Category Archives: Ernie Watts

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: “After The Dance (Instrumental)” by Marvin Gaye

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.

 

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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

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Marching In The Street” by Harvey Mason

Harvey Mason’s drum sound is one of the key elements in mid 70’s jazz-funk. Next to the Crusaders’ Stix Hooper,it was Harvey’s approach that really calcified the rhythm beat of that particular musical hybrid. Pretty much any band doing live instrumental based jazz-funk of the past decade and a half-including Lettuce,Greyboy and Snarky Puppy are all rhythmically built around what Harvey did on drums. Even for me, it’s very likely that Harvey Mason was the very first drummer I ever heard. With Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” being a very early musical memory. He is also important for another reason outside of those things.

Also similar to Stix Hooper, Harvey was a powerful session drummer too. Especially when it came to jazz and pop artists in the 70’s looking to make their sounds funkier. I’ve tended to notice when a musician does a great deal of session playing,they accumulate a good deal of musical allies. Many of Harvey’s were iconic soloists/session players in their own right such as Lee Ritenour,Ernie Watts,Chuck Rainey,Dave Grusin and Randy Crawford. All of these artists played a huge part on Harvey’s 1975 solo debut album Marching In The Street. And it was an album that really started right off with a bang with it’s monster title song.

Harvey starts out the song playing a steady,unaccompanied march which gradually adds funkier snare accents before Rainey’s bass chimes in along with Grusin’s electric piano. Ernie Watts,George Bohannon,Bobby Bryant and Oscar Brashear provide the accenting horn charts. By this point,Harvey’s playing both a double time drum solo-one very funky and a straight march along with a whistle. Watts adds a melodic Piccolo flute while the collective lead vocals (including Crawford) sing the repeated choruses and chants and along a round,muted trumpet solo. As the song progresses,the marching rhythm becomes more prominent before the song fades out with it being unaccompanied again.

Since Harvey Mason’s debut is so thick with heavy funk numbers, it was a bit of a challenge selecting just one. The reason the title song of the album stands out for me is how strongly linked it is with jazz history. From the days of Buddy Bolden’s “gutbucket” music of late 19th century New Orleans,the musical term funk was born at the core of the big four jazz rhythm.  These earliest jazz bands were formed in many ways based on dis-guarded horns and drums left over from the Civil War,as well as local marching bands. So the idea of Mason returning this rhythmic concept to his 70’s sounds was sounding the call for the new revolutionary march of funk.

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Filed under 1975, bass guitar, Dave Grusin, drums, Ernie Watts, Harvey Mason, horns, Jazz-Funk, Lee Ritenour, Randy Crawford, Uncategorized

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