Bob James is actually an artist whom I discovered within the last decade and a half. A Missouri native whose music was informed by (and on) the city of New York,his sound drew a great deal of inspiration of theatrical Broadway musicals and film scores. This goes into James’ talents as a pianist,composer and arranger. His jazz bass and embrace of the 70’s funk sound led him to being one of the progenitors of the production style referred to as smooth jazz. His solo career has carried on for over four decades. And he was also a founding member of the smooth jazz group Fourplay.
It was actually due to another conversation with my parents that got me into first hearing Bob James music. The question posed to them was that,as a choreographer,had my mother ever done a piece based on a popular song. While the exact information was somewhat vague,she did remember that sometime in 1976 she had heard the Bob James song “Westchester Lady”. And something about it’s progression made it sound like it would be a good song for all the members of her troupe to choreograph as a group piece. So today,I’m going to endeavor to overview this song on a musical level.
Harvey Mason’s hi hat drum swing hugs Will Lee’s upscaling 7 note bass line on the intro,as Hugh McCracken’s mutron filtered electric guitar rhythmically plucks away. This is the entire rhythmic base of the entire song. The main melody of the song finds James’ electric piano playing a very riff filled with blue notes. That’s when the strings come in-at first playing along with the bass line. On the choruses,a huge horn ensemble comes in playing a very cinematic melody-accompanied by ringing bell like percussion along with the sweeping strings that grow in intensity.
The second refrain of the song features a bluesy sax solo from Grover Washington Jr. as the main instrumental part. The second chorus of string actually extends for a much longer time-adding more fluttering violins on the second turn of it. On the final refrain of the song,James’ electric piano and Eric Gale’s guitar play some bluesy call and response solos duets with the darting horn charts. As this bridge continues,their playing grows more intense and dramatic. Then the song simply goes back into the quiet groove of the first refrain as it proceeds to fade out entirely.
Considering the emergence of Isaac Hayes and Barry White during the first half of the 1970’s,it was no surprise that Bob James and the productions he did at CTI and on his forthcoming solo career would become part of the evolving jazz/funk fusion genre. The nature of this groove,with funkiness being the supporting element and the orchestration accenting it,indeed makes it ideal for a contemporary modern dance piece of it’s day for an ensemble of dancers. Each musician brings something important to this song’s funky dramatics. And that’s what brings this instrumentally danceable funk to life.
Filed under 1970's, Bob James, choreography, cinematic soul, drums, electric piano, Eric Gale, Funk Bass, Grover Washington Jr., Harvey Mason, horns, Hugh McCracken, jazz funk, New York, rhythm guitar, strings, Uncategorized, Will Lee
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have been strong musical examples for many songwriter/performers. Though we lost Ashford to throat cancer six years ago this August,the success of this happily married duo is important on two levels. For one,the pair were part of the transition from the age of the producer to the age of the artist in music-when they began recording albums on their own starting from the early 70’s. Additionally, they successfully beat the odds of the musician’s life as not being able to sustain married duos. Not to mention parlaying their success into other ventures.
This duo came right out of the church in more ways than one. They met at White Rock Baptist’s in Harlem. That’s when they first took a stab at recording as a duo. By 1966,they had penned a major hit for Ray Charles in “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. Later that same year,they landed at Motown records. They became the force behind the big Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell hits such as”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”. When Terrell became ill with a brain tumor,Simpson herself provided ghost duet vocals with Marvin for their final duet album Easy.
While the pair sang (and Ashford wrote for) the gospel quartet The Followers in the early 60’s,it wasn’t for another decade until the band signed to Warner Bros. as a duo and recorded their debut as such in 1974’s Gimme Something Real. Their fourth album came in 1977’s Send It. My first exposure to the duo and music from this album came from my father via a James Earl Jones hosted social security PSA album called Genius On The Black Side,which profiled important black musicians. And the name of the song included on that from this fourth album is called “Don’t Cost You Nothing”.
Christopher Parker’s hit hat and snare heavy drums start out the groove,with Francisco Centeno proceeding to deliver one of my personal favorite slap bass solos of the late 70’s. Eric Gale delivers some liquid rhythm guitar,along with the hand claps as the groove advances. The drum begins delivering a driving 4/4 dance beat with the liquid guitar accented by Simpson’s bluesy piano and Gale’s BB King like tone on a lower guitar line. This comes to prominent on the breakdown of the song. After a dramatic upscale,the bass and guitar allow Gale to deliver one of his bluesy lines in a solo before the song fades out.
During the time that Ashford & Simpson were about to unleash Chaka Khan’s debut solo hit in “I’m Every Woman” and Angela Bofill’s powerful album cut “Rough Times”,they were both really getting the disco era funk groove down pat with songs like “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on their own. Along with it’s strong late 70’s funky hump,especially the stomping bass,Simpson’s piano along with Gale’s bluesy guitar and Simpson’s grunting vocals really allow this song to get it’s groove on big time. And showcases how this duo,generally known for love ballads,really knew how to give up the funk.
Filed under 1970's, Ashford & Simpson, disco funk, drums, Eric Gale, lead guitar, Motown, Nick Ashford, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Valerie Simpson, Warner Bros.
David Fathead Newman is a name that I’ve been aware of for a long time. In fact it was hearing the name spoken by my father that introduced me to the music of Ray Charles-rather than the other way around as one might expect. A native Texan who, Newman came right out the jump blues R&B school to be one of the key musical figures to evolve the saxophone during the formation of soul music in the 1975’s. As part of Ray Charles band,he was iconic. During his years after leaving Ray,Newman did session work for people such as Aretha Franklin and BB King. Not to mentioning carrying on a successful solo career as a bandleader.
Recording for a series of different labels during the decade,Newman eventually landed at Prestige at the end of the disco era. With a musical pallet that painting it’s brushstrokes from soul to jazz,Newman had developed a strong funkiness that allowed him to find a way to put his horn into the key of the hottest dance music of the late 70’s. He bought in members of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters in Harvey Mason and Bill Summers. Stuff’s Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree-strong session musicians in their own right also came in for the 1979 album Scratch My Back-Newman’s one album for the label. The song that caught my ear most hear was “Rock Me,Baby (Like My Back Ain’t Got No Bone)”.
Summer’s percussion get’s the groove started out,while Mason comes in with a phat 4/4 beat shortly after. Newman’s sax plays a popping tone along with the thick slap bass line. The deeply voiced strings dart over the main rhythm like musical shooting stars. Vocalist Flame Braithwaite comes in and sings several different choruses of the songs title-with party sounds from Newman and the other musicians moving right along with the rhythm of the song itself. On the refrains of this mostly chorus based song, the bass line begins popping up and down in the classic disco bass style as the melody follows suit. The main chorus of the song maintains itself until the song fades out.
My friend and inspiration Henrique has referenced this song on a couple of occasions as an example of “funk functioning as disco”. And in every way,it’s a hot jam for sure. With Harvey Mason playing away at around 110BPM,this is relatively slow in tempo compared to the majority of disco records from the late 70’s. This fives the song an extra funkiness. Not to mention the thick slap bass thumping of Wilbur Bascomb,Jr. Newman’s sax takes on the same rhythmic character of the bass on this song too-popping along percussively rather than playing the melody. So this wonderful reworking of the BB King classic takes the blues straight into the disco funk territory wonderfully.
Filed under 1970's, BB King, Bill Summers, blues funk, David Fathead Newman, disco funk, drums, Eric Gale, Harvey Mason, percussion, Saxophone, slap bass, strings, Stuff, Uncategorized