Category Archives: session musicians
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.
Marcus Miller is probably my favorite contemporary funk bass players. The youthful prodigy was discovered by by Michael Urbaniak in the mid 70’s. He went on to have a 15 year long career as a session bassist-recording with everyone from Luther Vandross,Bryan Ferry to perhaps his most famous stint as the right hand man in Miles Davis’s early/mid 80’s band. How many bassists who emerged after 1974 had that breadth as a player. Later in the 80’s,he became a musical director of NBC’s Sunday Night Live-as well as being a member of the house band for the show. This was yet another musical feather in his cap.
Marcus’s career came to my personal attention via a cassette tape that my father picked at a local thrift store. It was of Marcus’s self titled sophomore solo album. His solo career was at first more instrumentally informed by his work with Luther Vandross at the time-especially in terms of uptempo tunes. Following him being the main musical figure (in lieu of the absent Prince) on Miles Davis’s 1986 album Tutu,the sound of Marcus’s solo albums from 1993 onward follow more in Miles’s direction. His 1983 debut Suddenly showcases another side of his talents with songs such as “The Only Reason I Live”.
Yogi Horton starts off this song with a fast rolling drum-one that hits fast and hard every other beat on the snare. That in addition to providing a Mutron-type,round filtered drum flash on the next beats. Marcus comes in with a brittle chicken scratch guitar-throwing down a fast ans ascending synth bass line underneath it. On the choruses,he adds a high pitched blast of synth blast. The bridge features Marcus scat singing over the even more kinetic drums and synth solos. On the final refrains of the songs,Marcus’s thumb slams away on the electric slap bass as well just before the groove fades away.
As times marched on,this has become one of my favorite early vocal funks jams from his first solo career in the 80’s. On songs like this,Marcus merges two vital elements of boogie/post disco synth funk. It has the fast dance tempo and instrumental flair of a Quincy Jones Westlake production like “Love Is In Control”. But it also has the brittle, stripped down sound of a Prince song such as “Erotic City”. Considering that,aside from Yogi Horton’s drums,that Marcus played all the instruments on this song showcases he was on the funky musical forefront even early on in his solo career.
Paulinho Da Costa has probably played on more albums than any other musician of the late 20th century. Possibly thousands. So chances are if you look in the notes of any pop,soul,R&B,funk or jazz record of the 70’s or 80’s, Da Costa’s name will probably be on it. The man began learning percussion as a child in Brazil-emerging from the samba genre to became one of the most regarded percussionists the world over. After playing with Sergio Mendes And The Brasil 77 in the early to mid 70’s, Da Costa got signed to Norman Granz’s Pablo label. This allowed him permanent residency in the US.
My first direct encounter with Da Costa’s sound was of course via his epic work with Michael Jackson on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. All of a sudden his name appeared as the percussionist on album every bit of used vinyl I got my hands on. After browsing through a Fantasy Records CD catalog in the late 90’s,it listed a handful of solo albums Da Costa had recorded. One was from 1979 and called Happy People. It included some Earth Wind & Fire members along with Greg Phillinganes and Nathan Watts. One song I just heard from it really got my attention-called “Take It On Up”.
The sunny,melodic horn charts play festively over Da Costa’s intense percussion. A rhythmic electric piano,a revving high pitched rhythm guitar and an elaborately scaling bass line keep the rhythm steady throughout the song. Bill Champlin sings the lead vocal-accompanied on the chorus by a group of female backup singers. On the bridge of the song,all of this instrumentation comes to a high key pitched-with the fanfare of the horn charts filled with as much joy as funk can muster. One replay of this bridge comes into play before the chorus of the song fades it right out.
“Take It On Up” is one of those high energy Brazilian funk numbers that maintains a super high level of joyous musicality all the way. Surrounded by a group of A-1 session players from the jazz and funk scenes of the day,this is also some of the most well recorded (and generally presented) uptempo jams of it’s time. Da Costa’s percussion is mixed right up as the star of the show-right up with the blaring horns and Champlin’s tough, aggressive lead vocal. Happy People isn’t an easy album to locate these days. But with online video streaming,songs like this incredible melodic funk groove can be enjoyed by more people.
Tom Scott and the band T-Connection are two artists whom I’ve never discussed. Scott himself is turning 68 today-another musician who shares a birthday with yours truly. Both of us have played alto sax. Difference is Scott made a very successful career out of it,and I did the same with photography and music blogging. He was most famous as the funkiest side of the 70’s TV theme song genre such as Starskey & Hutch and The Streets Of San Francisco. Not to mention he and his band LA Express backing artists such as Joni Mitchell as they transitioned to a more jazz and soul oriented sound.
T-Connection meanwhile were a disco era funk band hailing out of Nassau,Bahamas. They truly lived up to the phrase “funky Nassau” in terms of bringing a thick,phat funk bottom to uptempo music during the height of the four on the floor beat era. The first such song I ever heard by them was titled after them and truly embodied that spirit. Just a couple hours ago, I was at the local record store Bull Moose and saw a pre-owned vinyl copy of their 1983 album The Game Of Life. It turns out Tom Scott participated in one groove from the album called “I’ve Got Good News For You”.
The song starts out with a bluesy processed Fender Rhodes before the cymbal heavy,fast drum shuffle kicks in. This is accompanied by a liquid boogie funk rhythm guitar and jazzy funk bass line. This encompasses the choruses of the songs. On the refrains,the melody and the stop/start drums enter deep into the Afro-Latin rhythmic clave-in a manner similar to the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground”. Interludes between the two sections of the song showcases some brittle synth brass. Whereas the Rhodes and Tom Scott (on alto sax) improvise on the chorus as the song closes out.
One thing I’ll say for Tom Scott is that,when he wasn’t recording as a bandleader or solo performer,he had his high session credentials. And even though a good chunk of his solo material is funky as you wanna be,he was such a key part of the LA musician scene that it seemed appropriate to celebrate him blowing some funky sax with another group known for their funky music. Session playing allowed musicians to explore different sides of their creative personality. And Tom Scott had a long history of bringing his grooves into the many different tributaries of funk music.
Ronnie Foster was one of Buffalo,New York’s prime funkateers next to the far more famous Rick James. The primary reason for this was likely because Foster was a session keyboardist who recorded solo albums rather than a headliner. That meant a lot though because the man played on some of the finest sessions of the mid 70’s to early 80’s by Roberta Flack,The Jacksons,Flora Purim and Earl Klugh. He was particularly involved musically with George Benson-playing and composing for his blockbuster mid/late 70’s releases.
What first got me into Ronnie Foster was a funk based blog some years ago that linked the man with Stevie Wonder. Foster was one of an enormous cast of players who participated on Wonder’s magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life. That led me to his two late 70’s Columbia albums entitled Love Satellite (1978) and the following years Delight. Wonder played drums on one song for each album. On Love Satellite, he did so on the instrumental”Happy Song”. On the follow up Delight,Wonder did the drumming on a vocal tune this time. And the name of that song was “Let Me In Your Life”.
Foster starts the song with an elegant,jazzy melodic phrase played on polyphonic synthesizer-with his acoustic piano tickling the chord changes. After two phrases of this,Wonder’s drums come dancing with their funky swing. On the refrains,the piano and synthesizer are joined by a rhythmic Clavinet and bouncy Moog bass. On the chorus,the melody descends into a minor key gospel key as a synth string ensemble accents the vocal. The bridge of the song features Foster playing a rhythmic electronic organ type solo over a popping disco bass line before the song closes out with the repeating chorus.
Ronnie Foster and Stevie Wonder were born in the same year,one day apart. Today Foster turns 66. This number showcases how much of Wonder’s compositional influence Foster had absorbed while working with him. Playing every instrument on this song,with backing vocals from people such as George Benson himself,Stevie’s musical sound is omnipresent. It’s in the layers of rhythmic keyboards. Not to even mention those Duke Ellington/George Gershwin style chord/melodic exchanges Wonder used. It really showcased what a strong and thoroughly musical influence Stevie Wonder could have on another instrumentalist.
Ray Parker Jr.’s career in his native Detroit began while playing with Hamilton Bohannon’s band at the city’s iconic nightspot 20 Grand. This got the teen’s guitar wiz the attention of the Motown crew-for whom he began playing and writing in earnest for the likes of Marvin Gaye and even outside the label for Honey Cone’s hit “Want Ads”. This led to the man become a mid 70’s session ace for everyone from Stevie Wonder,Aretha Franklin,Rufus and Herbie Hancock-playing and writing songs for each one of them. Not to even mention being a sideman in Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra.
In 1977,Parker had amassed more than enough experience as a session player/composer to become a bandleader. This lead to him forming Raydio. It was himself playing many of the instruments alongside vocalists Arnell Carmichael,Jerry Knight and Vincent Bonham. After their self titled debut and hit “Jack And Jill” the next year,Raydio was Parker ,Carmichael and an array of additional session players such as Ollie Brown and former Motown Funk Brother Jack Ashford. This led to the release of their second album in 1979’s Rock On, with one of my favorite tracks on it being “When You’re In Need Of Love”.
The song begins with a heavy thump on the bass ans snare drum-punctuated by Parker’s phat synth bass. This brings in a thick,quaking Bootsy Collins’ style “duck face bass” that is present the entire song. After several verses of this,percussive hand claps enter into the mix that eventually brings in some brittle,higher pitched synth brass charts from Parker. As the chorus starts in,Parker brings in two lead guitar lines. One is a dramatic,low thunder and the other is a more bluesy down scale. After two rounds of the refrain and chorus,the intro that opened the song basically repeats to the songs fade out.
Raydio’s second album is very heavy on funk. Originally picked it up on vinyl only on the basis that I knew the name of the band and Ray Parker Jr. The name Raydio actually came from a written documentary I had on a good point of reference for Parker’s musical approach: Prince. Ray Parker Jr. was right there in the late 70’s with the Purple One really helping to innovate with the idea of synthesizer’s playing traditional horn charts. As with most of Raydio’s funk,this groove stays on the one with the rhythmic influence of the Isley Brothers and P-Funk’s heavy still and electronics running on full throttle!
Larry Carlton has already shown up on this blog a year ago. In that case,it was talking about his 2001 solo remake of the Crusaders classic “Put It Where You Want It”,the original of course on which he played on as well. With eight years of recording with such vital instrumental luminaries behind him,Carlton signed with Warner Bros. records in 1977 and began recording his third solo album in his Room 335 studio. There he recorded with fellow session greats such as Paulinho Da Costa and Abraham Laboriel. The this self titled Warner Bros debut finally came out in 1978. It wouldn’t be for another seventeen years that I would pick up a copy on CD and get a chance to hear it.
The album began with a song named after Carlton’s studio. The song had the same basic rhythm and a faster tempo as Steely Dan’s “Peg”. Considering Carlton played on their Aja album the year before,it wasn’t surprising. Much of the album focused on replicating the sounds of many of the people he’d done session work for already. So the album had a very familiar approach to it all. In addition to a stripped down version of the Crusaders classic “Night Crawler”,one song on this album stood out to me for it’s own funky distinction. It was one of those songs I’d go back to over and over upon first picking up this album. It’s called “I Apologize”.
A deep piano chord opens up with the slow paced percussion grooving along. Laboriel’s slap bass plays on those percussive accents. Carlton sings the songs main melody while playing an amp’d up 12 bar blues solo right behind it. On the chorus of the song,the tempo slows into a peddle based,slow swinging jazzy melody featuring the backing harmony vocals of the Canadian rock band Motherlode’s William “Smitty” Smith. On the second verse,an electric piano adds it’s own accents. On the third there’s a full on guitar solo from Carlton before the song cycles up in pitch for the following chorus. The backing vocals of Smith plus Carlton’s guitar soloing close the song out until fade out.
In a similar manner to George Harrison’s “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me”,this song takes a full on 12 bar blues number and gives it a heavy contemporary funk treatment. Considering that funk is every bit as blues based as rock ‘n’ roll, this song has the effect of grooving and rocking hard with a sleek instrumental prescription. Carlton’s singing style presents an easy going smoothness that,while not overtly soulful in attitude certainly allows the rhythmic thickness of this funk to stand out on it’s more instrumental terms. Larry Carlton has certainly recorded some amazing funk over the years-whether it be as a session man,on his own or as a Crusader. And this is one of his strongest grooves for me.