Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further. By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.
Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.
A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.
What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.
Wanted to start this by giving thanks to two people who helped make today’s Anatomy of THE Groove occur. First is Brandon Ousley. It was through a Facebook post of his that I was made aware that today was the 40th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You. When I first heard this album,it was a literal love affair for me in terms of appreciating it musically. It was an equal source of heartbreak after reading David Ritz biography of Marvin entitled Divided Soul. That book overly personalized Marvin’s 70’s albums for me to the point where the lyrics became uncomfortably subjective. It was my friend Henrique who I wanted to thank most for helping me on that level.
This 1976 Marvin Gaye album featured two of it’s songs in instrumental reprises. Including one of my favorites “After The Dance”. In an effort to stop getting the singer confused with the song,focusing on Marvin as a musical figure is a good way to go. And the subtext Henrique provided for me courtesy of Michael Eric Dyson’s book on Marvin called Mercy Mercy Me. It would seem that while recording this instrumental with writer/producer Leon Ware,Marvin had intended flutist Ernie Watts to play the main melodic solo. But he noticed the horns and strings were out of tune in some spots where he Watts’ solo wasn’t quite enough to compensate.
One Motown engineer Marvin was working with at that time was named Calvin Harris. He had a Moog synthesizer. Apparently Marvin was fascinated by the range of sounds this electronic instrument was capable of if multi tracked in the same way he did his vocals on the sung version of the song. Initially he did this only in order to cover the out of tune orchestrations that weren’t settling well with him. Then he realized he could use it to create his own musical world where Ernie’s solo’s just hadn’t worked for him. In the end,this was a totally different way of re-imagining the song on both the harmonic and melodic level. And it just opened up a whole new groove as it went along.
A slow crawling,percussive samba opens the album with rather Asian sounding chimes playing a similar melody to Marvin’s round and bubbling synthesizer. The chorus develops into a mix of jazzy piano voicing’s,elaborate string arrangements and the equally complex bass improvisations-so much so they aren’t always easy to hear for some people. On these choruses,Marvin’s Moog solos play in and around the chords of the melody in a similar manner to a bop jazz era pianist. As the intro to the song repeats,the Moog is really pushed up as a boiling round bass line until the main chorus fades out the song-this time with the Moog solo accompanying Watts flute soloing.
While I always loved the “sea of Marvin’s” vocal harmonizing that was present on the vocal hit version of this song,understanding the lyrics as I do now make them come off more as a tortured inner dialog than a beautiful vocal statement. This version focuses in on Marvin as an instrumentalist. And by using unusual melodic voicing’s that are more chord oriented,the range of emotion projected through the instrumentation allows the lyric of the song to be a lot more open to interpretation than the original words might’ve been. Hearing the instrumental made me fall in love with this musically sensuous Latin jazz soul/funk groove all over again. And that makes it all the more special.
Filed under 1970's, Afro-Latin jazz, Calvin Harris, Ernie Watts, flute, Leon Ware, Marvin Gaye, Moog, Motown, multi tracking, percussion, slow funk, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized