Category Archives: Afro-Futurism

Songs In the Key Of Life@40: Stevie Wonder Living In A Future Paradise

songs-in-the-key-of-life

An artists musical focus isn’t required to match up to their lyrical concepts. And vice versa. Yet when those two creative aspects come together,especially in the hands of a great musical talent,the results can often defy description. One such case is Stevie Wonder. He had matched musical and lyrical concepts beautifully through singles during the 60’s. In the early 70’s,he crossed this ethic into the age of the album. His 1976 release Songs In The Key of Life is the finest example of how Stevie Wonder was innovating AOF-a term I’m coining for album oriented funk.

Songs In The Key of Life was his most long winded productions up to this point. It took him 2 1/2 years to complete this album. With a list of musicians that would take up several paragraphs and his fascination with Yamaha’s polyphonic duel keyboards instrument the GX-1,Stevie Wonder and the group of musicians who recorded this put a lot of blood,sweat and joyful tears into the album. It was likely intended as a triple album set. But was whittled down to a double album plus an EP 45 packed into it. Until this time,the only genre of music  that was really give this lavish presentation was progressive rock.

It was actually the first Stevie Wonder album (not counting radio hits) I’d ever heard. Though only part of it at first. On a dark,balmy night sometime in 1989-90 my mom was at our summer camp washing dishes. We had an old silver Emerson turntable/ cassette/ radio/8-Track player to listen to music on out there. My mom had ordered SITKOL on 8-Track from Columbia House Music Club. It was a double tape set,but she’d given one half of it to her friend Billy Ray while still living in NYC.  It was several years later that I finally heard the entire album on vinyl from my mom and dads record collection.

Songs In The Key Of Life is one of a handful of albums that provided the blueprint to how I listen to music up to this very day. It had some amazing and funky hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. On the other hand,being conceived as a powerful album statement with zero filler material,its an album that contains some songs that are just very special to millions the world over. If asked to mull it over,each of them probably can make a list of those special songs from this album to them. Today,I offer you my own journey through the songs of Wonder’s keys of life that had a profound effect on my own life.


“Have A Talk With God”-I am not a religious man. But the way Stevie Wonder talks about the positive effects prayer and faith have on him makes a deep impact. With its space funk synthesizers,bluesy melody and slow dragging vocals it offers up god as “the only free psychiatrist”-contrasting with the 12 bar blues form’s typical association with secular humanism.

“Pastime Paradise”-This might very well be the most expansive song instrumentally and lyrically to come out of the mid 70’s. The Arabic style melody,Afro Latin percussion,synthesized orchestration and Hare Krishna bells/chants make for an early example of what would one day become world/pop fusion. Which makes sense since the song talks about people with a progressive emotional understanding versus those with a more conservative one. And its place in post hip-hop history is assured  through Coolio’s 1994 remake “Gangsta Paradise”

“Summer Soft”-Stevie Wonder is an artist who is defined by melodic modulation. This song provides a beautiful tone poem in that regard. He discusses the advantages of the season with a wistful mid tempo ballad sung in falsetto. Then he talks about the seasons being gone in his powerful low voice over a powerful,uptempo gospel/funk revelry.

“Ordinary Pain”-Another fine example of modulation. It starts out with a slow ballad about dealing with the ordinary and apparently “necessary pain” coming from the end of a romance. This is a common thread in Wonder’s romantic songs. This song comes to an end,then returns as a hard core,Moog bass driven funk song from a female perspective sung by Wonderlove’s Shirley Brewer.

“I Wish”-With its bouncing Fender Rhodes piano,ARP synthesizer,bass line along with the hot horn charts,this nostalgia based piece of funk is one of Stevie Wonder’s most enduring hit songs.

“Black Man”-Seeing before my eyes the way this song was layered in recording studio on the relatively rare Classic Albums Series DVD documentary on the making of this album only enhanced my appreciation of this brilliant funk opus. The mix of brittle space funk synthesizer layers with equally brittle,electric horns make this history lesson on the many races of people who built America (with a strong black focus) one of Wonder’s finest pieces of funky music.

” Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”-On this song,Wonder presents an Afro Latin type of tango done in his electronically orchestrated style. In the languages of Zulu,Spanish and English he sings of true love coming from the heart. Likely relating to individual romance and love of humanity as well.

“As”-This song is one of Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces on the Fender Rhodes electric piano alone. Essentially a mid tempo jazz-funk ballad,it was interpreted by many key figures in that genre during the late 70’s. One can see why as its among Wonder’s most melodically challenging songs ever. Even though I’ve later read commentary that the lyrics of this song were lazily written,its clear that few can have the same high level of emotional expression in their love songs than Stevie Wonder does on such occasions as this.

“All Day Sucker”-This is a hardcore funk jam taken from the EP that came with this album. Using brittle synthesizer accents to accompany the scaling vocal modulations of the song itself,this is one of a handful of fine slices of the funky pie that Stevie Wonder serves up throughout the double album in general.


One thing about Stevie Wonder and this album is that,along with the Motown Monday radio marathons the local oldies radio stations used to have,is that it kind of gave the preteen Andre the impression of Motown as being almost like a fairy tale kingdom. One that omitted sounds and melodies unlike any other. After learning the reality of the hard work and talents that really went into all of it,I did hear of Richard Pryor’s comedy monologue on 1983’s Motown 25 that indeed viewed the label and its artists as being like Detroit’s knights of the sound table.

Songs In The Key Of Life has a sound that could seem magical to the musically unknowing. And even with knowledge,the magic created ON it never truly goes away. The writer John Hamilton is currently tracing the racial double standard of 20th century pop musically. Namely how veteran (generally white) rock artists are seen as aging with grace while black soul/funk artists are generally placed mainly in the context of the past. On Songs In The Key Of Life,Stevie is not only looking towards the future conceptually. But successfully paved the way for it on a musical level as well.

 

 

 

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Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1976, Afro-Futurism, ARP synthesizer, classic albums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Gospel, message songs, Motown, progressive music, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, Yamaha GX-1

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Nobu” by Herbie Hancock (1974)

Han

Herbie Hancock’s 1973 number “Chameleon”was not only some of the first funk I ever heard. It was one of the very first songs I remember hearing at all. With each passing year,Hancock’s music has always been representative to me of new musical discoveries. From funk to disco to electro. After listening to him for years,it became clear fairly early that Hancock shared one creative quality with his mid/late 60’s musical boss Miles Davis. And that was that Hancock has had a number of distinctly different musical periods in his now 54 year strong recording career. In terms of over-viewing his career here,it seemed fitting to explore some of these periods’ lesser known innovations he helped to spearhead.

On July 29th,1974 Herbie Hancock recorded his sixteenth studio album live at Koseinekin Hall in Tokyo,Japan. The album was released only in Japan on the countries’ CBS affiliate. The album was divided  between four songs. The first two were performed acoustically and the final two would be performed electrically. Being this album would be sandwiched between Hancock’s two major funk breakthrough’s in 1973’s Headhunters and it’s followup Thrust from later this same year,this album entitled  Dedication received little attention at the time of it’s release. But one song on the album was one Hancock had never performed previously. It was called “Nobu”.

The song opens with a brittle,staccato Arp Odyssey provided the songs central rhythm. Then the ARP String Ensamble fades in with it’s otherworldly orchestral tones. Hancock provides to different musical lines with his Fender Rhodes on this song. One is a bluesy bass line that pumps hard up under the song. The other is a mid to high toned solo that plays some often spiraling melodic improvisations. Towards the middle of the song,this Rhodes solo becomes more rhythmic in tone. As the melody again becomes a prominent part,the ARP strings returns as Hancock’s Rhodes turn to an echoing dewdrop sound before the song reaches it’s end with a bang from the string ensemble and the Rhodes.

Many people (including myself) think of Herbie Hancock’s fully electro funk period at beginning with his work with Grand Mixer DST and “Rockit” in 1983. Even though it wasn’t heard stateside at the time,Hancock’s electro funk revolution actually got it’s start right here on “Nobu” in 1974. And it’s electro Afro-Funk at that. The ARP Odyssey Hancock uses for the rhythm of this song has a more percussive than a drum like tone. And therefore the flavor it creates is of a far more tribal nature than any early drum machine could create. So by fashioning futurist Afrocentric electro funk,Herbie Hancock was at this point already a decade ahead of his time.

 

 

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Filed under 1974, Afro Funk, Afro-Futurism, Afrocentrism, ARP synthesier, electric jazz, electro funk, Fender Rhodes, Herbie Hancock, jazz fusion, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove Presents Teena Marie Week: “Emerald City” (1986)

Much in the same manner as Prince and Joni Mitchell had? Teena Marie elected to follow up her huge commercial breakthrough of 1984’s Starchild by satisfying her’s and the people’s urges for a broader level of musical expression. Understanding the instrumental continuity through jazz,soul and funk already was certainly a help in doing this. But especially in the mid 80’s? It was still a nervy move for a female artist with Lady T’s level of creative control/input. The result of this was her 1986 album Emerald City.

As with her Epic label debut four years earlier? It was a concept album. But this time with a more richly picturesque Wizard Of Oz type setting. Only with a more racially aware sociopolitical subtext-the story of a girl named Pity who decided more than anything she wanted to be green,as the liner notes state. As an album? It isn’t particularly long on the funkier grooves of her earlier albums. But when that does pop up? It does so with dramatic abandon. The finest example I can think of here is the title song which opens up the album.

An orchestral polyphonic synthesizer opens the door to the kinetic,fast paced Afro-Cuban percussion that pulses in and out of the stop/start tempo throughout the song. On each of the instrumental refrains? A bell like keyboard plays a very Japanese industrial electronica style melody alongside very slick synth bass lines. None other than Bootsy Collins himself provides one of his rapped vocal intros to the proceedings. On the second refrain of the song? A hard rocking guitar solo is even referenced lyrically before the rhythmic intensity continues it’s own end.

By embracing instrumental elements of Afro-Funk and Asian styles of industrial electronica? This particular song reminds me a lot of the pan ethnic “neo geo” style of electro dance/funk being pioneered at this time by former Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto. It is wonderful to see how Teena Marie took a very different route from the stereotypical blue eyed soul/funk,which often looks to the music’s past approach,and took a more genuinely futurist view of it. Again it’s an example of her understanding of black American music’s continued evolution in her own creative context.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afro-Futurism, bass synthesizer, Bootsy Collins, concept albums, elecro funk, Epic Records, Industrial funk, Joni Mitchell, message music, percussion, Prince, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Teena Marie, Uncategorized

Andre’s Amazon Archive Special Presentation for Record Store Monday: ‘Black Messiah’ by D’Angelo

Black Messiah

For the last 16 years? D’Angelo has been missing in action as far as studio albums are concerned. While an enormous live revue in 2000 featuring his band the Soultronics-including people such as ?uestlove among the other members were hailed as some of the most promising new bands of it’s time. Of course so much as gone down in the music world since D’Angelo’s most recent and lengthy absences from recording. The call he and the Soultronics made about musicians taking the musical creative process back for themselves as really started to show itself during the latest recession-particularly within the last year or so. And with the reality of the need to free ourselves from racial hatred and privilege has all come together to create just the right atmosphere for D’Angelo and his new band the Vanguard-including former Time member in guitarist Jesse Johnson along with ?uestlove still on skins. And musically the man has a whole lot to say.

The album starts out with a deep,steely,thumping rock/funk number-both the guitar and bass lines possessed of massive funky bottoms and D’Angelo himself delivering his broad ranging,multi tracked Southern soul drawl of a voice. “1000 Deaths” samples a preacher talking about the idea of a nappy headed Jesus as the “new black messiah” over heavy funky drumming and slap bass thrusts with “D’Angelo’s heavily processed vocals accompanied closely by a staticky,revved up keyboard. “Sugar Daddy” gives a sitar led forwards/backwards looped drum oriented psychedelic soul rocker with a very probing melody. “Sugah Daddy” has this clapping,tickling percussion and this bluesy jazz/juke joint style piano commonly heard on many mid/late 70’s P-Funk records with some very scatting vocals-both solo and multi tracked. “Really Love” is a mixture of a hip-hop beat with a beautifully sensual Brazilian jazz melody.

“Back To The Future” is a two part number here-both of which take a strong countrified jazz-funk bounce with a melody that comes right from “The Charleston”,the iconic stride pianist James P.Johnson’s famous song that originated the famous dance. The second part coming near the closing of the album adds more of a bouncing Southern danceable funk rhythm to the outro. “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” is full of heavy bluesy guitar reverb and a very melodic slap bass line sharing the musical space with D’Angelo’s elaborate vocal turns. “Prayer” is a slow,dragging wah wah powered groove with a spacy synthesizer melody floating over the top. “Betray My Heart” is a swinging dyno’d up electric piano powered jazz-funk number with tons of liquid groove from top to bottom. “The Door” is a whistling powered instrumental slice of sweetly melodic sunshine pop/soul. “Another Life” closes the album with a beautiful orchestrated,thick soul ballad with D’Angelo’s high falsetto vocal calls and the ascending melody the perfect accent to the piano/sitar/drum/string swirls of the song.

One thing to say about this album is that it’s simply an amazing total musical experience! Yes that in a sentence does some it up! In fact I had to listen to much of it twice before this review to absorb just what comes out of it. If D’Angelo never recorded another album the rest of his life? This could easily be his defining swan song. Why is that? Well it just channels all the threads of D’Angelo’s musical influences. It has Stevie Wonder’s love of creating instrumentally new melodic sounds. Duke Ellington’s sense of swing and rhythmic dissonance. Al Green,Sly Stone and OutKast’s Andre 3000’s drawling vocal hiccups and stutters. Prince’s psychedelic mixtures of funk,rock and soul. Ron Isley’s high vocal cries and wails. And it doesn’t leave out the jazz age with it’s love of modern time and stride piano. And in the end? It’s all D’Angelo and all funky! Not to mention awe inspiring melodies with the power to connect to the people. And even if some of the lyrics are difficult to make out? The music says all it needs to say: differences should always be different,and lay comfortably side by side-not far apart. A grand comeback for D’Angelo linking the sociological and musical chains that made contemporary black America so special TO America!

Link To Amazon Review Here*

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Filed under 2014, Afro-Futurism, Afro-Latin jazz, Al Green, alternative rock, Amazon.com, Blues, Brazil, D'Angelo, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, George Clinton, Hip-Hop, Jazz-Funk, Jesse Johnson, Marvin Gaye, Memphis Soul, Minneapolis, Music Reviewing, Neo Soul, Nu Funk, P-Funk, Prince, rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, Sly Stone, Southern Soul, Stevie Wonder

Anatomy of THE Groove 12/12/2014 Andre’s Pick: “There’s A Better Way” by Jermaine Jackson

By the early 80’s Jermaine,the middle boy of the Jackson family,had developed something of a reputation of being a very singular musical talent and a mentor for the band Switch-thereby inadvertently introducing the DeBarge family to Motown in the process. How fitting it was that,by the time his career at Motown was coming to an end that the DeBarge’s were becoming sort of a new Jackson’s for the then less then certain record label. Of course even he was noticing his future might benefit from being elsewhere and left the label during 1983. His final Motown album was Let Me Tickle Your Fancy,which produced a title track that was a good sized pop chart hit that featured new wave band Devo. That songs bluesy funk/rock made up one of Jermaine’s finest and overall most funk oriented albums of his fine and funky Motown musical career. Still one song from this album continues to stand out uppermost in my mind in the almost twenty years since I first heard it. It’s called “There’s A Better Way”.

It all starts out with the the slow funky disco-dance 4/4 beat accentuated by a similar tempo’d Afro-Latin timed rhythm  percussion-as well as conga drumming from . This is soon joined by former  a deep,bassy Salsa style piano. Jermaine himself soon picks up on this playing a hiccuping jazzy funk bass/guitar interaction. After Jermaine’s lead vocals begin,each vocal chorus is accompanied by…well perhaps a Clavinet style keyboard melody. Jermaine accompanies himself vocally Marvin Gaye style-responding to himself vocally in his middle range and ethereal falsetto. During the middle bridge of the song,there is a flamenco style guitar melody accompanied by a steel drum like electronic synthesizer tone. The song fades back out into Jermaine’s original lead chorus. This has Jermaine singing a full on call and response vocal based on the songs title between his two distinct vocal personalities. This all combines to give the entire rhythmic and melodic core of the song,with it’s mixture of live drumming,percussion and electronic effects an extremely afro-futurist bent about it.

On a strictly personal level? This is one of those Jermaine Jackson songs that truly captivated me musically when I first heard. it. And the further along my own musical knowledge grows? The more this appreciation of this songs musical virtues does. Musically the influence of Stevie Wonder’s sound textures are very strong here. It has that mixture of Afro Latin percussion,thick layers of bass sounds and jazz oriented electronic synthesizer accents. The melodic progression of this tune is almost all vocal. Most of the instrumental elements are based almost entirely in rhythm. So it’s almost as if Jermaine was metaphorically singing while he were walking along to the steps of the shoes on his heat-each rhythm and melody has some type of counterpoint. This gives the possible effect that Jermaine,a known multi instrumentalist,may have played every instrumental part on this song. Considering the confusing nature of the album jacket listing talented jazz and funk players such as drummer Ollie Brown,guitarist Paul Jackson,Stevie Wonder keyboardist Ronnie Foster and Jermaine’s brother Randy on percussion? It’s not really known to me if this was done by one man or a group of musicians. The interaction could almost go either way sometimes.

When it all comes down to it? What really brings this song so much to life is the way in which the lyrical themes of the song correlates with the music. Marvin Gaye used a slow,almost proto Reggaeton rhythm on his song ‘Third World Girl” the same year as this. Though on this song? Jermaine showcases a slow,deep Afro latin style post disco friendly funky soul groove that’s stripped down and rhythmically chunky to illustrate his views on poverty. Very much in the spirit of Stevie Wonder on “Living For The City” and his brother Mike’s “Man In The Mirror” from six years after this? Jermaine points to people in any position of authority turning a blind eye to human suffering. As an individual artist? Jermaine’s lyrical message is more earnestly pleading. The chorus after all spells out that “you don’t know how it feels to be without/I don’t care what they say/I know there’s a better way”. Surely a “people music” pretext to the entire song. By also pointing out that “talk about generosity/it’s been done in other countries”,it’s clear Jermaine that the inequities in the treatment of black Americans and the exploitation of foreigners,some black themselves,are not at all lost on him. More over,he also sees other nations as being capable of helping themselves without anyone else’s assistance as well. So that cultural understand,plus the like minded instrumental approach,make this one of Jermaine’s most unsung musical standouts.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Africa, Afro-Futurism, Brazil, Brazilian Jazz, Disco, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, Jazz-Funk, Jermaine Jackson, Motown, Music, Soul, Stevie Wonder

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 11/15/2014: ‘Landing On A Hundred’ by Cody Chestnut

Cody

First time Cody Chestnut entered my life was through his The Headphone Masterpiece. The sound of that album was very much a patchwork quilt of rock,funk and hip-hop though a reverrbed and heavily phased filter. Wasn’t a bad idea but I’d basically heard something similar to this before-from D’Angelo. Some of the songwriting ideas were not well developed and there was a lack of essential musical focus. All the same,Cody’s talent was definitely there. Than he disappeared almost as fast as he appeared. And I thought he would be a musical footnote whose full potential would not be fully realized. Than one day I was looking through the soul section of my local record store and there it was,a brand new release from someone who surprised me. They had a listening station there where I could here snippets enough for me to know I’d like it. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Not only has Cody Chestnut finally realized his creative potential but released what I view as his most focused and direct album yet.

From the churning rhythm guitars and drums at the beginning,it’s clear the focus here is going to be funk. And that is “people music” from the 70’s funk era all the way: melodic,full of advanced instrumental and vocal harmonic ideas. Especially impressive is “I’ve Been Life”,where using spoken word dialog to introduce the name of African countries and colonies to illustrate the rootedness of his life. “What Kind Of Cool (Will We Think Of Next)” happily addresses who media-centric people have become in their personal habits in a witty rather than angst-y fashion. On “That’s Still Mama” he’s musing on his family very much “I Wish” era Stevie Wonder style. After this the album takes on more of an uptown soul flavor with a shuffling rhythm and horns on “Love Is More Than A Four Letter Word” and “Everybody’s Brother”,where Cody talks of being redeemed from a life of manipulation and drug use through religion in his case. Of course he does show from trepidation that he might fall off that wagon in “Don’t Wanna Go The Other Way” as well. “Chips Down (In No Landfill” and “Where Is All The Money Going” illustrating modern economic hardships with some Marvin Gaye-like multi tracked falsetto vocals.

Of course the album ends in a similar musical place to where it begins-with the wah wah powered funk of “Scroll Call”,again finding him looking to the African continent for inspiration. I’ve heard a good majority of the retro soul/funk that’s been coming out. But I have to say I’ve seldom heard an album of that genre as well produced,well written and above all well conceptualized as this in the past decade or so. Cody Chestnut is no longer trying to keep up with the Jones’s of indie rock or contemporary hip-hop. He was at last able to find the steady musical direction here that has defined the creative direction of other people pursuing similarly individual paths such as Janelle Monae’. Not only is he more than adept at the most advanced level of funk and soul songwriting and production,but also exploring Afrocentrism on a personal,meaningful and positive level. This album could actually be part of a new revolutionary funk era rebirth. One that wouldn’t be based in rock or hip-hop cliches. But one that would expand on the past to embrace Afro-futurism,if Cody handles himself in a creatively reasonable manner from here on.

Originally Posted On December 16th,2014

Link to original review here*

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Filed under Afro-Futurism, Cody Chestnut, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, Stevie Wonder