Grover Washington Jr. has often been referred to as one of the main progenitors of smooth jazz. This term extended from the softer toned end of 70’s and 80’s jazz/funk fusion. Grover always was a master of subtlety as a player. On the other hand,music production basically turned “smooth jazz” into a sub genre. And one that basically robbed the instrumentation of its vitality. Still,that music still reduced down to jazz/funk at its base. Especially when smooth jazz groups/soloists performed live. Towards the end of the 80’s,I tended to see Grover caught up in this musical conundrum.
When Grover passed away in 1996,I’d honestly started to forget about him. It wasn’t too long after that did I notice a new interest in his early to mid 70’s albums and songs such as “Mister Magic” and the first 70’s era Grover Washington Jr. song I heard “Lock It In The Pocket”. In the years to come,I started to pay some more attention to Grover’s mid to late 80’s music that I’d tended to ignore whenever it showed up in record stores pre owned CD/vinyl bins. One such album was his 1989 release Time Out Of Mind. Never occurred to me until last night that the title song was a Steely Dan cover version.
A steady 4/4 dance beat on drums starts the song,accentuated by percussive congas. After this,the main keyboard line comes in on a ringing synthesizer. Accompanying that is a a gentle,bluesy guitar solo playing what was originally Walter Becker’s guitar line. Grover himself plays Donald Fagen’s lead vocal part on sax-adding many lyrical touches. On the choruses,he’s joined by a group of female backup singers. After a couple repeat plays of the songs bridge,Grover’s improvisations on sax take over much of the last minute or two of the song before it fades out on the chorus.
Steely Dan’s songs were always ripe (and perhaps even designed) for interpretation by jazz instrumentalists. And this cover is a very good example. It has some of the milder production elements of smooth jazz that were just beginning to occur in the late 80’s and early 90’s. For example,the guitar and keyboard parts aren’t quite as brisk and crisp as they were on the original. On the other hand,the bluesy jazziness that defines the songs content is brought right to life by Grover’s soloing. And even the rhythm section backing it up. So it ends up being a quality example of Grover Washington Jr’s latter period.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Donald Fagen, drums, Grover Washington Jr., jazz funk, percussion, Saxophone, smooth jazz, Steely Dan, synthesizer, Walter Becker
Billy Preston was,in a similar manner to Stevie Wonder,an artist who used analog synthesizers,organs and pianos to create totally new sounds during the early/mid 1970’s. Wonder often utilized jazz oriented chord progressions-often emphasizing European classical arrangements as well. The sounds that Preston created were all based in hardcore soul,R&B and what had already occurred thus far with the innovation of funk. What both of them emphasized was a strong love of instrumental layering and love of leading their whole show by soloing on the Clavinet.
By 1975,the connection with Stevie Wonder’s music by Billy Preston became extremely evident. The album he recorded that year,It’s My Pleasure,was recorded at the TONTO synthesizer complex-the same facility used by Wonder,The Isley Brothers and Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson during this era. One of this albums hits actually featured a vocal duet with ex wife and frequent creative collaborator of Wonder’s in Syreeta Wright. She would eventually go on to do a duet album with Preston in the early 80’s. The name of this song was called “Fancy Lady”
Preston starts off the song with a descending Moog bass before the drum kicks in. This is a thick snare/cymbal kick surrounded by a bluesy sea of synth layers. This continues on the chorus-with the Moog bass and Clavinet weaving through it all like needle and thread. The refrains that Syreet sang on repeats the intro of the song instrumentally. Their are two instrumental bridges. One features polyphonic synths playing a call and response horn chart while the second is a percussive,unaccompanied drum break. Preston plays a full on synthesizer solo for the last minute and a half or so of the song before it fades out.
From the first time I heard it over 12 years ago,this song always stood out to me. Always had a special affinity for the early synth/proto electro funk that emerged out of the mid 70’s. Especially in such cases like this,it again brought the bluesy soul musical past into the electrified/digitized future. As synthesizers expanded in complexity,electro based music began to rely more on the sound than the musical base. And this is a good example of music that didn’t. Its funky because the synths are fat,play bass,guitar and horn lines and always maintain a heavy,chunky instrumental flavor.
Filed under 1975, Billy Preston, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Moog bass, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Syreeta Wright, TONTO
Wilton Felder was lost to us earlier this year. And today is his first posthumous birthday. There’s a lot that I didn’t know about him for years. Aside from him being a founding member of the Crusaders,he also participated in songwriting and playing for artists ranging from Joan Baez to the Jackson 5. Thanks to an episode of the locally produced Bay Area TV show ‘Soul School’,hosted by my friend Calvin Lincoln and hosted by my friend Henrique Hopkins,I learned Wilton Felder played bass on the J5’s debut hit “I Want You Back”. This opened up a whole new understanding for me about the man.
Until talking to Calvin and Henrique,I had no idea that Felder was both a sax player and a bassist. And had two separate approaches to each instrument. Calvin,Henrique and myself have each had discussions with each other about how exhaustive it might be to figure out how many sessions the Crusaders played on. What I do know now is Felder also played bass on Marvin Gaye’s massive hit “Lets Get It On” in 1973. When looking for a song that exercised Felder’s duel instrumental talents,my favorite of the bunch was “Honky Tonk Struttin'” off their 1980 album Rhapsody In Blues.
Joe Sample and Stix Hooper get it all started with a grinding Clavinet and piano duet along with a percussion accented funky drum. This is the basic groove of the entire song-with melodic variations for the solos. The choral solo is a bluesy walkdown where Felder plays sax directly along with his own bass line. After that,he plays a full on improvised jazz sax solo on the first bridge. The second bridge features a honky tonk piano solo playing a similarly bluesy improvisation. Stix provides a little fanfare that takes the song right on home to the main chorus of Felder’s bass/sax duet as the song fades out.
This is one of those songs that really brings out The Crusaders most enduring and endearing musical quality. That is the ability to blend the sleek studio sheen (which defined their work from the mid 70’s onward )with their down home bluesy funk instrumental attitude. “Honky Tonk Struttin'”pulls all of this together with its sophistifunk groove and the bluesy instrumental walkdown soloing. It also emphasizes Wilton Felder strong with his two instrumental talents-the rhythmic bass and melodic sax in tandem. That makes it a true shining moment for The Crusaders.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, honky tonk piano, jazz funk, Joe Sample, Saxophone, Stix Hooper, The Crusaders, Wilton Felder
Larry Graham was described by Bootsy Collins one time on a PBS Rock N Roll documentary I saw as being “definitely” the innovator of funk bass. A lot of times,new instrumental ideas in music are an organic,collaborative process. In this case,Graham brought out a new approach for,what was in the late 1960’s the relatively new bass guitar. A lot of people who help write the musical vocabulary for a key part of a whole musical genre (as Graham did for funk) simply rest on their creative laurels .Graham didn’t. Upon leaving Sly & The Family Stone,he continued to innovate as the bandleader of Graham Central Station.
When I first began seeing Larry Graham solo albums while crate digging in the late 90’s and early aughts during summertime visits to the coast of Maine, the thoughts of both myself and my dad was “these albums must’ve really funked up the early 80’s”. It wasn’t until hearing “One In A Million You” did I realize that Graham’s initial solo focus was as a bass voiced soul balladeer. Then I discovered a vinyl copy of Graham’s 1983 album Victory,which I later got on CD. Its rich with rhythmically fat,often horn heavy post disco and boogie funk. What really hooked me in was the closing instrumental title song.
A high pitched synth brass plays a 12 bar blues type horn chart as the intro to this jam. After that,shuffling drums kick in. The main bass line of the song is a synth bass line playing its own 12 bar blues accompaniment to the higher lead line. On the refrains of the song,the melody becomes a bit more complicated and jazzy. The synth bass introduces a rocking electric guitar solo playing a driving,bluesy solo yet again. After another refrain,the song reduces down to bass and percussion-with Graham’s slap bass sololing being assisted by the high pitched synth brass as the song fades out.
This instrumental was written,produced and performed entirely by Larry Graham. Its a powerful song for me because it’s essentially a classic 50’s style rhythm & blues shuffle totally updated for the early/mid 80’s electro/boogie funk era. It uses modern synthesizers and drum machines. But the general feeling of the melody and rhythm is very much of the juke joint and the 60’s proto funk shuffle. Instrumentally,its all very powerful. The synths are played very intensely. And the slap bass is some of Graham’s finest thumping on the outro. Its a wonderful and unsung example of Larry Graham’s early 80’s solo funk.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Boogie Funk, drum machines, electro funk, Larry Graham, musical innovators, rhythm & blues, rock guitar, slap bass, synth bass, synth brass
Prince was a very busy man in 1983. He was getting things together for his first major motion picture. It was originally for a script called Dreams. And of course this script evolved into the movie Purple Rain. During this period he recorded material for this films soundtrack,a second Vanity 6 album (which eventually became the Apollonia 6),Sheila E’s solo debut and a third album for The Time. Prince also recorded a number of songs on his own during these sessions that,while a bit off the cuff for album tracks,became some of the best known 45 RPM single B-sides of his career.
One of these B-sides is a song referred to in it’s entirety as “17 Days (The rain will come down, then U will have 2 choose. If U believe, look 2 the dawn and U shall never lose)”. My mother first brought Prince into the family’s home with a 45 single of “When Doves Cry”. Like many kids who love turning over rocks and logs,I insisted on hearing what was on the side. From the first moment I heard “17 Days” as this songs B-side,it showed me there was a lot more to Prince musically that I didn’t know. After all these years of my exploration of the song,may I present to you my full overview of “17 Days”.
An complexly chorded filtered psychedelic guitar opens the song. Then the rhythm gets going. It’s a slow drag of a drum beat accentuated with some clanging,shuffling percussion. Throughout this,an equally filtered bass line seems to have been slowed right down in the mix as it slowly scales up and down. First a hard 2 note rhythm guitar assists this groove-followed by a high pitched synthesizer that continually accents the melody of the song. After the Vanity/Apollonia 6’s Brenda Bennet provides backup choral vocals to Prince’s,the groove intensifies on the bridge before fading out back on it’s main theme.
In all honesty,this might be one of the most amazing funk numbers Prince recorded during his 1983 Purple Rain production. I’m not 100% certain of this. But a lot of the instrumentation on the song sounds as if it comes from a slowed down tape. And of course the drums and percussion are slow on their own. Because it is a bluesy jazzy chorded type of heartbreak oriented groove and lyric,it really brings out how a lot of the most powerful funk is on the slow side rhythmically. So to me,this song stands with “Erotic City”(from the same vintage) as among the very funkiest B-sides Prince had recorded.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Brenda Bennett, drums, Funk Bass, guitar, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, percussion, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Psychedelia, Purple Rain, slow funk, synthesizers
Ray Charles represents soul music’s very beginnings to such a degree,I really have yet to meet anyone who wouldn’t associate him with that word. Probably why he’s referred to as the Genius Of Soul. The man’s 12 original Atlantic Records album from 1957 through 1961 still remain testaments to the genre as it was developing itself. He even helped create the framework for funk along with James Brown on his Wurlitzer electric piano solo on the song “What’d I Say”. While his ABC label albums were often ballad heavy country/western oriented concept albums,Brother Ray always burned brightly when the tempo went up.
In 1977,Ray Charles decided to sign back with the Atlantic label. Times had changed since he’d left them 16 years earlier. The funk was in full throttle,and disco was coming in fast. Now when I first discovered these albums from Ray’s second Atlantic tenure even existed, there didn’t seem to be much said about them. But a few years ago,they started showing up more often at flea markets and used record stores in my area of Maine. So decided to pick a few of them up. That includes the first of them in 1977’s True To Life. It’s a great album,but the one song on it that really caught my attention was “Game Number Nine”.
A thick polyphonic synthesizer opens the song playing a straight up 12 bar blues breakdown. Then the slow crawling drum kicks in with the simmering,complexly noted Moog bass bubbling underneath-itself accompanied a higher pitched synth tone. This represents the main body of the groove itself. On the choral breakdowns, Ray sings call and response to bleeping space funk synths and his own groove Wurlitzer soloing. By the time the song is nearing it’s end,Ray is accompanying that electric piano soloing with some very nasal blues synth accents as the song fades out.
Billy Preston had been a member of Ray Charles’ band in 1967. The one thing I find most interesting about “Game Number Nine” is how close it was with Preston’s then current approach to funk. The song brims with Ray’s own personality-from his electric piano style and sly,girl chasing lyrics. Him bringing in that chunky rhythm and blues approach into the heavy funk groove did remind me of Preston’s approach. Especially the way Ray also used synths to play the guitar and bass parts. It’s a great and unsung example of Ray Charles not only giving up the funk,but keeping current with the progress of the genre.