Grover Washington Jr. has often been referred to as one of the main progenitors of smooth jazz. This term extended from the softer toned end of 70’s and 80’s jazz/funk fusion. Grover always was a master of subtlety as a player. On the other hand,music production basically turned “smooth jazz” into a sub genre. And one that basically robbed the instrumentation of its vitality. Still,that music still reduced down to jazz/funk at its base. Especially when smooth jazz groups/soloists performed live. Towards the end of the 80’s,I tended to see Grover caught up in this musical conundrum.
When Grover passed away in 1996,I’d honestly started to forget about him. It wasn’t too long after that did I notice a new interest in his early to mid 70’s albums and songs such as “Mister Magic” and the first 70’s era Grover Washington Jr. song I heard “Lock It In The Pocket”. In the years to come,I started to pay some more attention to Grover’s mid to late 80’s music that I’d tended to ignore whenever it showed up in record stores pre owned CD/vinyl bins. One such album was his 1989 release Time Out Of Mind. Never occurred to me until last night that the title song was a Steely Dan cover version.
A steady 4/4 dance beat on drums starts the song,accentuated by percussive congas. After this,the main keyboard line comes in on a ringing synthesizer. Accompanying that is a a gentle,bluesy guitar solo playing what was originally Walter Becker’s guitar line. Grover himself plays Donald Fagen’s lead vocal part on sax-adding many lyrical touches. On the choruses,he’s joined by a group of female backup singers. After a couple repeat plays of the songs bridge,Grover’s improvisations on sax take over much of the last minute or two of the song before it fades out on the chorus.
Steely Dan’s songs were always ripe (and perhaps even designed) for interpretation by jazz instrumentalists. And this cover is a very good example. It has some of the milder production elements of smooth jazz that were just beginning to occur in the late 80’s and early 90’s. For example,the guitar and keyboard parts aren’t quite as brisk and crisp as they were on the original. On the other hand,the bluesy jazziness that defines the songs content is brought right to life by Grover’s soloing. And even the rhythm section backing it up. So it ends up being a quality example of Grover Washington Jr’s latter period.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Donald Fagen, drums, Grover Washington Jr., jazz funk, percussion, Saxophone, smooth jazz, Steely Dan, synthesizer, Walter Becker
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
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.
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
Grover Washington Jr. holds a somewhat unique position for my appreciation of instrumental music. He was my introduction to jazz/funk sax with “Just The Two Of Us”. That meant he was a key part of my musical core without me fully realizing it. Reading my close friend and musical blogging colleague Henrique Hopkins most recent overview of the nu funk band The Internet? It inspired me to realize something about my interest in funk. While that interest has evolved into one where I strongly appreciate studio coloring along with my favorite grooves? Learning about the music involved experiencing the strong,bright musical hues created by a straighter live instrumental aspect of the music.
During the summer of 1996? WMEB through the University Of Maine aired their first funk radio show. It was interesting as it always played the song before announcing who the artist was. One such case hit me with a song called “Lock It In The Pocket”. I remember being in the car and dancing in place while on the passenger seat. When the song was over,the DJ announced it was Grover Washington Jr. Learned later this song,recorded in 1977 live at the Bijou in the man’s native Philadelphia, was recorded with his band Locksmith. They made a record of their own around this time. And since I haven’t yet over viewed any of Grover’s music? This is the one I’m most moved to do.
The fun in the funk begins when when the high rhythm guitar keeps a steady groove going along with the enthusiastic hand claps of the audience. The percussion builds right into that-right before the song’s funky drummer Millard Vinson chimes in. Grover himself takes a detour from this a refrain themed around an Afro-Cuban salsa style melody while easing onto the chorus with the band. Grover plays with ever growing improvisational fire along with the steady guitar and percussion that builds exactly as the sax solo does. The melody then goes into minor chords-with keyboardist James Simmons on piano and ARP string accompaniment before Grover’s refrain closes it all out.
As my interest in 70’s jazz/funk has led into it becoming one of my favorite types of music to listen to? This song continues to stick by me all the more. Each time I hear it? There’s something new to learn. Since Grover was primarily known as a soloist? The biggest aspect of this jam is how much it emphasizes the importance of bands in the genre. As in any tributary of jazz,as Henrique has pointed out? A horn player can blow over almost anything. Here-with Grover’s improvisational excitement? Locksmith really allow him to maintain that danceable and rhythmic thickness that would allow Grover (and likely his audience) to keep their bodies,minds and hearts moving to the groove!
One of the challenges that has arisen for jazz musicians during the fusion era was the book of standards they had for interpretive purposes. While original compositions were always pretty sound? A melodic theme from a contemporary artist could be a wonderful musical launching pad from which said musician could take flight. As Miles Davis and recently Robert Glasper pointed out? Well basically how many times can a musician do a song like “My Funny Valentine” or “The Look Of Love”? In the late 80’s, Prince albums such as his musically iconic Sign ‘O’ The Times were not only getting serious reviews in jazz publications such as Downbeat. But musicians across the spectrum were discussing his instrumental and compositional ideas as well. One such musician was fusion veteran Billy Cobham. And he chose “Sign O’ The Times” as an interpretive theme for his 1987 album Picture This-his final release for GRP.
Cobham starts out with a fairly basic drum machine pulse much like the original. Than he comes in on live drums with a commanding,rolling march rhythm. This is accentuated by a simple Caribbean style percussion chime throughout. The late Grover Washington Jr. plays the vocal part on his sax with not only his typically high level of soulfulness,but also a foreboding tone to his solo. On what would’ve been the second refrain? Grover’s sax totally takes over as he improvises his own melody off of Cobham’s marching back-round. He starts off rather bluesy and almost crying out. Than he begins to sound progressively angrier and more emotionally intense. All before calming down to play the songs bass line,and then returning back to the original melodic theme. At the songs conclusion,Cobham and Grover both gradually evolve into playing an instrumentally testifying march together while Ron Carter provides the bass line on the upright.
It’s true that within the last couple of decades,Prince’s songs have become enormously successful in terms of being covered by jazz and blues instrumentalists and bands. The most exciting thing about Billy Cobham’s take on “Sign ‘O’ The Times” is how in tune he was with the song. He recorded his version and released it the same year that the original hit the public. Instrumentally speaking,Billy Cobham reaches into the lyrical theme of the song as a drummer for his take on it-almost more than he does the basic chords and melody. Adding a Caribbean style marching beat to the song lifted up the observing,questioning nature Prince originally evoked. Grover Washington Jr. is also most impressive-again playing his solos as a tone poem based more on the lyrics to the song rather than the straight melody. Considering what Prince was doing with his jazz oriented Madhouse recordings at this time? Musicians like Billy Cobham were really doing a wonderful job cross pollinating the flowers of the possible new jazz standards of musicians like Prince.