Category Archives: Billy Cobham

Look Out For #1@40-George & Louis Johnson Tell Us About The Funk That All Of Us Release

Somehow it never occurred to me that the Brothers Johnson’s debut album Look Out For#1 was celebrating its 40th anniversary. Sadly,it did so without the presence of the late great Louis Johnson-who passed away in the spring of 2015. One of the most important things to say about this album,released on new years day of 1976,is that it represents the very peak of #1 funk-a time when the music was at its strongest in terms of crossover. It was also Quincy Jones’ first major funk/soul production for another artist. Which in turn paved the way for Quincy’s success in that arena in the early 80’s.

George and Louis Johnson started playing professionally with Billy Preston as teenagers. As they approached adulthood,the guitar/bass duo backed up Quincy Jones on his 1975 album Mellow Madness. The setup was that the brothers wrote the songs,played the guitar and bass parts while George did the majority of the vocals with his high,percussive vocal stutter.  This was essentially the setup for Look Out For #1. Other prominent jazz/funk instrumentalists such as Dave Grusin,Ian Underwood,Lee Ritenour ,Billy Cobham,Toots Thielemans and Ernie Watts were among the musicians who played on the album as well.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about this album is how it presents funk at its best recorded,produced and with its highest variety. “I’ll Be Good To You”,the primary single for the album,has a strong Sly & The Family Stone melodic singability. The instrumental “Tomorrow” has a similarly melodic vibe about it. Of course the song that gets the most harmonically advanced about that style is “Land Of Ladies”,the one song sung by Louis in his grunting,cooing vocal approach. Of course,after one goes from there Look Out For #1 is extremely dense with funk.

“Get The Funk Out Of My Face” is the most commercially successful example of this albums funkiness-with its fast tempo and processed wah wah effects. “Free And Single” and ‘Dancin’ And Prancin'”,with their heavy horn charts,take that same sound to the next logical step. A version of The Beatles “Come Together” and the closing “The Devil” are slow,gurgling deep funk that just grind the groove into the subconscious very deeply. The groove that pulls the sound of this entire album together in one song is titled for the brothers nicknames “Thunder Thumbs And Lightin’ Licks”.

There’s a deep point to this album that actually passed by even me,an avid funkateer,for sometime. A lot of times,even the most classic funk albums of this period mixed heavy funk in with jazz,rock or heavily arranged ballad material on an album. Even though this album has at least one slower ballad type number,the main priority of this album is on heavy uptempo funk. The immense talent of the Johnson brothers,as well as the instrumentalists playing with them,showcase how much the funk genre celebrates instrumental,melodic and rhythmic complication at its finest.

Conceptually,this album attracted me from the first time I saw the album cover on CD 20 years ago this year. It was a fish eye view from below,featuring the brothers playing their bass and guitar in front of a bright blue sky-both seemingly in the middle of singing. George is wearing a silver shirt and slacks with Louis has a silky,Indian looking shirt draped over him while in jeans. The whole image is that of just what they were-two super hip young brothers looking to play funky music for the people with enormous skill,style and flair. And that is what Look Out For#1 represents to me as it turns 40 years old.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1976, Billy Cobham, Brothers Johnson, classic albums, classic funk, Dave Grusin, Ernie Watts, Funk, funk albums, Funk Bass, funk guitar, George Johnson, Ian Underwood, instrumental, Lee Ritenour, Louis Johnson, Quincy Jones, Toots Theilmans

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Crosswind” by Billy Cobham

William Emanuel “Billy” Cobham shared the same Panamanian heritage with members of the 70’s Latin-funk band Mandrill. After his family moved to New York and playing drums throughout childhood,Cobham attended the New York High School For Music And Art-after which he had a brief time in the army where he played in their band. Upon discharge, he played in Horace Silver’s band-in addition to doing sessions with Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and George Benson. He was part of the original lineup of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970’s before branching out into a solo career.

His solo debut Spectrum was released in 1973 while he was still in the Mahavishnu Orchestra-with band mate Jan Hammer helping out on keyboards. This album is considered a fusion classic. Though it’s funkiness comes mainly as bridges amidst elongated,speedy hard rock rhythms with elaborate improvisations. His sophomore album Crosswinds got far deeper inside the groove-especially with folks like George Duke and the Brecker brothers aboard. And it’s the closing title song that makes that point best.

Cobham set’s the groove up with a slow,funky drum with Lee Pastora providing some thick percussion accents. George Duke lays down a strong bluesy groove of his own with a loud,fuzzed out Fender Rhodes while John Williams brings in an excellent foundational bass line. The Brecker’s and trombonist Garnett Brown provide some accenting,melodic horn charts. John Abercrombie,who worked with Cobham for years,provides some brittle,scintillating hard rock guitar solos until the rhythm section and the horn section brings the entire groove to an abrupt halt.

This song is a fantastic rocking funk-played by some talented jazz players who KNEW how to play funk and do some heavy rock soloing. Though the instrumentation is quite a lot more sleek and tight on this song,the shuffling drum/percussion part and slow,bluesy melody has a similar flavor to Funkadelic’s song “Nappy Dugout” from the same general time period. It really showcases how high the then fairly new funk sound was effecting the most technically inclined of jazz/rock fusion players at the same time that genre was beginning to enter it’s own peak period of musical excellence.

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Filed under 1974, Billy Cobham, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Garnett Brown, George Duke, horns, jazz funk, jazz fusion, John Abercrombie, John Williams, Lee Pastora, Michael Brecker, percussion, Randy Brecker, rock guitar, Saxophone, trombone, trumpet

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 5/25/2015: “Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin’ Licks” by The Brothers Johnson

1976 now emerges for me as a tremendous year in funk. Name dropping in this case doesn’t only seem required, but very necessary. You had Earth Wind & Fire with “Getaway” and “Saturday Night”,The Isley Brothers with “People Of Today”,Graham Central Station With “Entrow” and “Mirror”,Isaac Hayes’s “Groove-A-Thon”,Kool & The Gang with “Open Sesame”,Herbie Hancock’s “Doin’ it”,The Crusaders with “Spiral” and “Feeling Funky”,Stevie Wonder with “I Wish” and “All Day Sucker”.And the list goes on.

Even in the jazz and rock sections of record stores? The funk seemed to be everywhere by this time with Steely Dan,Jeff Beck,The Doobie Brothers and Edgar Winter. Also during this year? There were the appearances of a few new artists who my friend Rique described so well as basically saying to the world “we’re the new generation of funk”.

George and the now late Louis Johnson were an LA bass/guitar duo who began their career as session people for big name stars of the early 70’s such as Bill Withers,Bobby Womack and Billy Preston. On an apparent audition for Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove? They were overheard by Quincy Jones. He bought them in to play,write and sing on his 1975 album Mellow Madness.

The Johnson’s could not have had a more totally complete introduction if they tried. They had the support of Quincy,the access to the huge bevy of instrumentals that his reference provided and signing to the (at the time) artist owned A&M Records for their 1976 debut Look Out For #1. The second song on this album is an instrumental that, for me, showcases what really made them musically. It’s titled after the brothers nicknames-“Thunder Thumbs And Lightnin’ Licks”.

The song begins with a delayed drum from Harvey Mason-accented by a bassy,greasy Clavinet solo from Dave Grusin introducing the first refrain. He then comes in with a higher,pitched bent synthesizer playing a bluesy guitar like riff that launches into a similarly themed full on melody of the song. This main chorus features George and Louis bass/guitar interaction mixed up high along with the melody. On the second refrain? Sahib Shihab plays an improvisation of the bluesy theme on flute.

After another chorus and refrain that again improvises on their two melodic themes? There’s a bridge which heavily emphasizes the timbale work of Billy Cobham-with a little vocal jiving from the brothers themselves. After this the song returns to the man chorus-with swells into a James Brown like sustained rhythm guitar-let along by Glenn Farris’s trombone to the fade. Throughout the song? The trumpets and sax’s of Chuck Findley,Ernie Watts and Bill Lamb  play call and response to everything else going on in the song itself.

The first time I ever heard this song,when I was about 11 years old? It was played at the beginning of a late 70’s Saturday Night Live sketch starring Steve Martin,which took place in a disco. I instantly loved the groove,though it was a very minor aspect of the sketch itself. But did not know what it was. Nor who the Johnson brothers were. First time I heard this album in my early 20’s? It was very exciting to be able to identify this song I’d loved for years.

While I have many examples of this I could rattle off? This is one of those songs that, for me, represents funk at it’s most solid and complete. Both instrumentally and production wise. Quincy polishes up the sheen of this groove-featuring jazz/funk session greats with the new artists’ for some of the most expertly enthusiastic playing of the 70’s funk era. Rhythmically it’s a direct transition from the thick,phat approach of the “united funk” years to the more polished rhythms of the disco era to come. It’s one of the my favorite, and most defining funk instrumentals of all time.

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Filed under 1970's, Billy Cobham, Brothers Johnson, Dave Grusin, Ernie Watts, Funk, Funk Bass, George Johnson, Harvey Mason, Jazz-Funk, Louis Johnson, Quincy Jones, Sahib Shihab

Anatomy of THE Groove 11/14/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Sign ‘O’ The Times” by Billy Cobham

                One of the challenges that has arisen for jazz musicians during the fusion era was the book of standards they had for interpretive purposes. While original compositions were always pretty sound? A melodic theme from a contemporary artist could be a wonderful musical launching pad from which said musician could take flight. As Miles Davis and recently Robert Glasper pointed out? Well basically how many times can a musician do a song like “My Funny Valentine” or “The Look Of Love”?  In the late 80’s,  Prince albums such as his musically iconic Sign ‘O’ The Times were not only getting serious reviews in jazz publications such as Downbeat. But musicians across the spectrum were discussing his instrumental and compositional ideas as well. One such musician was fusion veteran Billy Cobham. And he chose “Sign O’ The Times” as an interpretive theme for his 1987 album Picture This-his final release for GRP.

                   Cobham starts out with a fairly basic drum machine pulse much like the original. Than he comes in on live drums with a commanding,rolling march rhythm. This is accentuated by a simple Caribbean style percussion chime throughout. The late Grover Washington Jr. plays the vocal part on his sax with not only his typically high level of soulfulness,but also a foreboding tone to his solo. On what would’ve been the second refrain? Grover’s sax totally takes over as he improvises his own melody off of Cobham’s marching back-round. He starts off rather bluesy and almost crying out. Than he begins to sound progressively angrier and more emotionally intense. All before calming down to play the songs bass line,and then returning back to the original melodic theme. At the songs conclusion,Cobham and Grover both gradually evolve into playing an instrumentally testifying march together while Ron Carter provides the bass line on the upright.

                         It’s true that within the last couple of decades,Prince’s songs have become enormously successful in terms of being covered by jazz and blues instrumentalists and bands. The most exciting thing about Billy Cobham’s take on “Sign ‘O’ The Times” is how in tune he was with the song. He recorded his version and released it the same year that the original hit the public. Instrumentally speaking,Billy Cobham reaches into the lyrical theme of the song as a drummer for his take on it-almost more than he does the basic chords and melody. Adding a Caribbean style marching beat to the song lifted up the observing,questioning nature Prince originally evoked.  Grover Washington Jr. is also most impressive-again playing his solos as a tone poem based more on the lyrics to the song rather than the straight melody. Considering what Prince was doing with his jazz oriented Madhouse recordings at this time? Musicians like Billy Cobham were really doing a wonderful job cross pollinating the flowers of the possible new jazz standards of musicians like Prince.

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Filed under 1980's, Billy Cobham, drums, Fusion, Grover Washington Jr., Jazz, Prince, Robert Glasper