Norman Connors music of the 70’s and early 80’s is something I personally cannot find much to any fault with, in the musicianship and compositional strength. Now he did establish something of a formula. That is basically emphasizing urban/adult contemporary fusion peppered with his free and Brazilian jazz influences. Basically his albums always contained a good handful of very slow ballads during this period. By 1981,it would seem Connors’ run of album releases was showing signs of drawing to a close.
The funk and disco eras were also both going in the same direction. So what did Norman Connors do? He changed up his groove. “She’s Gone” begins the album on a processed Rhodes piano led groove that’s thick on the boogie funk rhythm with horns and heavy percussion. “Party Town” throws on the bass and lead synthesizer in phat,grooving layers on a jam that gets down deep into electro funk territory. “Keep Doin’ It” has a rhythmically sleek post disco vibe while “Stay With Me” had a thick Caribbean style dance/funk percussive groove.
“Anyway You Want” and “Love’s In Your Corner” keep that percussive funk percolating right along while “Sing A Love Song” has a sexy mid-tempo jazz/funk vibe and an elaborate melody. It’s the closest thing to a ballad here. The album ends with the instrumental title song-combining Connors’ jazzy arrangements into the post disco/boogie framework. From beginning to end,this album is completely different then any other Norman Connors album I’ve ever heard. It actually doesn’t contain any slow ballads whatsoever.
The uptempo songs it contains are heavy on the contemporary funk style of the time. All the same,Connors talents as an arranger are all over this session musician heavy release. Most of his previous albums had contained funk oriented numbers. Yet the fact that this 1981 album prioritized it to such a degree showed how thoroughly musical a thinker Connors was. Uptempo funky music was not exactly publicly embraced during this era. Just perhaps, Norman Connors realized that his musical acumen had the power to not only change for his own sake but give the funky soul lovers just what they wanted
Michael Henderson is right up alongside Larry Graham in terms of cracker jack bass player/composers with his baritone singing voices. As a Detroit native,he was most influenced by Motown Funk Brother (and bass guitar icon) James Jamerson. Jamerson played a lot of jazzy riffs-especially backing up Stevie Wonder. So it made sense that Henderson,a pioneer fusion jazz bassist,would bring his own bass complexity to Wonder’s music in the late 60’s/early 70’s along with session work for Marvin Gaye,Aretha Franklin, The Dramatics and Dr. By then,Henderson was moving further into his jazz chops.
Henderson transitioned from a soul session player into a jazz one during the early/mid 70’s. Working with drummer/talent scout Norman Connors and jazz pioneer Miles Davis found Henderson helping both artists transition into a soul and funk based approach-especially with Miles’ On The Corner in 1972 and Connors You Are Starship in 1976. That same year Henderson inked a solo deal with Buddah records. His solo debut Solid is a masterpiece of his multiple talent-with its strongly funky title song. For me,another song that pulls together Henderson’s talents on the album is “Let Love Enter”.
Muruga Booker’s conga drum roll and percussion introduces the the song. It features the acoustic piano,Henderson’s bass and the ongoing percussion playing a funky variation of the Brazilian samba rhythm. The melody of it all,as illustrated by Henderson’s scaling voice and lyricism,is based in Brazilian jazz with it’s major and minor chord changes. A straight up percussion part bridges the similarly themed refrain and choruses together. On the bridge,trumpeter Marcus Belgrave delivers a succinct accompanying horn solo as Henderson’s backup singers improvise the melody with him to the songs fade out.
This song reveals itself as having taken a lot of influence from both Norman Connors and Miles Davis. Most of the playing has Miles and Norman’s light musical touch. It also celebrates that Brazilian flavor that Stevie Wonder often had. What bridges these influences is that jazzy funk/soul attitude. It has a strong,melodic groove to it, and its not a simple song either. The chord progressions can be sung and hummed. Yet they offer a lot of challenge for musicians and vocalists who wish to do so. As such,its something of a defining musical moment for Michael Henderson from the beginning of his solo years.
Filed under 1970's, Brazilian Jazz, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Marcus Belgrave, Michael Henderson, Miles Davis, Muruga Booker, Norman Connors, percussion, piano, samba funk, session musicians, Stevie Wonder, trumpet, vocal jazz
Norman Connors is a fascinating artist to me. Starting out as a free jazz drummer with people such as Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders,Connors was something of an internal talent scout during the 1970’s. His early solo career consisted of solo albums with an avant garde fusion style that somewhat anticipated the rise of the new age musical concept. By the end of the decade,Connors was known primarily for romantic soul ballads featuring the lead vocals of artists such Jean Carn,the bassist Michael Henderson and his major pet project in the late Phyllis Hyman. One of these ballads,”You Are My Starship” is still his best known song.
Over the past decade or so,I’ve been progressively exploring the music of Norman Connors album by album. Even though he became known for his slow numbers,it was through his uptempo material that his music really evolved. And it was an exciting time too because Connors original run as a solo artist started at the dawn of the funk era and came to a conclusion around the beginning of the post disco period. One major period of his career that has attracted me was from when Connors began transitioning from jazz to a more funk/soul sound in the mid 70’s. And one major cornerstone of that was the title song to his 1974 album Slew Foot.
A hard,fluttering horn chart led by Eddie Henderson opens up the groove as Connors in similar manner to the Bar Kays’ choral horns from 1967’s “Soul Finger”. The Clavinet of Hubert Eaves plays additional rhythm support-as each refrain is separated by a break featuring a bluesy amp’d guitar from future Mtume member Reggie Lucus. He is supported on bass by Anthony Jackson on those scaling,cinematic refrains before Lucas gets a chance to really rock out on the middle chorus of the song. The rhythm scales back down to the drums,bass line and Clavinet on the final part of the song. Especially right as the horns fanfare the song right into fade out.
Norman Connors really lifted up cinematic funk at a very important time. This was during the blacksploitation era when Isaac Hayes was winning best musical score for his work on Shaft. Not to mention Curtis Mayfield’s huge success with Superfly and Roy Ayers with Coffey. Even though this song wasn’t in a movie,it was surely funk that moved itself on every level. Both rhythmically and melodically. It was also a building block in the evolution of Reggie Lucus’s transition into funk with the late 70’s edition of Mtume as well. So as a musician and a major talent assembler,this was some of Norman Connors’ finest funk!
Filed under 1970's, Anthony Jackson, cinematic soul, clavinet, drums, Eddie Henderson, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Hubert Eaves, jazz funk, jazz rock, Norman Connors, Reggie Lucus, Uncategorized