Omar first came to my attention via the Lenny Henry starring “brit-com” entitled Chef, with its theme song “Serious Profession” performed entirely by Omar. During the early to mid aughts,exploring Omar’s then very hard to find import albums on CD was like hunting for buried treasure. Thanks to my online friend Jeremiah,a lot more exposure to Omar’s music came my way a decade ago. What I noticed about Omar’s music was that,very different from American neo soul very much based in live instrumental hip-hop beats,Omar’s variety of the music concentrated heavily on ornate arrangements.
Born Omar Lye-Fook in London in 1968,he grew up in Canterbury,Kent. He was classically trained trumpet,piano and percussion at two separate conservatories in London and Manchester. He worked as a computer programmer for Microsoft before pursuing music full time. His first single and album There’s Nothing Like This became his first chart hit. And established him as a founding father of neo soul. Over the years his sound swelled to incorporate elements of Brazilian jazz,dance hall reggae and cinematic funk. On the latter end,one of my favorite songs from him is 2000’s “To The Top” from his album Best By Far.
A swinging mix of hollow percussion and piano walk down introduce the song. This kicks off into a sea of strings and melodic flute harmonies before Omar himself begins duetting with his swelling backup vocals. This represents the chorus of the song,for all intents and purposes. The refrains of the song find Omar’s lead and backup vocals playing more call and response to a shuffling,funky snare drum and piano. There are two repeating chorus/refrain bars of this song. On the final chorus before the song fades,Omar’s lead and back-round vocals become the full focus of the song over the instrumentation.
Omar does something that really gets to me musically on “To The Top”. Most neo soul/proto neo soul male artists who hailed as “the next Marvin Gaye” in the beginning. And truth be told,Omar’s style of arrangement and love of backup vocals singing lead is straight out of the Gaye school of cinematic funky soul on this particular song. What Omar does is brings in the heavy funk. As with most neo soul,its lacking in any synthesized electronics. What it does have is less of a stripped down sound,and more emphasis on orchestral production. That makes Omar one of the funkiest neo soulers of his generation.
Filed under 2000, arrangement, backing vocals, cinematic funk, cinematic soul, drums, flute, funky soul, Neo Soul, Omar Lye-Fook, percussion, piano, strings, UK Funk
D’Angelo has already expertly been covered on this blog by Henrique Hopkins,with his articles on the songs “Chicken Grease” and “1000 Deaths”. There’s always been something about the music of the Virginia man born Michael Eugene Archer. Probably started over 20 years ago when the man’s debut Brown Sugar playing on the family car cassette deck on many a road trip. At first it was hard for me to fully understand D’Angelo’s musical appeal. The grand musical statements of Stevie Wonder and the Jackson’s were saying a lot more to me personally at that time. A year later I began to discover Prince. And D’Angelo’s approach became somewhat more clear to me.
Despite the press and the local airplay from Nigel Hall as a college radio DJ in my area,even D’Angelo’s sophomore album Voodoo didn’t light the spark of interest. It was after listening to the Roots and experiencing Questlove’s production for people like Al Green that the music of multi instrumentalist D’Angelo and his band the Soulquarians gained a new understanding within me. So I endeavored to go back and re-discover the Voodoo album. With hip-hop era jazz musicians such as bassist Charlie Hunter and trumpeter Roy Hargrove aboard for the affair,there was one groove on the album that leaped out at me in particular right about at the dead center of the album called “Spanish Joint”.
Afro Caribbean conga’s from Gionvanni Midalgo introduce the song. The man rhythm is a steady,fast paced Brazilian jazz/funk beat. Hunter’s rhythm guitar and bass line both do their nimble dance over the drums and percussion. On the choruses,Hargrove’s deep choral trumpet’s take on another life along with the more swinging cymbal/hi hat rhythms and D’Angelo’s call and response multi tracked harmony vocals. A brief bridge finds the instrumentation slowing to a complete halt and silence. After this the song swings on into a straight up Afro-Cuban jazz/funk groove with some counter melodies from D’Angelo on the Fender Rhodes until the song comes to a swinging,jazzy conclusion.
The thing that really excited me about this song is that it took neo soul’s naturalistic instrumental approach,then added to that the expansive harmonics of jazz and funk. Although D’Angelo and Questlove could’ve theoretically carried this song along as a purely rhythm section based song Midalgo’s percussion touches,Hargrove’s trumpet charts and Hunter’s bass/guitar riffs greatly broaden the songs instrumental dynamics. People who love both neo soul and 70’s Brazilian jazz/funk could both easily listen to and dance off this song with the same level of enthusiasm. Aside from the strength of the song itself, that quality of bringing two generations of the groove together was a major feat.
Filed under 2000, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Brazilian Jazz, Charlie Hunter, D'Angelo, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, funk guitar, Giovanni Midalgo, Neo Soul, Questlove, Roy Hargrove, Soulquarians, trumpet, Uncategorized, vocal harmonies