Thus far? 2015 has proven itself to be an important year for Stevie Wonder. He was the beneficiary of an all star Grammy tribute that included the likes of John Legend,Janelle Monae,Jill Scott and India.Arie. In addition he has recorded on two major records this year in-including “Crack In The Pearl Part II” and “Uptown ‘s First Finale” on Mark Ronson’s massively successful album Uptown Special, as well as on the latest collaboration between Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams Bush-playing and singing on the opening song “California Roll”
In addition to all this powerful musical activity? It’s been announced that Stevie is planning on releasing two separate albums this year. One is said to be a gospel album and the other a collaboration with David Foster. It’s unknown as to whether these or any other album project from Stevie is actually on the horizon. But one thing that’s been uppermost in my mind,as Stevie Wonder turns 65 today? It’s the prevailing attitude today that,much as James Brown was The Godfather Soul? It would seem that Stevie Wonder is now considered something of a godfather of neo soul.
One excellent example of this is the 1999 song “All That I Can Say”,performed by Mary J. Blige and composed by Lauryn Hill. The multi layered,jazzy and melodic synthesizers and the easy going percussive rhythm define the songs core. And those are both signatures of Stevie Wonder’s musical approach: utilizing new electronic technology to create brand new structures of sound that could be emotionally felt as well as heard. Of course neo soul in particular hasn’t always come to grips very well with the strong control Stevie has over his idiosyncratic vocal approach. And that soft yet powerful rhythmic fullness only comes into the music on fairly rare occasions.
In the end? It all comes down to a conversation Rique and myself have had over and over again. That the most positive creative flower of Stevie Wonder’s musical influence comes from those inspired by his musical approach, rather than his vocal one. Composing music with the type of jazz phrasings Stevie tends to use broadens songwriting possibilities for contemporary musicians. And his emphasis on modern electronics to create emotional textures of sound is extremely useful as well. Since the past decade or so seems to showcase Stevie’s instrumental and compositional talents rather than merely less than satisfactory imitations of his vocal ones? The man’s influence,at least at present,seems to be in very good hands. Stevie Wonder,happy birthday to ya’!
Filed under 1970's, India.Arie, Janelle Monae, Jazz, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Mavis Staples, Neo Soul, Pharrell Willaims, Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder
Jody Watley’s life and career literally started out riding on the Soul Train. She started out there as one of the most famous of the line dancers along with future Michael Jackson choreographer Jeffrey Daniels before they became the founding members of Shalamar-the group Don Cornelius helped to build. Eventually marrying Prince’s former musical partner Andre’ Cymone she had some wonderfully funky dance hits at the end of the 80’s such as “Looking For A New Love” and “Some Kind Of Lover”.
By the mid 90’s Wately’s commercial success on her label MCA had began to try up. A lot of this had to do with the fact that her music trajectory was talking her in much more of a creative and soulful direction. Music during the mid 90’s had definitely taken a turn towards slower paced,often funkier grooves depending on the music personalities for those involved. She than recorded her fifth album in 1995 for the Avitone label and proceeded to take more control over her creative career with songwriter/multi instrumentalist Derrick Edmonson. Thus the album Affection and it’s title song were born.
Starting out with the ringer of an answer phone where Watley speaks of her new song and asks the answering party to “fill in the blanks”,the song kicks into gear with a slow funky drum and three layered keyboard lines. The melody is a round high pitched synthesizer,followed closely by a hissing electronic harmony. The other is a popping high bass line that punctuates both the harmony and main melody. Jody sings the body of the song with a lower,Sly Stone like drawl and the chorus in a high,sexy gospel inflected tone. The instrumental bridge features a bluesy guitar,turntabling and a sax solo from Edmonson that comes directly from the melodic horn line of Maceo Parker’s from James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”.
Jody describes this song at the beginning as being “a little Sade,a little James Brown a little Miss Jody Watley”. That in a nutshell describes the groove she gets on this song. It has the sleek,rolling,sexy shuffle groove,jazzy harmonics and thick layers of rhythmic keyboard tones overall. That also gets her into the Mary J Blige/TLC vein of hip-hop/soul friendly contemporary pop-funk grooves of the mid 90’s. A longtime AIDS/human rights supporter,Watley even gives this sexually themed song a broad social message with the chorus of “doesn’t matter if your young or old,doesn’t matter if your straight or gay,everybody needs to feel loved”. It’s total funky,all inclusive sexuality. Where everyone can be who they were born to be and sensuality comes without fear. For me? It’s the culmination of Jody Watley’s strong musical and lyrical assertions of the groove!
Filed under "Sexual Healing", 1990s, Derrick Edmonson, Funk, Hip-Hop, James Brown, Jazz-Funk, Jody Watley, Mary J. Blige, pop-funk, TLC
An astounding album and an EXTREMELY HUGE creative leap from her debut What’s the 411?! Contemporary hip-hop and new jack considerations were very strong on her debut album and there was the awkward step between that and somewhat mechanical 80’s musical flavors. This album changed all of that. In their hearts it was the funk/jazz/R&B of the mid 70’s that was the musical bag of both Puffy and Mary and the result of their enthusiasm is a fusion of that concept soon came to be known as neo soul. Along with D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar this is one of the earliest album smashes to use the form and it’s one of the most overall successful.
Along with the instrumental samples Puffy built these grooves on and Mary J’s new found fondness for jazzy vocal turns and scat singing provide great results on the drippy disco-funk “Mary Jane”,”You Bring Me Joy” and the bass popping-happy closer “Be Happy” are such excellent tunes that if these were the only good songs on the album it would still earn a five star rating. But happily the news always gets better from there. “I’m The Only Woman” really puts the title track of Roy Ayers Everybody Loves the Sunshine to work and considering his position as something of a godfather to this then new genre it is a beautiful use of form. Of course Mary’s cover of “I’m Goin’ Down” rips the entire instrumental track of the song and I’ve heard it to death but hearing it again reminds me of the excellence and broad vocal inflections she brings to the song.
The original ballads including the title track and the deeply spirited “You Gotta Believe” follow in the same path and completely undo some of the mild sterility of the previous albums approach. Ditto for the slightly more uptempo hip-hop inflected jams such as “Be With You”,”Mary’s Joint”,”Don’t Go” and the clever,well composed “I Love You” all have possess that spark needed to make them really stand out as impressive songs. From this point on in Mary J’s career she would be forever known not as “the new Chaka Khan” but as The Queen Of Hip-Hop/Soul and all hype set aside the high quality of this album is one of the reasons why she’s known for that.
Originally Posted On January 24th,2010
Happy birthday Mary! Link to original review here*
At the end of 2013? It was A Mary Christmas that really made a huge difference during what amounted to a needlessly strained late December. I was very impressed by the eloquently soulful and jazzy environment it presented. It seemed that Mary J. Blige was finally on a path to becoming more musically herself. Throughout the her career? I’d always felt that her albums showed,at the very least enormous potential. And at best even funkified,soulful greatness. On the other hand? She was “the queen of hip-hop soul”. This meant that many of her albums became saddled down by guest rappers whose often profane narcissism seemed too awkward a fit with Mary’s frank,raw emotional expression. The “two sides of the same coin” theme that presented itself stopped being a musical revelation after a time. Today its really a formula. And a sometimes tragically overused one. Mary always seemed more about vocalizing and instrumental showcases/interpretation than merely being a vehicle for carrying people from another genre on her back all the time. A month or so back? This album was announced. Its a soundtrack of a sequel to a film I’ve never actually seen. But one thing I always felt was an almost ideal vehicle for vital soul/funk music is the soundtrack medium-extending as far back as Uptight by Booker T & The MG’s in 1968 and Isaac Hayes’ iconic,Academy award winning Shaft four years later. So this was something I was anticipating hearing and,as typical with a Mary J. Blige album? Entered into the listening experience without prejudice based on anything positive or negative regarding the past.
“A Night To Remember” opens the album with a bright,open ended late 70’s funk extravaganza. Its full of the sort of celebratory bass,guitar,drums,
horns and keyboards right out of the Slave/Michael Jackson/EWF school of that era. And lyrically eluding to many of the greats of that era. “Vegas Nights”,featuring guest vocals (as opposed to a rap) by The-Dream is a strongly percussive and fast paced number that embraces both the multiple synthesizer squiggles of electro-funk while also having the dynamic sonic melodicism of the boogie sound. “Moment Of Love” is a furiously funky,stripped down number where Mary’s melodic chorus is matched to a thumping bass/guitar line. Pharrell Williams shows up for one of (if not my favorite number here) in “See That Boy Again”. This is a complex number that actually brings out the strong Latin/Brazilian element in its hybridizing of the melodically surprising and strong Stevie Wonder/Gamble & Huff sound-full of that soulfully jazz/funk twist Pharrell is often more than capable of infusing his music with. “Wonderful” is another melodically complex piece with a thumping,bassy modern hip-hop friendly funkiness that never takes its eye of it’s classic hard funk orientation. “Kiss And Make Up” is a sleek,grooving disco-funk era urban contemporary mid-tempo ballad while “Cargo” has a soul/jazz type electric piano based groove about it. “Suitcase” and “Power Back” are the only songs I am not instrumentally wowed by as they seem to be somewhat self consciously trying to be “new” rather than making any creative statement of their own.
“I Want You” is a heavily orchestrated,cinematic soul/rock with a rising chorus and gospel oriented climax. “Self Love” is a Minneapolis sounding electronically oriented new wave/funk ballad where the character in the song is wishing for her lover to show her the affection he does for himself. “All Fun And Games” does try to mix the “newness” with Mary’s love of 70’s cinematic soul and does pretty well. “Better” is a breezy,stripped down funk/soul/pop number with one of the most unusual low,distant keyboard sounds I’ve ever heard. “Propose” is a powerful ballad closer to the album that plays to the strong gospel oriented side of Mary’s soulfulness-with it’s huge piano chords and rhythm hand clapping throughout. As with just about every Mary J. Blige album I’ve ever heard? There are at least one or two very generic contemporary hip-hop/R&B numbers on this album. And they do drag the quality down just a notch. And that’s especially vital here as,especially at the beginning this sounds as if Mary is for once fully embracing the richly produced 70’s funk/soul/pop sound that’s always been key to her music. But which she only really broadly hinted at. Lyrically this album does tell a certain story of the distrust in a relationship that probably deals directly with the characters in the film. Which is interesting since not all of these songs are heard in the film according to the cover-proclaiming “All New Music From And Inspired By The Film”. For all intents and purposes? This is overall a very good,many times spectacular Mary J. Blige studio album. If she were to keep total focus on musicality rather than pandering to the “queen of hip-hop/soul” moniker more or less placed upon her? She would have an amazing body of music ahead of her!
Originally Posted On June 17th,2014
*A Link To My Original Amazon.com review:
Filed under 1970's, Amazon.com, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Late 70's Funk, Mary J. Blige, Minneapolis, Pharrell Williams, Soundtracks
Mary J. Blige was an artist that I had a deeply rooted respect for when I first heard her interpreting Rose Royce’s 1976 slow jam funk classic “I’m Going Down” in the mid 90’s. And what was most refreshing is how instrumentally oriented and close it was to the original. Of course as was typical with a lot of people in terms of the press from that point on through the turn of the millennium? The saturation press Mary received,likely for all the wrong reasons, turned me off to the point where buying any of her music during that time wasn’t a very appealing notion. It wasn’t until Mary had been a seasoned artist for a decade by around 2003-2004 did I start to really reach out to her earlier music to which I’d once given the slip. It was my love of photography that drew me like a moth to a flame when I saw the black & white side profile portrait on her 1999 CD Mary. Something about that imagery,similar to that of Cicily Tyson on Miles Davis’s Sorcerer album in 1967,bought me into mind that his would be an elegantly funkified affair. And that opinion was intensely upgraded upon putting the CD on for the first time and hearing it open with “All That I Can Say”.
Produced,written and arranged by Mary’s musically vital contemporary Lauryn Hill,the song begins with a lilting,lowly mixed Spanish guitar with a sunny,pre-dominating high pitched synthesizer solo that continually pitch bends between major and minor chords. Shortly a percussive,mid tempo electronically dirived Afro-Latin rhythm kicks in. This instrumental bed is joined by a glockenspiel-like ringing keyboard that scales downward in a dream-like way on each instrumental refrain. At this point Mary’s low,plaintive tenor successfully follows along the songs elusive melody with a lyrical tag stating first “loving you is wonderful/something like a miracle” and going on to add “meeting you,it isn’t hard/with you I can’t let down my guard/stay secure,that’s all I’m asking of you”. By the time the chorus,which repeats the title with a call-and-response bit of vocalese from Mary singing in her higher voice? The melody of the song has likewise gone up a lot higher in pitch-with Mary again keeping up with the elaborate chord changes. By the end of the song,it fades out the way it begun with Mary adding some extremely jazzy,wordless scat singing that expresses the general mood of the song.
From the first time I heard this song? While realizing so many early retro and neo soul artists were attempting to replicate his sound? I was convinced that it was Stevie Wonder himself who played the overriding high pitch-bent synthesizer solos on this song. It was actually someone named Loris Holland,whom I’d never heard of before. As my friend and blog partner here on WordPress Henrique pointed out to me the other day? The fact that Lauryn Hill and the musicians on this album could so thoroughly replicate not only the sound but the melodic language of Stevie Wonder’s challenging instrumental approach on keyboard is a tribute not only to her talent,but musical connectivity as well. This constantly shifting melody,which embraces soul music’s classic structural complexity,is totally reflective of the fact that Mary is alternately overjoyed and cautious in regard to the prospect of the new romantic partner in her life that she portrays on this song. Its seamless mix of both dreamy fantasy and uncertain reality was a balance that was rarely felt in the “keeping it real” era. In the end,I thank Mary J Blige and Lauryn Hill both for their contribution to helping the late 90’s soul/R&B listener to understand what it was they might’ve really loved so much about the 70’s funk era in the first place.