Category Archives: Gospel

Songs In the Key Of Life@40: Stevie Wonder Living In A Future Paradise

songs-in-the-key-of-life

An artists musical focus isn’t required to match up to their lyrical concepts. And vice versa. Yet when those two creative aspects come together,especially in the hands of a great musical talent,the results can often defy description. One such case is Stevie Wonder. He had matched musical and lyrical concepts beautifully through singles during the 60’s. In the early 70’s,he crossed this ethic into the age of the album. His 1976 release Songs In The Key of Life is the finest example of how Stevie Wonder was innovating AOF-a term I’m coining for album oriented funk.

Songs In The Key of Life was his most long winded productions up to this point. It took him 2 1/2 years to complete this album. With a list of musicians that would take up several paragraphs and his fascination with Yamaha’s polyphonic duel keyboards instrument the GX-1,Stevie Wonder and the group of musicians who recorded this put a lot of blood,sweat and joyful tears into the album. It was likely intended as a triple album set. But was whittled down to a double album plus an EP 45 packed into it. Until this time,the only genre of music  that was really give this lavish presentation was progressive rock.

It was actually the first Stevie Wonder album (not counting radio hits) I’d ever heard. Though only part of it at first. On a dark,balmy night sometime in 1989-90 my mom was at our summer camp washing dishes. We had an old silver Emerson turntable/ cassette/ radio/8-Track player to listen to music on out there. My mom had ordered SITKOL on 8-Track from Columbia House Music Club. It was a double tape set,but she’d given one half of it to her friend Billy Ray while still living in NYC.  It was several years later that I finally heard the entire album on vinyl from my mom and dads record collection.

Songs In The Key Of Life is one of a handful of albums that provided the blueprint to how I listen to music up to this very day. It had some amazing and funky hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. On the other hand,being conceived as a powerful album statement with zero filler material,its an album that contains some songs that are just very special to millions the world over. If asked to mull it over,each of them probably can make a list of those special songs from this album to them. Today,I offer you my own journey through the songs of Wonder’s keys of life that had a profound effect on my own life.


“Have A Talk With God”-I am not a religious man. But the way Stevie Wonder talks about the positive effects prayer and faith have on him makes a deep impact. With its space funk synthesizers,bluesy melody and slow dragging vocals it offers up god as “the only free psychiatrist”-contrasting with the 12 bar blues form’s typical association with secular humanism.

“Pastime Paradise”-This might very well be the most expansive song instrumentally and lyrically to come out of the mid 70’s. The Arabic style melody,Afro Latin percussion,synthesized orchestration and Hare Krishna bells/chants make for an early example of what would one day become world/pop fusion. Which makes sense since the song talks about people with a progressive emotional understanding versus those with a more conservative one. And its place in post hip-hop history is assured  through Coolio’s 1994 remake “Gangsta Paradise”

“Summer Soft”-Stevie Wonder is an artist who is defined by melodic modulation. This song provides a beautiful tone poem in that regard. He discusses the advantages of the season with a wistful mid tempo ballad sung in falsetto. Then he talks about the seasons being gone in his powerful low voice over a powerful,uptempo gospel/funk revelry.

“Ordinary Pain”-Another fine example of modulation. It starts out with a slow ballad about dealing with the ordinary and apparently “necessary pain” coming from the end of a romance. This is a common thread in Wonder’s romantic songs. This song comes to an end,then returns as a hard core,Moog bass driven funk song from a female perspective sung by Wonderlove’s Shirley Brewer.

“I Wish”-With its bouncing Fender Rhodes piano,ARP synthesizer,bass line along with the hot horn charts,this nostalgia based piece of funk is one of Stevie Wonder’s most enduring hit songs.

“Black Man”-Seeing before my eyes the way this song was layered in recording studio on the relatively rare Classic Albums Series DVD documentary on the making of this album only enhanced my appreciation of this brilliant funk opus. The mix of brittle space funk synthesizer layers with equally brittle,electric horns make this history lesson on the many races of people who built America (with a strong black focus) one of Wonder’s finest pieces of funky music.

” Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”-On this song,Wonder presents an Afro Latin type of tango done in his electronically orchestrated style. In the languages of Zulu,Spanish and English he sings of true love coming from the heart. Likely relating to individual romance and love of humanity as well.

“As”-This song is one of Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces on the Fender Rhodes electric piano alone. Essentially a mid tempo jazz-funk ballad,it was interpreted by many key figures in that genre during the late 70’s. One can see why as its among Wonder’s most melodically challenging songs ever. Even though I’ve later read commentary that the lyrics of this song were lazily written,its clear that few can have the same high level of emotional expression in their love songs than Stevie Wonder does on such occasions as this.

“All Day Sucker”-This is a hardcore funk jam taken from the EP that came with this album. Using brittle synthesizer accents to accompany the scaling vocal modulations of the song itself,this is one of a handful of fine slices of the funky pie that Stevie Wonder serves up throughout the double album in general.


One thing about Stevie Wonder and this album is that,along with the Motown Monday radio marathons the local oldies radio stations used to have,is that it kind of gave the preteen Andre the impression of Motown as being almost like a fairy tale kingdom. One that omitted sounds and melodies unlike any other. After learning the reality of the hard work and talents that really went into all of it,I did hear of Richard Pryor’s comedy monologue on 1983’s Motown 25 that indeed viewed the label and its artists as being like Detroit’s knights of the sound table.

Songs In The Key Of Life has a sound that could seem magical to the musically unknowing. And even with knowledge,the magic created ON it never truly goes away. The writer John Hamilton is currently tracing the racial double standard of 20th century pop musically. Namely how veteran (generally white) rock artists are seen as aging with grace while black soul/funk artists are generally placed mainly in the context of the past. On Songs In The Key Of Life,Stevie is not only looking towards the future conceptually. But successfully paved the way for it on a musical level as well.

 

 

 

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Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1976, Afro-Futurism, ARP synthesizer, classic albums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Gospel, message songs, Motown, progressive music, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, Yamaha GX-1

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Full Moon” by Brandy

Brandy Rayna Norwood  has had a fascinating career behind her. Following very much on the path of Whitney Houston’s transitions from audio to visual media, she was actually quite a bit more successful as a singer/songwriter/producer and TV star on her late 90’s sitcom Moesha  than she was on the silver screen. Personally I always had a creative appreciation for Brandy. With her fluid physical features and polished braids,she proudly and elegantly exhibited a strong Afrocentrism that maintained a street level identification with American hip-hop. As she grew from a teenager into a young adult,her music continually evolved along the same lines as her outward persona.

Today Brandy is a 37 year old with a 13 year old daughter  Sy’rai Iman and is engaged to be married again. In addition to having a six album strong discography. In the early 2000’s, she teamed up with then up and coming producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. Jerkins himself has a gospel back-round and had been mentored by new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley. As electronic instrumental programming moved on from it’s brittle beginnings,by the early aughts it  developed more of a flow in terms of sound. This was excellent for both instrumentally oriented producers like Jerkins and nuanced vocalists such as Brandy. The title song of her 2002 album “Full Moon” is a superb example.

A high pitched mid 80’s new wave style synthesizer opens up the album playing an introductory melody and continues as throughout the song. The refrain of the song maintains a funky,slower crawling 1/2 beat dance tempo. This is accompanied by a crackling bass synthesizer and a bleeping,percussive synthesizer. On the swiftly sung choruses,on which Brandy duets with multiple harmonies of herself,all these electronic solos come together. On the bridge,Brandy’s vocal harmonies beautifully layer over each other while a synthesized duck face bass pops along with her. This is just before the main chorus repeats on into the fade out.

“Full Moon” showcases a magically romantic new groove-with Jerkins skillfully blending a strong post millennial electro funk rhythmic framework with European classical compositional content.  Instrumentally the song blends both the more brittle new wave and new jack electronic approach with the beautifully fluidity that modern synthesizer’s were beginning to create. Vocally many early ladies of neo soul such as Alicia Keys and India.Arie were deeply influenced by Brandy’s funky sea of vocals-a technique coming through both Chaka Khan and Janet Jackson. Still it was this song’s embrace of glossy production and strong,funky rhythms that make it perhaps my favorite Brandy number.

 

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Filed under Brandy, electro funk, Gospel, Neo Soul, New Jack Swing, New Wave, synth bass, Uncategorized, vocal harmonies

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk: “Tis Your Kind Of Music” by Graham Central Station

Welcome to this first ever volume of Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk. This (so far) bimonthly segment is going to be devoted to classic songs in the jazz/funk/soul spectrum from the 60’s and 70’s. It was first conceived by friend and blogging partner Henrique Hopkins. It started to make sense,with this blog’s emphasis on newer grooves,to begin exploring their points of origin in a more in depth kind of way. Decided to take on this idea for now while I am flying solo with Andresmusictalk for a little while. In the spirit of my concept on writing about songs from the classic funk era that are lesser known? I’ll start the concept with one of my personal favorites.

Larry Graham was in a very interesting position during the first few years of his band Graham Central Station. Sly & The Family Stone were still operating and even having hits. So the two,with Larry being the connecting thread to both,were at this point very much in tandem. Larry’s own take music was on a very uptempo gospel oriented type of funk built around the interaction between keyboards and this iconic,thick slap bass playing. For the bands second release in 1974’s Release Yourself, the band forged ahead heavily into an instrumental direction that Sly actually began but which GCS were already about to take to the next level. And for me at least? The crowning achievement of this was in the song ‘Tis Your Kind Of Music”.

The song begins with a nasal burst of ARP synthesizer from Larry himself,which melds into pulsing bass tones playing the counter point to the main theme.All along with the pulsing burble of Patrice “Chocolate” Bank’s organ drum programming. After a bar of this,the synthesizer begins playing a staccato type of bluesy lead line-with a string synthesizer orchestration backing it up and the electric piano of Hershall “Happiness” Kennedy playing the different changes. Chocolate sings the first vocal verse of the song in her deep,thick churchy gospel wail-trading off with Larry’s deep bass voice on each refrain. Each of which is followed by a repeat of that second instrumental verse. The song closes out out with a band unison vocal of the songs title-sang as an exploratory chant.

On the very first time I heard this song? It’s instrumental boldness absolutely blew me away. Realized it would be a song I’d be learning from for years to come. And it has been for sure. Most importantly? It brings up a matter Henrique and I have recently been discussing about the pan ethnic forms of music. In fact,it’s very possible to have a situation on many songs with Afrocentric structure but European content. And vice versa. This is a song of a type that,very much in the original spirit of the Family Stone,blows that ethic right out of the box. It not only presents an almost totally electronic mix of still very new synthesizers and drum machines. But also does so with European classical orchestration,spiritual/gospel melodicism (especially on the vocal arrangements) and that heavy jazz oriented funk grind in terms of how the instruments themselves are played. In many ways? This song represents what the entire 70’s “united funk” age meant at it’s absolute,and most futurist pinnacle.

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Filed under 1974, ARP synthesier, classic funk, drum machines, Funk, Funk Bass, Gospel, Graham Central Station, Larry Graham, Sly Stone, synth funk

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 1/10/2014: “No Time To Lose” by Andrae’ Crouch

Andrae Crouch No Time To Lose

 

Singer/songwriter/producer/arranger/preacher Andrae’ Crouch already had a very success career with his group the Disciples during the 70’s before venturing out on a solo career during the early 80’s Always consistent in his ability to be musical mission to really bring out the strong gospel core in modern soul and funk music? Many of the musicians that he was working with during this time were likely bringing him a level of awareness that the danceable soul and funk music was adapting to new and electronic oriented instrumentation during the mid 80’s in particular. It was something any gospel act influenced by these changes would have to face. And bringing some familiar instrumentalists along with him? Crouch dealt with it as he always had.

“Got Me Some Angels” starts off the album with a brittle,new wave inflected sound that’s filled with sharp bass synthesizers and accented by the ever-present electric bass thumping of Abraham Laboriel. “Right Now” combines that same modern touch with the classic uptempo soul shuffle and gospel organ swirls with the vocals of Motown’s Tata Vega for one of the most musically powerful songs (and a personal favorite) from this album. “Jesus Come Lay Your Head On Me” and “Somebody Somewhere Is Prayin’ (Just For You)” are both funky slow jams featuring the sweet vocals of Kristle Edwards. The title song is another bass heavy electro funk number that sounds similar to a religious song the Dazz Band would’ve been comfortable with instrumentally at this time.

“Livin’ This Kind Of Life” is my favorite on here-a slinky jazz-funk groove featuring the late,great Joe Sample on some tasty Fender Rhodes electric piano licks while “His Truth Still Marches On”,”Oh,It Is Jesus” and “Always Remember” are swirling,chorus field gospel ballads in Crouches classic style. The only reason I know anything about Andrae Crouch at all is because my father played this album quite a lot on vinyl when I was a child. Coming from a a non Christian family who never,ever attended church? My father made sure to expose me to gospel music early on-with the idea that it was an integral part of black American culture (especially in terms of the civil rights movement) and that this variety of spirituality was an important part of my own cultural heritage as well. There’s many ways for non Christians to love gospel music. And the funky soulfulness of this 1984 album was how it entered into my own life.

Originally Posted On January 9th,2015

Link to original review here*

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Filed under 1980's, Abraham Laboriel, Amazon.com, Andrae' Crouch, Funk, Funk Bass, Gospel, Jazz-Funk, Joe Sample, Music Reviewing