.

An enormous adult choir sings the songs chorus acapella for the intro. This is arranged masterfully by the talented vocalist/vocal coach Stephanie Spruill . The horns kick into the disco march that makes up for the refrain of the song. And also its central rhythm as well. Ollie Brown holds down the 4/4 beat to perfection. Nathan Watts and Ronnie Foster play a conjoined, clomping bass line. The string and horn melodies go right into Randy’s vocal intro. On the chorus, another drum is added for funkier sound. Along with David Williams chunky, reverbed guitar while Michael sang lead. With flourishes of synths and a choral bridge, the orchestration fades the song out.

Musically “Can You Feel It” starts Triumph off in a manner that would follow it through the entire album. That is showcasing disco’s roots in the cinematic soul/funk of the early 70’s. All wrapped up with a more electronic boogie/post disco twist. As for the songs Utopian message? Its tempting to view its plea that “we’re all the same/ the blood inside of me is inside of you” as being Michael and Randy being a bit removed from earlier civil rights struggles generationally. Yet the general message of seeing racial difference as positive is at its core. And its all pushed forward by a dynamic musical offering.

 

 

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