Category Archives: soul jazz

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

nina-superjumbo

Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Bagtown” by Nu Shooz

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.

 

2 Comments

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

Anatomy of THE Groove: “We’ll Have It Made” by The Spinners

The Spinners were a group who had two of the most distinctive lead singers in 70’s soul. During their years in Philly,their main lead singer was Phillipe Wynne-a master of powerful vocal idiosyncrasy. In their Motown years,their final lead singer of that era was George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron. He was a Vietnam vet who recorded a couple of solo albums for Motown after his years with the Spinners. In 2003,he became one of the lead singers of the Temptations. Today at age 71,Cameron has had a rich and varied career celebrating music on both a creative and political level in the state of New Jersey.

In 1970,The Spinners recorded their second and final Motown album entitled 2nd Time Around. Story goes that they were not creatively prioritized on the label. On the other hand,Stevie Wonder felt the opposite because he wrote two songs for the group which were featured on this album. The first was “Its A Shame”. This went on to become their biggest hit for Motown. And is probably the song most people associate with G.C. Cameron. The other song Wonder wrote didn’t perform as well commercially,but to me stands on equal level musically. The name of this song is “We’ll Have It Made”.

A deep honky tonk styled (though not honky tonk sounding) piano opens the song. The bass drum kicks into the main rhythm-which is a big percussive sound marked by epic hi hat hits. These are accented by screaming,melodic horn charts. These instrumental parts mark both the chorus and the refrain of the song-using different chord modulations for each segment. After the chorus,there are these jazzy bridges where Cameron goes into his smoothest low baritone. Towards the end of the song,all the musical elements come together for a huge chorus that closes out the song.

“We’ll Have It Made” is a song that instrumentally bridges a hot,heavy uptempo and a stomping country soul sound beautifully. Even more so,Stevie Wonder’s jazzy modulations give the song its complex character. Cameron sings each vocal part as different characters. On the refrains and choruses he’s a huge soul shouter. On the jazzier bridges, he’s a smooth and almost poppy crooner. The moment I heard this song,it made me think about what might’ve happened to the Spinners on Motown had Stevie Wonder worked more fully with them. This and “Its A Shame” still stand as shining moments of this collaboration.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, country/soul, drums, G.C. Cameron, honky tonk piano, horns, Motown, Motown Sound, piano, soul jazz, Stevie Wonder, The Spinners

Kandace Springs Emerges As A Star On The Jazz Scene: An Article By Ron Wynn

Kandace Springs’ emerges as a star on jazz scene
By Ron Wynn

There’s so much fresh and exciting talent in Nashville these days across the idiomatic board folks sometimes miss performers operating outside the pop/rock universe. But exciting, versatile vocalist Kandace Springs is generating so much buzz courtesy of her new (June release) Blue Note LP “Soul Eyes” that she’s garnering widespread praise and considerable attention outside the usual arenas of specialty radio, jazz clubs and festivals.

Springs, who’ll be appearing this week at the City Winery, has always been surrounded and immersed in music. She’s the daughter of veteran Music City R&B/soul stylist Scat Springs, a popular fixture both locally and across the region, and the family’s musical involvement also includes her aunts, uncles, a grandfather, even two great-grandfathers. Her 2014 self-titled four-song EP was produced by Pop & Oak, whose past clients include Rihanna and Nicki Minaji. Springs appeared on such shows as “David Letterman” and “Jimmy Kimmel,” while burning up the stage at both Bonnaroo and the AfroPunk festivals.

But despite her alluring, enticing delivery and impressive range ideal for the rhythmic tapestries urban and contemporary R&B producers prefer, Springs’ natural affinity for jazz, especially her flair with melodic interpretation and storytelling, were what resonated when Prince heard her version of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” on the Okayplayer website. He not only invited her to perform with him at Paisley Park for the 30th anniversary of “Purple Rain,” but urged her to follow her stylistic heart, rather than take the safe, more commercially viable, route.

The results can be heard throughout “Soul Eyes,” produced by Larry Klein. His forte is striking a balance for artists with a jazz foundation between adhering to the tradition’s mandates, yet finding ways of reaching wider audiences as previously demonstrated on sessions featuring Lizz Wright, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell among others. This approach is evident most notably on the title track, which was written by pianist Mal Waldron. Waldron was formerly Billie Holiday’s pianist, and the tune was among her signature songs.

Springs’ version inserts a few more soulful flourishes while expertly navigating the originals’s prominent lengthy note turns and crisp phrases. With Terence Blanchard’s crackling trumpet soaring around and behind her inflections and expressive presentation, it’s a showcase for how an ace contemporary performer can update a classic tune without losing its flavor or altering its lyrical intent.

The evocative ballad “Rain Falling,” one of her compositions, displays both her writing style and ease at guiding a song through differing emotional stages, while her cover of War’s “The World Is A Ghetto” reaffirms her ability to excel in a non-jazz framework. Another of Springs’ pieces “Too Good To Last,” has more of a blues edge in its story line,  reinforced by Blanchard’s brilliant trumpet accompaniment.

With guitarists Dean Parks and Jesse Harris, organist Pete Kuzma and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta joining Blanchard in the strong musical corps behind her, Kandace Springs’ demonstrates on “Soul Eyes” she’s a most worthy addition to the ranks of topflight contemporary jazz vocalists, singers who adore and treasure the burden of mastering the Great American Songbook, but also have plenty to say to and for 21st century audiences.

 

(Kandace Springs appears this week at the City Winery).

Leave a comment

Filed under Dean Parks, Jazz, Kandace Springs, Larry Klein, Mal Waldron, Prince, Ron Wynn, soul jazz, standards, Terence Blanchard

Grooves On Wax: Funky Music Spinning On A Rough Week

Up Pops Ramsey Lewis

This is the first in a series exploring the vinyl records I’m spinning on my turntable. Often at the very same time these articles are being shared with the online community of soul funkateers who support this blog. This first on today’s list is the 1967 album Up Pops Ramsey Lewis.  It was during the period when Maurice White was the drummer in the band and is super heavy funk process soul jazz straight out of Chi-town.

Key jam: “Party Time”

Changing Times

Frank Wilson takes the Four Tops in a grand cinematic soul direction on this 1970 album. It was changing times for Motown,moving out to the West Coast when this was recorded. And it was changing times for America 60’s had just come to an end. The Tops mixed covers and originals here in a strong song cycle across two sides of the record!

Key Jams: “These Changing Times” and “Try To Remember”

Bautista

Roland Bautista was Earth Wind & Fire’s supplicant lead guitarist-both preceding and succeeding Al McKany in 1972 and 1981 respectively. In between that time,he recorded two albums as a leader. This is his first from 1977. It’s a wonderful mixture of funk,Latin rock and jazz fusion.

Key Jam: “Diggin’ It In”

Slick

Eddie Kendricks’ final album for Motown in 1977 finds the former Temptation  really getting into the grooves with ballads and uptempo songs bring that big band R&B/jazz flavor out in the type of melodies that Motown’s king of falsetto loved so well.

Key Jams: “Intimate Friends” and “California Woman”

Brasil 88

Sergio Mendes followed on his New Brasil 77 with a new idea the following year. Some years ago,this album cover lured me in. Not only was it a happy find on vinyl,but the fact it contained two ticket stubs to one of his concerts from 1978 was more than the icing on the cake for this bright and slick Brazilian pop jazz set.

Key Jam: “Tiro Cruzado (Crossfire)”

feel the phuff

Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds got his first band big with this Indianapolis band after a stint with Bootsy Collins,who apparently gave him the Babyface name to start with. Manchild had a very adventurous funk/blues/rock flair,not to mention a few potently arranged ballads. Edmonds really ripped on the rocking guitar solos here Ernie Isley style too on the bands 1978 sophomore set.

Key Jams: “The Phuff” and “Rowdy-Dowdy Blues”

Summertime Groove

Hamilton Bohannon,former Motown session drummer and member of Stevie Wonder’s late 60’s band, gives the drums the extreme funky workout on “Let’s Start The Dance” to get this party started. But it doesn’t stop there. Especially on the uptempo songs,the songs have a heavy and funky danceability with a distinctive kind of focus on the funky drummer himself.

Key Jams: “Summertime Groove” and “Let’s Star The Dance”

minnie_riperton_love_lives_forever

Minnie Riperton’s posthumously released final album from 1980 is a sleek,jazzy affair. Plenty of West Coast style light funk and soulful pop well suited for Minnie’s amazing range. She recorded the vocals for the this song in 1977 while people such as Greg Phillinganes,Harvey Mason,Lee Ritenour,Paulinho Da Costa,George Benson,Tom Scott,Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder helped to complete the music for this as produced by her widower Richard Rudolph.

Key Jams: “Strange Affair” and “Island In The Sun”

Learning To Love

Rodney Franklin is one of the more unheralded jazz-funk keyboard player so late 70’s and early 80’s. Known primarily as the composer and performer of the TV theme song Hill Street Blues,his 1982 album Learning To Love goes from slick,liquid pop/funk songs to exploratory fusion funk/jazz improvisations.

Key Jam: “Enuff Is Enuff”

Game Of Life

T-Connection keep getting better to my ears. And loved their grooves the first time I heard them years ago. This Nassau band really impressed me with a copy of their 1983 album The Game Of Life that I found at my local record store Bull Moose. This is a fine example of melodic,well composed boogie funk. With a jazz Afrocentric twist of course. It even delivered a “people music” message song right off the bat with the title song as well!

Key Jams: “The Game Of Life” and “I’ve Got News For You”

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Babyface, Bohannon, Boogie Funk, Brazilian Jazz, disco funk, Eddie Kendricks, Four Tops, jazz funk, Latin Funk, Manchild, Minnie Riperton, Motown, Ramsey Lewis, record collecting, Rodney Franklin, Roland Bautista, Sergio Mendes, soul jazz, T-Connection, Vinyl

STEVIEWONDERLAND!: Celebrating An Icon In Three Decades-“Sensuous Whisper” by Stevie Wonder (1996)

Stevie Wonder seemed to have suffered a little writers blocks following his (subjectively) wonderful 1987 album Characters. Aside from performing the soundtrack to the Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever in 1991,it seemed as if Wonder would continue his infrequency of releases in the 90’s as he had in the 80’s. When President Jerry John Rawlings invited Wonder to spend his weeks in the African nation of Ghana,Wonder wrote 40 new songs. He also stated the artist formerly know as Prince “helped him to see music again” in the liner notes to the 1995 album that came out of Wonder’s African visit: Conversation Peace.

Personally I have a vivid memory of hearing a new reggae styled song by Stevie Wonder called “Take The Time Out” used during the 1994 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to encouraging people to give food to the needy. It was a comforting reminder of Wonder’s ever present humanitarianism.And his new album finally came out in January of the following year. Took me a year or so to really give it a good listen. And a decade or so more to begin singling out my personal favorites songs from the last Stevie Wonder album of the 20th century. One of the strongest for me is a song called “Sensuous Whisper”.

Wonder gets the song rolling with a hi hat heavy drum swing and a shuffling bass with an Arabic type tone. Then he kicks into a funky chromatic walkdown on piano. This consists of the basic body of the song. Stephanie Andrew’s sexually charged grunts provide a vital percussive element as the sax of Branford Marsalis and trumpet of Terrence Blanchard provide unison horn breaks on the vocal changes. Wonder swings and scats the lyrics on the refrain,while Anita Baker sings the song title chorus as the back-round with Wonder’s call and response vocal lead.

The bridge of the song features Wonder singing a harmonically complex set of notes that I personally couldn’t begin to describe-scaling up and down between each phrase. He backs himself up with the same instrumentation as the rest of the song that,along with the horn charts,improvise strongly on the chordal changes he’s making throughout. After this,the song returns to the drum/bass intro before seguing back into the chorus of the song. This chorus repeats itself over and over again-with Wonder scatting the vocals more and more until the song itself just comes to an abrupt stop.

Stevie Wonder was always someone my family and I recognized as having a strong jazz influence-from his 1963 instrumental debut album to his 1991 song “Make Sure Your Sure”. This song not only found him collaborating up front with jazzy players and jazz derived singers,but also embracing the funkified jazz/hip-hop hybrid that the Native Tongues groups like Tribe Called Quest and even Miles Davis himself had started to embrace. So Wonder was not only heavily embracing jazz here,but showcasing it’s possibilities for the newer hip-hop informed style of funky soul.

1 Comment

Filed under 'Conversation Peace', 1990s, Anita Baker, bass guitar, Branford Marsalis, chromatic walkdown, drums, funky soul, hip-hop jazz, horns, piano, Saxophone, soul jazz, Stephanie Andrews, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, Terrence Blanchard, trumpet

Anatomy of THE Groove: “James Brown House Party” by James Brown & The Famous Flames (1966)

James Brown began recording instrumental albums in 1963. At this point,James tended to think very much like jazz and blues musicians when recording. Meaning that he tended to think in terms of sides in the studio rather than the relatively new (at the time) long playing record. On these instrumental albums played both originals or reboots of songs he’d already recorded with vocals. As an instrumental leader,he sometimes played drums. But quite a lot of the time he played organ. And that bought out another important factor to how the man approached his non vocal musical approach as well.

James Brown actually had a recording contract that positioned him as recording his vocal numbers for the King label,and instrumentals for the Smash label. That created some conflict when he released a vocal album Out Of Sight on Smash in 1964-only to have it swiftly withdrawn. That probably had a lot to do with a point that Henrique and I discussed about James competing more with hard bop jazz players such as Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff as an instrumental organist. Still it was a lot more likely James was playing drums on a 1966 instrumental he did entitled “James Brown House Party”.

Jimmy Nolan’s low chicken scratch guitar defines the groove. The JB horns generally play a bluesy 7 note horn chart-going from major to minor chord on each melodic phrase. Maceo abstracts on this theme as the first instrumental soloist to appear on this song,with his tenor sax. Nolan plays the second solo on this song,which has a more open string approach to his guitar than usual. Towards the end of the song,there’s a trumpet solo that comes in playing a fast theme that follows right along with the bluesy horn charts of the song that themselves serve to fade out the very song they begin.

“James Brown House Party” is another wonderful example of James Brown developing a brand new song from an old one. And it’s interesting on two levels. For one,the song is based on his 1962 song “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A”. For another,the key difference between the original and this instrumental is that latter version is significantly faster. James’s foray’s into uptempo funk in the mid 60’s is showcased here by showcasing how he already had the funky approach from the hard bop/soul jazz players down pat on the original version. Which makes this an important showcase for his musical creativity.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1960's, chicken scratch guitar, drums, hard bop, horns, instrumental, James Brown, Jimmy Nolan, Maceo Parker, Saxophone, soul jazz, trumpet, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Freedom” by Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams has been a key artist in terms of my discussions with Henrique Hopkins about turn of the millennium funk. As a producer perhaps more so than a performer, Pharrell  has spun his musical straw into gold many times for a diverse range of artists from pop to hip-hop. Both as half of the duo The Neptunes and on his own. His 2014 song “Happy” not only became an internet/YouTube sensation,but raised the bar for modern day jazzy/funky songs with a humanitarian lyrical message. Perhaps because of a lawsuit leveled upon him over another of his productions around the same time,it seemed as if this might be more of a one shot than the revival of a new funk movement.

It’s wonderful to be able to say now that my theory might very well have been wrong. While continuing his productions for other artists,which included comebacks from Sean “Diddy” Combs and Missy Elliot, Pharrell released a brand new single of his own in the summer of 2015. The name of the song is called “Freedom”. A portion of the song became looped as a back round soundtrack for Pharrell’s Twitter page and he even performed the song on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on the 14th anniversary of 9/11. As an entity,this song is very strongly associated with the internet stateside.In terms of the music and it’s message,the song has a whole other association entirely.

A chorus of women singing “la,la,la,la” to the songs main melody opens the song. This is directly followed by a piano playing the same melody as it does through the remainder of the song. This piano is backed up by a breathy,ethereal synthesizer. On the next part of the song,this same melodic piano is accompanied by a jazzy,steady swinging drum rhythm that’s accompanied by steady hand claps. The main chorus of the song finds Pharrell shouting the songs title in a highly soulful style with a chugging,drum like rhythm guitar beefing up the instrumental sound. This entire refrain/choral pattern is repeat one more time until the song comes to a fast halt.

Musically speaking,this song picks up where “Happy” left off. It’s rhythmic piano based sound evokes the 60’s soul/jazz flavor in the same way. Melodically it’s somewhat more gospel inflected in tone. When it comes to the lyricism of the song, it’s the literal flip side of that song. Pharrell’s use of the term freedom,both in words and as a visual element in the accompanying music video,represents the idea as the driving force of everything on Earth that grows and lives. With so many powerful people touting freedom as motivation to destroy and annihilate,this song showcases it as an idea that can allow positive actions and ideas. So again Pharrell is reaching out to our deepest,funky emotions.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2015, drums, freedom, funky soul, message songs, Pharrell Williams, piano, rhythm guitar, soul jazz, synthesizer, Uncategorized

People Music: The Soulful Evolution Of Sound For African America

People Music is a term Henrique and myself often use to describe message songs recorded during the soul/funk generational cycle-specifically by black artists. Political and creative liberation was a key factor in this too. It was my father,however who inspired me to write this by asking me what the most significant song was during the 50’s and 60’s civil rights movement. The most obvious choice for that was “People Get Ready” by The Impressions. Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Curtis Mayfield was an early champion for black musicians to have creative and business control of their art. And this 1965 ballad became a huge anthem for the movement as a whole.

As the 60’s progressed,the civil rights movement seeking racial equality evolved into a concept that assumed equality of person. Especially the idea that Afrocentric qualities were beautiful and must be appreciated as such. This became known as the black power movement. The completely rhythm based genre of funk developed during this time as well. As Henrique pointed out,funk continued to be the soundtrack to the black power movement well into the 1970’s. James Brown,who laid the foundation for funk, also recorded the genres earliest and most enduring anthem for racial empowerment entitled “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)”.

The 70’s funk era was chocked full of message songs. All of them reflected ideas that derived from the NOI and Black Panther Party from the mid/late 60’s that black American’s required a more positive understanding of themselves and their futures. 1974 was a year that dashed a lot of the 60’s hopes in general-especially for black Americans. Still funk and it’s tributaries through jazz,soul and rock music was at it’s strongest point. Even during the post Watergate recession. The poet/singer Gil Scott Heron,who five years earlier had given us the black power anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” offered up this 1974 song in reflection of a potent present but less certain tomorrow.

Hip-hop’s presence as a commercially successful entity wasn’t yet four years old when The Furious Five released what is very likely the beginning of what is known today as conscious rap. Musically based in the synthesizer based electro funk of the period,this song found Grandmaster Melle Mel dealing directly with the state of affairs of urban black America during the early years of the Reagan administration. The song takes the futuristic sounding electronic grooves and mixes in tales of urban decay and neglect. Of particular note is Melle Mel stating “don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/it’s like a jungle sometimes/it’s a wonder how I keep from going under”.

Though theoretically released at the end of the previous decade,Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” did some very significant things for black message songs at the head start of the 1990’s. It established hip-hop as a major archival medium for funk,in particular James Brown’s,through the use of electronic sampling. Not only that but the realization Chuck D and company had that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp” showcased an empowering message for black Generation Xers as to just how much misrepresentation black American’s had to deal with over the centuries. And also by offering them a direct call to get involved and “fight the powers that be”.

Message songs within the black community seemed to disappear (or go totally underground) during the post 9/11 years. They were replaced by either reactionary (and often racist) patriotic anthems or simply musical silence. Suddenly a couple of years ago,longtime hip-hop/soul producer and singer Pharrell Williams emerged with “Happy”. Musically it hearkened back to the stripped down soul jazz trio sound of the mid 60’s. While it’s message was very all encompassing-asking the listener to “clap your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth”,it did open the door for black American artists to deliver new political anthems in music that were even more direct.

As I write this article,Beyonce’s performance of her newest song “Foundation” at the Superbowl,a strong pro black anthem, is generating similar controversies as were bought up during the height of the Black Panther Party and the black power movement in general. So the mid/late 2010’s are seeing black American message songs leap back into life in a huge way. Even though many people today are convinced no piece of music has any power to change the world,looking back on this history in the context of what is happening right now proves otherwise. That when it comes to being black in America, musical art is always at the forefront of the political.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2010's, Curtis Mayfield, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Hip-Hop, James Brown, message music, message songs, Pharrell Willaims, Public Enemy, Sampling, Soul, soul jazz, The Furious Five, Uncategorized

Maurice White Remembered On Andresmusictalk, Part 3: “Uhuru” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio

Five years before he left to found Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White was the second drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He had succeeded the groups original drummer Isaac “Red” Holt after he’d left to form Young-Holt Unlimited in 1966. That group in turn had a huge instrumental hit with “Soulful Strut” three years after leaving Ramsey’s trio. Maurice observed that while the trio played on a lot of college campuses while he was in it, most of the audience were more in his age group than Ramsey and bassist Cleveland Eaton. In the latter period of his being part of the trio,began to envision a jazzy funk/soul sound that would appeal more to latter silent generation people.

Maurice’s final album as the drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio was 1969’s Another Voyage. For the most part,it continued in the groove and rhythm centered soul jazz the trio had pioneered throughout the 60’s. A groove that became crucial to the development of the jazz/funk genre as much as that of the Jazz Crusaders. For his part,Maurice had already developed a strong interest in Egyptology. That cultural ethic and music had also been popular with free jazz pioneers such as Sun Ra beforehand. And Maurice was intent on integrating that into Ramsey’s trio by the end of the 60’s. The result was my favorite song on this particular album entitled “Uhuru”-the Swahili word for “freedom”.

Eaton’s funky upright bass popping opens the song. It lays the groundwork for the rhythm of the song-most of which is supplied courtesy of Maurice White himself. His percussive drumming on the song is based on a slower Clyde Stubblefield style rhythm with a lot of jazzier fills on brushing cymbals and hi hat. Over that Maurice brings in the main melody on the African thumb piano known as the Kalimba. This melodic statement evolves into a thick,purely rhythmic solo as the song continues. The sound of the trios members hooting and hollering ques to one another comes together with hand claps on the final verses of the song for an extra thick groove.

When I first heard this song,it occurred to me that the melody Maurice played on Kalimba here was one which I’d heard before. That same Kalimba melody did in fact show up 14 years later on the EWF album Powerlight in 1983. It was used on the more electronic interlude of “Mizar” at the end of the albums first side on vinyl. The sound on this song,it’s title and general atmosphere showcased the beginning of Maurice White’s expression of Afrocentricity as a positive social and musical force as the 1960’s transitioned into the 70’s. On the more personal level,it was  exciting to hear the main framework of EWF’s sound begin while Maurice was the drummer in another group.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1960's, Afro Funk, Afrocentrism, Cleveland Eaton, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Egyptology, jazz funk, Kalimba, Maurice White, Ramsey Lewis, Ramsey Lewis Trio, soul jazz, Uncategorized, upright bass