Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.
Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.
A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.
“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, ARP string ensemble, Chuck Rainey, Donald Byrd, drums, Fonce Mizell, Funk Bass, Gary Bartz, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, organ, Saxophone, trumpet
Bobbie Humphrey stands along with Mary Lou Williams,Melba Liston and Patrice Rushen as one of the rare female instrumentalists in the jazz world. This Texas native was creature during the same time as Patrice. Main different was she was a flutist,so melodic soloing was her priority. She recorded her first album on Blue Note in 1971. Two years later she released her third album Blacks and Blues. This is as of now the only the Bobbie Humprey CD I personally own. It began her musical relationship with producer Larry Mizell. He and his brother Fonce were major creative forces at Blue Note at the time. They were than working with Donald Byrd after several years of recordings hits for Motown’s Jackson 5.
Humphrey was one of those artists who seems to have successfully adapted to changes in the music world. From jazz-funk,the disco era and even the new jack swing sound of the late 1980’s. Much as guitarist Bobby Broom played for R.Kelly in the early 90’s,Humphrey played on Gwen Guthrie’s 1988 song “Send Me Somebody” in a similar manner. Of course most famously she joined Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove for his 1976 song “Another Star” from his blockbuster Songs In The Key Of Life. While digging deeper into her music,I discovered an amazing musical reboot of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s standard “Satin Doll”,also the title song for her fourth album.
Wah Wah Watson’s multiple shades of guitar come in and out of the swelling Brazilian style snare drum heavy rhythms of Harvey Mason on the intro-along with Chuck Rainey’s one,two,three punch on bass. Larry Mizell’s synth introduces the main melody of the song. Jerry Peters’ piano than kicks into the mix-just before Humphrey’s flute begins playing the main melody-accompanied call and response style with Mizell’s synth and Peters’ piano. Her high, ethereal singing voice matches the huge arrangement-even as Peters’ solos find him coming down almost as hard on the piano keys as Duke might’ve himself before the song fades out with a male backup chorus singing the main melody.
Bobbie Humphrey and the entire 70’s Blue Note crew really do Ellington’s musical vision proud on this album. Humphrey tended to follow Duke’s concept of adapting her playing to changing styles of music. This takes the by this time late composer’s into the mid 70’s cinematic soul era. The highlight of this groove along with Humprhey was Melvin Ragin. He delivers three shades of his wah wah guitar in the first minute of the song alone-from a sharp stinging tone to a melodic ring. The classic mixture of futuristic melodic ideas and chase scene paced rhythms makes this a Duke Ellington interpretation to remember.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, Billy Strayhorn, Bobbie Humphrey, Brazilian Jazz, Chuck Rainey, cinematic soul, drums, Duke Ellington, flute, Funk Bass, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, piano, Satin Doll, synthesizer, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar, Wah Wah Waston
Aretha Franklin,having turned 74 today,has been alive during one of the most significant musical periods in terms of soul’s transition towards rhythm-towards funk.Her signature song at Atlantic was a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”,which really showcased how the Southern soul style she embraced was edging towards that funky timing. Now Aretha has had some amazing uptempo songs,many of which were major hits,over her time as a recording artist. And they’ve all showcased how despite understandings to the contrary, that uptempo music can be just as timeless as balladry. Of course as with any artist,there were peaks and valleys for her. Some of those peaks were also pretty high ones.
Focusing to a degree on gospel soul/R&B ballads during the early 70’s,Aretha was becoming very well aware that the musical tide was shifting towards the more uptempo sound she’d pioneered in the late 60’s. So at some point in 1970-early 71 Aretha had a basic piano sketch of a groove that she presented to some of the new musicians she was working with. They were drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,future Stuff guitarist Cornell Duperee and electric bass extraordinaire Chuckrh Rainey. This trio allowed for this song to be built directly from the rhythm up and become huge early 70’s hit for her. The name of the groove was “Rock Steady”.
Pops Popwell and Dr.John provide a hot Brazilian percussion accent to the bluesy organ of Donny Hathaway. From here Purdie’s drums really get going within this bed of percussion shaking along. Cornell get’s his James Brown rhythm guitar going on in a serious way in the center of this groove while Rainey’s bass is patted in with the sound of a deep, pulsating heart. On the choruses,Aretha’s vocals are echoed along with the backup harmonies from the Sweethearts Of Soul. Each refrain is buffeted by the very jazzy Afro pop charts from The Memphis horns. On the bridge,Purdie provides a percussive drum back that’s now one of the most famous in history before the song fades out.
There are times where the funkiness of a groove has to be discovered by listening closely. “Rock Steady” is not one of those grooves. It’s a song that demands moving and heavy booty shaking. With it’s strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe,this is actually one of the songs that help inaugurate the “united funk” era of the early/mid 70’s. Everyone playing in on this song act in the manner of JB as one rhythm machine. The song construction is so advanced,it thickens the whole sound. Aretha even lets us know to “call this song exactly what it is” before declaring it “a funky and lowdown feeling”. So as with Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway”,this groove really assumes it’s funkiness proudly.
Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, Donny Hathaway, Dr.John, drum breaks, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Memphis Horns, organ, percussion, Pops Powell, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized