Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.
When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.
A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.
“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.
Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer
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
Stacy Lattisaw first came to my attention via reading Aretha Franklin’s first autobiography. She described Lattisaw’s duets with future New Edition vocalist Johnny Gill as inspiring her to choose Narada Michael Walden to produce her on 1985’s Who’s Zoomin Who album. Aretha made note of the strong production involved. A DC native,Lattisaw debut at age 12 in 1979,produced by the late Van McCoy. As soon as she began her involvement with Walden as her producer in 1981,he had a string of five albums through 1986. Not to mention being the opening act for the Jackson’s 1981 Triumph tour.
Along with the aforementioned New Edition and (solo) Johnny Gill,Lattisaw represented the major teen idols of the black community for America during the early/mid 1980’s. I made it my business to seek out her many find post disco records on CD over the last three or four years. Interestingly enough,I haven’t absorbed them in as strong a way as they probably deserve to be. One of these albums was 1983’s 16,released at a key transitional period between the live instrumental post disco sound and the electro funk/dance style that was about to emerge. So far,its opening title song says an awful lot.
A loud howl inaugurates Walden’s opening drum line-a strong 3-4 beat hit with pounding percussion accents. His synth bass collides with Randy Jackson’s ticklish 6 note bass line. On the many refrains and choruses, Corrado Rustici’s rhythm guitar either plays a straight one chord groove or a deeper liquid one. On the second half of each bridge,there’s a dance friendly,melodic digital bell sound. On the bridge,David Sancious plays an improvisational synthesizer solo. On the repeating choruses that lead the song out,the discordant sax improvisations of Marc Russo play on with Lattisaw’s vocals as the song fades out.
As with pretty much any uptempo number Narada Michael Walden sunk his teeth into in the early 80’s,”16″ grooves extremely hard. Its definitely possessed of the synth brass oriented electro dance/funk approach of its time. On the other hand,its electro dance/funk played by some of the most creative jazz/funk instrumentalists to emerge from the mid to late 1970’s. And none of them every simplify their talents to suit the more poppy electronic grooves. They and Lattisaw bring out the funk,and all the musical improvisation,they can in this song. Which in turn is some of the finest funk of its time.
Filed under 1980's, Corrado Rustici, David Sancious, drums, elecro funk, Funk Bass, Marc Russo, Narada Michael Walden, percussion, Randy Jackson, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, Stacy Lattisaw, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizer
Nu Shooz were an 80’s freestyle funk duo from the 1980’s who,among others,represented some of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio. Of course this came in form of the iconic 80’s hit “I Can’t Wait”. Hailing from Portland Oregon,currently 9 member group were led by the married couple of John Smith and lead singer Valerie Day. In the United States,they are considered something of a one hit wonder. Yet from the moment I began exploring that hit’s ultra funky flip side “Make Your Mind Up”,I know this would be a group worthy of exploration for any aficionado of strong 80’s soul/funk music.
Nu Shooz still record and perform today-occasionally recording independent online releases now and then. Its clear from listening to these new songs from them that they are indeed some of the funkiest bands of the 80’s still functioning today. Right up there Cameo to me,anyway. Over the years of course,there instrumental sound and priorities have changed. But there are still some core elements,such as emphasis on hummable melody,that remain intact. That’s very much in the case in the title song of the newest release from May 2016 entitled Bagtown.
A thick hard bop style synth solo begins the song. Then the shuffling funky drum/percussion rhythm kicks into high gear. The chicken scratch rhythm guitar is accompanied by a phat bass line playing the empty spaces within that guitar riff. In and around this,the harmonically complex horns play musical hide and seek with Valerie Day’s lead vocals. Towards the middle of the song,a vibraphone enters the mix as both a melodic and percussive element before the drums lead into a lower guitar solo. The bass/guitar dynamic becomes the focus until the horn chart and percussion close out the song.
“Bagtown” really showcase Nu Shooz having evolved into a sharp,live instrumental based jazz/funk outfit. Everything from the drums,vibes,bass and guitar just smoke on this song with a super hot mix. The harmonic nature of the horn voices brings my mind to something else. Its like a mixture of the soul jazz inspired hip-hop of Us3 in the early 90’s and the final musical decade of Miles Davis. Its got the funk,its got the soul but when it comes to how the horns treat the melody,its built upon a hardcore hard bop/soul jazz foundation. That makes this a standout jazz/funk jam for 2016 so far.
Filed under 2016, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, John Smith, new music, Nu Shooz, percussion, soul jazz, synthesizer, Valerie Day, vibraphone
Omar first came to my attention via the Lenny Henry starring “brit-com” entitled Chef, with its theme song “Serious Profession” performed entirely by Omar. During the early to mid aughts,exploring Omar’s then very hard to find import albums on CD was like hunting for buried treasure. Thanks to my online friend Jeremiah,a lot more exposure to Omar’s music came my way a decade ago. What I noticed about Omar’s music was that,very different from American neo soul very much based in live instrumental hip-hop beats,Omar’s variety of the music concentrated heavily on ornate arrangements.
Born Omar Lye-Fook in London in 1968,he grew up in Canterbury,Kent. He was classically trained trumpet,piano and percussion at two separate conservatories in London and Manchester. He worked as a computer programmer for Microsoft before pursuing music full time. His first single and album There’s Nothing Like This became his first chart hit. And established him as a founding father of neo soul. Over the years his sound swelled to incorporate elements of Brazilian jazz,dance hall reggae and cinematic funk. On the latter end,one of my favorite songs from him is 2000’s “To The Top” from his album Best By Far.
A swinging mix of hollow percussion and piano walk down introduce the song. This kicks off into a sea of strings and melodic flute harmonies before Omar himself begins duetting with his swelling backup vocals. This represents the chorus of the song,for all intents and purposes. The refrains of the song find Omar’s lead and backup vocals playing more call and response to a shuffling,funky snare drum and piano. There are two repeating chorus/refrain bars of this song. On the final chorus before the song fades,Omar’s lead and back-round vocals become the full focus of the song over the instrumentation.
Omar does something that really gets to me musically on “To The Top”. Most neo soul/proto neo soul male artists who hailed as “the next Marvin Gaye” in the beginning. And truth be told,Omar’s style of arrangement and love of backup vocals singing lead is straight out of the Gaye school of cinematic funky soul on this particular song. What Omar does is brings in the heavy funk. As with most neo soul,its lacking in any synthesized electronics. What it does have is less of a stripped down sound,and more emphasis on orchestral production. That makes Omar one of the funkiest neo soulers of his generation.
Filed under 2000, arrangement, backing vocals, cinematic funk, cinematic soul, drums, flute, funky soul, Neo Soul, Omar Lye-Fook, percussion, piano, strings, UK Funk
Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.
Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White
Was (N0t Was) were a passion shared between my father and I during the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Detroit natives David Weiss and Don Ferguson (who changed their professional names to “Was”) were childhood friends from the suburbs. Due in part to Don’s impoverished life at the time,they duo came together to form Was (Not Was) in 1979. The pair composed the music and wrote the lyrics,while two vocalists in Sir Harry Bowens and “Sweet Pea” Atkinson rounded out the quartet. Was (Not Was) became one of the most important and unique musical collectives of the 80’s and early 90’s.
Don Was would become a well known producer for artists such as Bonnie Raitt,Stevie Nicks,Carly Simon,Ziggy Marley,Bob Dylan and Hootie & The Blowfish. His own band on the other hand specialized in a funky stew of music that often placed guest singers in unexpected musical settings. As for Sweet Pea Atkinson,he seems to be a bit of a mystery man. But its his birthday today. And vocally speaking,he’s one of my personal favorite aspects of Was (Not Was)’s sound. One of his highlights with the group came via their self titled 1981 album. It was entitled “Where Did You Your Heart Go?”.
Sweet Pea opens the song singing the lead chorus of the song as a swinging drum brush plays through in the back round along with Johnny Allen’s string arrangements and a counter melody by sax player David McMurray. The jazzy funk bass lines of Jervonny Collier kind of create the main body of the song from this point onward. All led into by McMurray’s sax and a slow crawling drum/percussion based groove. Between the refrain to chorus transitions,a high brittle melodic synthesizer and a string synth with more polyphony play a lead role. After another sax solo,the chorus brings the song to its end.
One thing my father and I both agreed on listening to this album was the strength of this song. Sweet Pea Atkinson’s strong,rangy and idiosyncratic vocal inflections are part of what carries it. Even more so,Don and David actually crafted this song specifically to his style-fashioning a sophistifunk number with the melodic modulations of an mid 20th century American pop standard. As Henrique Hopkins recently pointed out to me,Wham! covered the song in 1986. And hi Henrique’s case,that’s what he thought was the original version. Shows you how melodically strong funk/soul songwriting always finds its place.
Filed under 1980's, David McMurray, David Was, Don Was, drums, Funk Bass, Jervonny Callier, Johnny Allen, percussion, Saxophone, string synthesizer, Sweet Pea Atkinson, synthesizers, Was (Not Was)
Earl Klugh is an artist who really changed my perception of the acoustic guitar. Growing up,I saw it as sounding a somewhat trite sound. Primarily a folk instrument to accompany singers doing verse upon verse type songs. That changed a bit when hearing my dad play records by the classical guitarist Julian Bream. But Klugh blew it out the box for me. He really brought out the gutbucket blues and jazzy licks on his guitar. And got me closer to the understanding that the earliest blues numbers were written and played on acoustic guitar.
A Detroit native,Klugh was inspired to play guitar by first hearing Chet Atkins play on TV. As he grew as a player Wes Montgomery,Ray Parker Jr. and pianist Bob James (with whom he’d later collaborate) became huge influences on him. Not just his sound,but his smooth jazz/funk rhythm section. This ethic bought him multiple Grammy nominations and wins over the years. One of my favorite grooves of his came…from his 1981 album Crazy For You-given to me on a cassette a janitor at my dad’s old job saved from the dumpster. The song on this album that keeps my attention up to this very day is called “Twinkle”.
Greg Phillinganes and Pauliho Da Costa start the song off with a percussion/Fender Rhodes melody before Raymond Pounds’ drums kick in over Phillinganes synth solo and the slap bass of Louis Johnson. The refrain adds Pounds drums to the opening melody as Klugh’s guitar is playing and improvising off the bluesy main melody. On the choruses,the same rhythm section play closer to Klugh’s melody. On the second refrain,Philliganes Rhodes takes a bit more presidents. On the bridge,Johnson’s slap bass solo is accompanied by Da Costa’s percussion Phillinganes’ synth brass and Klugh’s guitar riffs fade out the song.
With 16 years to live with this song across the tape,vinyl and CD formats,this represents as close to sheer musical perfection in the sophistifunk end of the jazz funk/fusion genre. The Westlake studio musicians bring to this song the same level of production sheen,razor sharp instrumental chops that Quincy Jones would’ve brought to his productions at the same time. Klugh’s guitar solos had a somewhat old timey blues/jazz flavor in the melodic department. Yet the modernistic early 80’s instrumental production gave the song a sparkling blend of old and new.
Filed under 1980's, acoustic guitar, drums, Earl Klugh, Fender Rhodes, Greg Philinganes, jazz funk, Louis Johnson, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Raymond Pounds, slap bass, synth brass, synthesizers, West Coast