Category Archives: Gil Scott Heron

Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Bridges’ by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

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Gil Scott-Heron released this album at a very key time for his particular creative bent. This came out during the beginning of the disco era and for many, outside the influence of the Philly sound, there just didn’t seem to be too much room for complex sociological dialog in the music. There were songs with MESSAGES, yes. But in terms of the deep poetic insights you’d find from someone such as Gil Scott? It all seemed to be getting away from us at a time when it was needed most.

Heron was intensely aware of these changes in music. And had every intention of maintaining his vision and style. Even in the face of so many uncertain changes in the music industry. This album was recorded using TONTO, the massive synthesizer complex that had worked miracles for Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers during their early/mid 70’s height. Even at this point,  it was all too easy for this huge instrumental complex to create a sound that was both very much in the now and futuristic.

And musically, Bridges is indeed futuristic sounding funk for the people . Aside from Brian Jackson’s multi instrumental talents, the Fender Rhodes as well as the sound of the massive TONTO weaves it’s electronic, bubbling chords and bass lines into the musical tapestry to create unique sounds. Just as much as what Stevie and the Isley’s had done with the same instrument. The mood it sets goes right along with the emotional accompaniment of Gil Scott’s vocal style. The bass oriented sounds in the production is pushed up front. And the improvised jazz-funk element gets the same effect.

Song wise the album ranges from uptempo, positive spirited melodic funk such as “Hello Sunday! Hello Road”, the amazing “Racetrack In France” and “Under The Hammer” to slower and richly varied in texture and melody type tunes such as “Vildgolia (Deaf,Dumb & Blind,”We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Delta Man”. The range of subject matter of these songs (as usual with Gil Scott) is densely layered-ranging from enlightening muses both the concept of prejudice itself to the escape from it. Along with the usual historical contexts.

Songs such as the acapella “Tuskegee #626” tackle a well known historical atrocity (in this case the Tuskegee Experiments) but does so with a very bright and almost sunny melody. This showcases Heron’s understand of the very sharp contrasts in the lifestyles of not only the African American culture. But how it also extends those contrasts into other aspects of life for Americans of other nationalities. This welcoming, humanistic album would be followed the more darkly reflective Secrets- also using TONTO for that as well.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had certainly proved their meddle in terms of how they were able to continue adapting their art their own way during an era. An era when artists were losing more and more control of what they did. And when you listen to this, and realize the influence it’s had on so much musical poetry and the hip-hop world today, (and Gil Scott is for all intents and purposes a hip-hop artist anyway) than you know your in for something very special and meaningful.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Show Bizness” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson

Gil Scott Heron described himself as a “bluesologist” in his 1982 concert film  Black Wax. In a lot of ways,that pretty much describes the entire lexicon of black American music. From jazz up to funk. In the beginning of his recording career in the late 60’s/early 70’s,Heron was recording primarily spoken word poetry over Afro-Latin percussion. Gradually the arrangements swelled to included jazzier electric pianos and bass lines. By the time he began collaborating with keyboardist Brian Jackson in the mid 70’s,Heron was singing. And his music was on the forefront of socially conscious,poetic jazz-funk music.

After having been signed to Arista since 1975,Gil and Brian eventually reduced the participation of their instrumental ensemble The Midnight Band and began working more with Malcolm Cecil on his TONTO synthesizer complex. Their 1977 album Bridges began the pairs focus on creating new synthesized musical worlds for Heron’s songs to live in. Their follow up album was 1978’s Secrets. This album garnered Heron a Top 20 R&B hit in the funky groove of “Angel Dust”. This was an album chocked full of funky grooves. But the one that’s standing out for me right now is called “Show Bizness”.

The song starts off with a high pitched synthesizer playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the minor key. This is done over a brittle electric piano and a thick layer of synth bass and steady drumming. The remainder of the song lays that grooving, percussive synth bass down-and locks it right in tightly. From the chorus to the refrain, higher pitched synth lines play melodic call and response support to Heron’s vocal leads. And to that of the upfront backup singers as well.  That lead synth that started out the sng brings it on home with a very jazzy blues style melody.

Instrumentally speaking,this album was presented to me by friend Henrique as being an example of Stevie Wonder’s sonic influence on musicians. And this song in particular does have a similar musical vibe to Stevie’s “Jesus Christ Children Of America”. With the decedent wealth of Donald Trump making this current US presidential election such a high stakes,yet almost farcical mess this song has deep resonance now. And with the future election of President Reagan.  It takes of ignoring social decline when gaining fame. And that makes it a strong synth funk process number aimed at the idea of celebrity itself.

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Filed under 1970's, blues funk, Brian Jackson, drums, electric piano, Gil Scott Heron, Malcolm Cecil, message songs, synth bass, synth funk, synthesizers, TONTO

People Music: The Soulful Evolution Of Sound For African America

People Music is a term Henrique and myself often use to describe message songs recorded during the soul/funk generational cycle-specifically by black artists. Political and creative liberation was a key factor in this too. It was my father,however who inspired me to write this by asking me what the most significant song was during the 50’s and 60’s civil rights movement. The most obvious choice for that was “People Get Ready” by The Impressions. Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Curtis Mayfield was an early champion for black musicians to have creative and business control of their art. And this 1965 ballad became a huge anthem for the movement as a whole.

As the 60’s progressed,the civil rights movement seeking racial equality evolved into a concept that assumed equality of person. Especially the idea that Afrocentric qualities were beautiful and must be appreciated as such. This became known as the black power movement. The completely rhythm based genre of funk developed during this time as well. As Henrique pointed out,funk continued to be the soundtrack to the black power movement well into the 1970’s. James Brown,who laid the foundation for funk, also recorded the genres earliest and most enduring anthem for racial empowerment entitled “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)”.

The 70’s funk era was chocked full of message songs. All of them reflected ideas that derived from the NOI and Black Panther Party from the mid/late 60’s that black American’s required a more positive understanding of themselves and their futures. 1974 was a year that dashed a lot of the 60’s hopes in general-especially for black Americans. Still funk and it’s tributaries through jazz,soul and rock music was at it’s strongest point. Even during the post Watergate recession. The poet/singer Gil Scott Heron,who five years earlier had given us the black power anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” offered up this 1974 song in reflection of a potent present but less certain tomorrow.

Hip-hop’s presence as a commercially successful entity wasn’t yet four years old when The Furious Five released what is very likely the beginning of what is known today as conscious rap. Musically based in the synthesizer based electro funk of the period,this song found Grandmaster Melle Mel dealing directly with the state of affairs of urban black America during the early years of the Reagan administration. The song takes the futuristic sounding electronic grooves and mixes in tales of urban decay and neglect. Of particular note is Melle Mel stating “don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/it’s like a jungle sometimes/it’s a wonder how I keep from going under”.

Though theoretically released at the end of the previous decade,Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” did some very significant things for black message songs at the head start of the 1990’s. It established hip-hop as a major archival medium for funk,in particular James Brown’s,through the use of electronic sampling. Not only that but the realization Chuck D and company had that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp” showcased an empowering message for black Generation Xers as to just how much misrepresentation black American’s had to deal with over the centuries. And also by offering them a direct call to get involved and “fight the powers that be”.

Message songs within the black community seemed to disappear (or go totally underground) during the post 9/11 years. They were replaced by either reactionary (and often racist) patriotic anthems or simply musical silence. Suddenly a couple of years ago,longtime hip-hop/soul producer and singer Pharrell Williams emerged with “Happy”. Musically it hearkened back to the stripped down soul jazz trio sound of the mid 60’s. While it’s message was very all encompassing-asking the listener to “clap your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth”,it did open the door for black American artists to deliver new political anthems in music that were even more direct.

As I write this article,Beyonce’s performance of her newest song “Foundation” at the Superbowl,a strong pro black anthem, is generating similar controversies as were bought up during the height of the Black Panther Party and the black power movement in general. So the mid/late 2010’s are seeing black American message songs leap back into life in a huge way. Even though many people today are convinced no piece of music has any power to change the world,looking back on this history in the context of what is happening right now proves otherwise. That when it comes to being black in America, musical art is always at the forefront of the political.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2010's, Curtis Mayfield, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Hip-Hop, James Brown, message music, message songs, Pharrell Willaims, Public Enemy, Sampling, Soul, soul jazz, The Furious Five, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Close To Me” by Bill Withers

Bill Withers became a soul/folk icon with his early 70’standards such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”,”Use Me”,”Grandma’s Hands” and his signature song “Lean On Me”. Even in their time,these tunes were popular cover material for different artists across the soul,pop and jazz spectrum. A working class hero who literally demoed his songs and recorded his album (as it’s cover indicates) while employed as an assembler for Douglas Aircraft Corporation,Withers huge early success on the Sussex label evaded him by mid decade. By 1975 he signed to Columbia. And after his debut album Making Music, he released it’s follow up Naked & Warm the next year.

It wasn’t until the release of the documentary film Still Bill in 2009 did I notice any big revival of Withers music beyond his earlier hit period. It would seem his first two Columbia albums were not the major success he would have later in the decade with songs such as “Lovely Day”. Let alone his early 80’s collaborations such as “Soul Shadows” with the Crusaders and the smash of “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington Jr.  The man wrote his songs across the entire spectrum of soul-concentrating heavily on the down home 12 bar blues form in a similar manner to Gil Scott-Heron. His second Columbia album started right out of the box with another groove called “Close To Me”.

The funky drummer on this song starts right out slowly jamming hard on the one-accompanied by thick chords from the electric piano. This is soon accompanied by accenting percussion from a ringing cowbell before the thick and round synthesized bass line begins popping along with the another of the electric slap bass variety. The song itself sticks heavily to this main theme throughout-with the synthesizer emerging in higher tone generally before Withers’ vocal refrains. There is a brief bridge to the song which features a more sustained electric piano sound before the song begins a very slow fade out with Withers’ vocals going into sensuous talk singing coo.

While Bill Withers classic songs had a live instrumental naturalness that was proto neo soul in tone,this 1976 jam was something very different. His songs had always had a strong funk undertone. But it was here that his funk really emerged fully formed. The structure of the composition is pretty much the same as a “Grandma’s Hands”,”Use Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”. But the slow crawling beat hits right where the funk is supposed to. And the use of big round blurts of mid 70’s synth bass with electric bass slapping adds some heavy thickening of the funky stew this song generates. In a lot of ways,it’s my favorite out and out funk jam from Bill Withers.

 

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Filed under 1970's, Bill Withers, Columbia Records, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Grover Washington Jr., slap bass, Sussex Records, synth bass, The Crusaders, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of The Groove For 2/13/2015-“Shut ‘Um Down” by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

The late Gil Scott Heron,self proclaimed “bluesologist” evoked a three prong musical transition in the 1970’s. He began by primarily performing raps over percussion and flutes to a melodic small group jazz/funk sound. During the late 70’s,he and his keyboard playing musical partner Brian Jackson began utilizing synthesizer abstractions in their music,based on the sounds created by Stevie Wonder at the same synthesizer facility Brian was using-TONTO. In 1980,Gil and Brian elected to put their collaboration on pause to pursue separate interests with their album 1980 at the very start of the new decade with it’s lead off song “Shut ‘Um Down”.

Beginning with a low rumbling piano that ascends into an explosive up-scaling after which Gil declares “hey what’s that rumble/did you hear that sound/know it wasn’t no earthquake,but it shook the ground”. The musical accompaniment has instantly swelled by this time into a slow,stomping and incredibly funky dance beat with very grits and gravy style juke joint piano accompanied by a medium pitched,rocking amplified guitar. On the choruses Gil is accompanied vocally by gospel drenched female backup singers along with a horn section blowing and wailing the changes. On the refrain,Brian Jackson takes over on a deep synth bass accompanying himself on a higher pitched ARP-sounding melodic synth line.

Musically speaking this song evokes the clean,concise production of a song such as Herb Alpert’s “Rise” with a get down and funky attitude-full of psychedelic soul flourishes,female choral vocals that take it back to Church as the saying going and most importantly? It all emphasizes Gil’s consistent emphasis in his vocal/song structured music on the usefulness of the very basic blues form in just about every aspect of black American music of the 60’s,70’s and even the beginning of the new decade. The song has a disco era four on the floor beat. But it really brings out George Clinton’s musical idea that anytime the rhythms and beats are slowed down? The music get’s incredibly funky.

Lyrically this song took on a theme one might not expect from Gil Scott-Heron. Long a champion of black power with his combination of razor sharp wit and homespun wisdom,this song deals with the massive environmental “no nukes” movement that arose enormously after the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Gil calls for the immediate shutdown of all such power plants in America. Having been “thinking about power” on a literal and figurative level? He’s concluded that we’ve “gotta work for Earth,for all it’s worth ’cause it’s the only one we’ve got”. As one of the very few black musical spokespeople for environmentalism during the early 1980’s? This song is a strong thematic continuation of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from a decade earlier. And as such being strong “people music” represents one of Gil and Brian’s very funkiest jams ever!

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Filed under 1980's, Brian Jackson, disco funk, Funk, Funk Bass, Gil Scott Heron, message songs, no nukes, synthesizers, Three Miles Island, TONTO

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 1/17/2015: ‘1980’ by B.T. Express

B.T. Express - 1980 - Front

On their final 70’s album Energy To Burn,BT Express showed themselves to be a band who was in the process of slickening up their sound. One year after that their keyboardist Michael Jones,key to their new sound,left the band under his new name of Kashif Saleem. He would of course go onto become one of the premiere producers of the next decade and a key architect of the boogie funk sound. What would be left for guitarist/singer Rich Thompson and company to do within the band who had only a few years earlier been so successful. Similar to Gil Scot Heron and Brian Jackson,B.T Express elected to title their 1980 album after the year itself-every bit as symbolic of their comeback as with the changes any musician could see coming up from under the groove at the time.

“Takin’ Off” begins the album with a symphonic fanfare of horns before launching into a hyper kinetic,percussion dance/funk number. “Heart Of Fire” literally doesn’t skip a heart beat,with a rhythm helped along by a punchy had smooth as glass synth bass intro that repeats on the refrains of the song. “Does It Feel Good To You” has a strong choral melody and a bass/piano led disco friendly dance/funk number with some powerful horns and percussive effects. “Give Up The Funk (Let’s Dance)” leaps right out as a possible best track on the album with it’s rapped intro increasing in volume until the slow 4/4 beat and percussive early drum machine kicks in to Thompson’s hard groove rhythm guitar and the classic B.T. Express call and response horns,vocals and percussion.

“Closer” and “Better Late Than Ever” are both fine ballads that are beautifully orchestrated and melodic while “Have Some Fun” is another disco friendly melodic dance/funk groove. “Funk Theory” ends the album on a rhythmically and melodically dynamic Brazilian dance/funk note with lyrics that talk about how especially in uncertain times,funk music has enormous power to bring different people together to do their dances-whatever they may be. Musically speaking this album has exceptionally high energy level. Possibly taking cues from Barry White and Quincy Jones’ productions of that era,the sound is extremely crisp and studiocentric rather than the more live sound the band was noted for. Not only that,but it really tuned into funk futurism. What with the mixture of drum machines and live drumming and at least one nod to the oncoming presence of rap. A wonderfully funky B.T. Express intro to the 80’s. And very likely more important to where the music had been and where it was going than anyone may even still think.

Originally posted on January 16th,2015

Link to original review here*

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Filed under 1980's, B.T.Express, Disco, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, Gil Scott Heron, Kashif