Category Archives: space funk
War had an excellent creative and commercial run in the early to mid 70’s. From “Slippin’ Into Darkness” up through “Low Rider”,this LA band had a very full and interested audience. The funk/soul audience were wrapped up in them,many jazz folks admired their musicianship and the rockers enjoyed their hard driving sound. Having caught onto a similar kind of Latin funk/rock vibe of bands such as Mandrill and Santana,War completed a triad that represented the strongest end of Afro-Cuban based percussive sounds within the funk,soul and rock spectrum of music in their heyday.
By the time 1977 rolled around,the Afro-Latin sound that War had helped pioneer had become part of another sound. This was the middle of the disco era. And dance music built on the four on the floor dance beats often had this percussive style as an integral element to the rhythm. Saxophonist and flutist Charles W. Miller was murdered tragically 36 years ago. But today was the day of his birth in 1939. He was a key participant in writing a song that really helped to keep War vital as the musical tide was changing. And that song was the title track to the bands 1977 album Galaxy.
Laser-like space funk synthesizers start out the song. This serves as an instrumental wind to blow in the storm. First the light drumming,the five not bass thump and then the walk up piano. Than the 4/4 drums kick into high gear. On each vocal chorus,the band chant “it’s out of sight,it’s gone” to the tune of Miller Lee Oskar’s clarinet/harmonica unison. This pattern continues throughout a few refrains. Than the space funk synths come back in backing up tingling percussion with a full on piano walk up solo. For the finale of the song,Miller plays a solo on clarinet over the same rhythmic bed as the song fades out.
- “Galaxy” is one of my favorite War songs of all time. The song begins with a 3-4 minute segment that could be easily extended for play by disco DJ’s,with it’s insistent dance beat. Yet War’s polyrhythmic Latin funk attitude remains as hot and heavy as it always was during the 1970’s. As it appears on the album,it’s one of their most conceptually interesting. Likely inspired by one of the battle scenes from Star Wars, the space funk synthesizer orchestrating the song serve up some seriously jazzy solo by the end of the album version of the song. This makes it all out to be one of War’s funkiest moments.
Many jazz musicians made funk albums during the late 60’s and throughout the following decade. Being that this was a music based primarily in rhythm,starting with James Brown’s concept of his entire band becoming a drum,it was a wonderful new medium for melodic piano and horn players to improvise over. Herbie Hancock took a very different path than his ex boss in this area,with Miles Davis playing his horn primarily over funky vamps. Hancock took the time to create strong funk compositions that are today considered jazz/funk standards. And both musicians innovated enormously during this time with their approaches to the jazz/funk sub genre.
By the middle of the decade,Miles had gone into temporary retirement. And Herbie continued to forge ahead musically. His relationship with producer David Rubinson dated back to his arrival at Columbia. As the 70’s progressed, jazz/funk began to evolve towards what the band Brick would describe in song as dazz-short for a new subgenre called disco jazz. With the new four on the floor dance beats providing optimal opportunities for a composer as keen as Hancock’s,he allowed his musical imagination to take flight right across the dancefloor in the same way he had with earlier forms of funk. The result was his 1979 album Feet’s Don’t Fail Me Know and it’s opening number “You Bet Your Love”.
The drum and percussion rhythm laid is laid down the the Headhunters’ Bill Summers and Kansas City session ace James Gadson. Ray Obiedo’s rhythm guitar and Eddie Watkins’ phat slap bass introduces Hancock’s spacy synth orchestrations. His lead vocals on vocoder are introduced by a breathy female backup group singing the chorus. These vocals continue throughout the refrain and with Hancock on the main choruses. They also introduce the bridge of the song where Watkin’s and Obiedo again solo with Hancock’s synths playing the horn charts-plus his Fender Rhodes soloing. The song concludes with a continual repetition of the chorus with vocoder improvisations from Hancock himself.
Writer Rickey Vincent referred to Feet’s Don’t Fail Me Now as being one of the best records of 1979. Sonically and in terms of funk,I have no argument with him. This song is important for Herbie Hancock in two ways. For one,the song is structurally right out of the big band swing school. At the same time,thick and phat bass/guitar lines and percussion beef up it’s glossy space disco/funk sound. This allows for the second important aspect of this song. On it’s bridge,Hancock uses polyphonic synthesizers to simulate big band horn charts-actually his variation of the Minneapolis sound on the jazz level. That makes this a rhythmically vital and musically innovative Herbie Hancock groove.
One of the key musical inspirations that led to the creation of my music blogs was the discovery of The Sylvers. For a teenager seeking to bring the world of Star Trek and other thoughtful science fiction into reality,the fascination with the cosmic funk of Earth Wind & Fire and P-Funk held a special meaning. An often referenced story of my musical back round is that 1994 vinyl giveaway at the University of Maine. It’s where I discovered a very beat up copy of The Sylvers 1977 New Horizons album. Never heard anything about this group before,save for that they seemed to resemble the Jacksons. Only with the women in the family on board. And the album contained the extra goodie of a fan club order sheet.
The cover art showing the seven member group dancing on a spaceship shaped like their own logo was designed by Japanese illustrator Shusei Nagaoka. He had a strong back round in funk album jacket design with his work for Earth Wind & Fire, Rose Royce, Sun and George Clinton. This was a very special album for the band. It was for them what Destiny would be for the Jacksons’ a year later. All of the band members got a chance to write and produce. And Leon Sylvers III really showed his growth in this regard. The bands adult oriented funk,soul and disco oriented sound culminated for me at the end of the album with a song entitled “Star Fire”.
A peddling cymbal/hi hat solo accompanied by a high spacey synthesizer opens the song. Then the rhythm guitar kicks,along with Leon’s crunching bass and the ascending strings. The main body of the groove consists of all of these elements,plus many more. A percussive main beat keeps the rhythm hot during the refrains of the song,as the strings play melodic call and response with the bass/guitar interaction. On the choruses the horns lead into the Sylvers harmony vocals. There are two separate bridges. One continues the call and response between the strings,bass and guitar. The other features the spacey synth. This last one closes out the song with a bluesy muted trumpet solo.
Listening to this song in the context of what else I’ve heard of the Sylvers music,this is very likely the strongest jazz-funk tune they ever made. And very likely the only one. It has the harmonic feeling of swing and hard bop with the rhythmic crunch of heavy late 70’s dance funk. The presence of jazz-funk session players such as Richard Tee,Steve Gadd and Tom Scott on this song really adds instrumental might to the Sylvers’ growing abilities as composers,producers and musicians. Each time I hear this,it really brings out just how musically strong this musical family became under such strong instrumental tutelage-both during and before the time this particular song came out.
While Teena Marie’s 1983 album Robbery was a creatively strong label debut? It was not a commercial success. The sound of it might’ve been a bit to instrumentally transitional for that. The following year Prince & The Revolution had a major breakthrough with the Purple Rain soundtrack. This was a very new wave inflected album that showcased the Minneapolis Sound-basically replacing horn and string arrangements with various synthesizers. With this burgeoning sound and Teena’s talents as a multi instrumentalist? Her music had new possibilities.
While adding strong synth rock elements on her aforementioned Epic debut? Teena probably realized that her career (as a white artist advanced forward by the black community) meant she needed to understand the progression of soul/funk music with the advent of newer technology. The result was her 1984 album Starchild. Along with it’s debut single “Lovergirl”? It crossed Lady T over onto the pop charts-the one and only time she’d ever do so. Still it’s the title song of this album that personally caught my attention.
The beat gets going with a brittle,funky proto hip-hop drum machine rhythm-accompanied by Brazilian jazz styled percussive whoops and hollers. Then a mid toned electronic bass kicks into gear-accompanied by the quavering,higher pitched synthesizers playing the horn style accents. All this being emphasized by a strong rhythm guitar. On the choruses,Teena is echoed by a Vocorder singing the song’s title. On the bridge? The quavering synth plays the ancient Egyptian snake dance melody as Teena raps loosely surrounding it.
While very clearly her variation on the Minneapolis sound? The overall production of the electro/boogie funk sound is actually much cleaner. And strongly emphasizes writer Rickey Vincent’s point about how the chugging rhythm guitar survived the synthesizer based 80’s funk sound intact. Instrumentally it’s in the vein of Chaka Khan’s “This Is My Night” from the same year. Teena’s lyrics take on a classic Afro-Futurist space funk flavor-inserting sexual innuendo about “drinking from the milky way cup” as well. So it’s a very well rounded electro funk exercise.