Category Archives: Steely Dan

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Time Out Of Mind” by Grover Washington Jr.

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.

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Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Donald Fagen, drums, Grover Washington Jr., jazz funk, percussion, Saxophone, smooth jazz, Steely Dan, synthesizer, Walter Becker

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Black Cow” by Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal-born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania is one of those musicians whom I’ve been discovering a lot about within the last several years. He came into prominence at a time when a lot of younger jazz players just coming up were looking for a stylistic alternative to the be-bop oriented sound all around them. Much like Miles Davis,Jamal was a major innovator of the “cool jazz” school of the mid/late 50’s. Miles even said that Ahmad Jamal’s light touch on piano had an enormous influence on his own playing style after his sister Dorothy introduced him to Jamal’s music for the first time.

My own personal exposure to Jamal’s music didn’t come through anything like cool jazz. It came through my father in one of his mid 1990’s “here’s a jazz version of that” turns. What he played me was a jazz-funk interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by Jamal. Somehow after that,I kind of conceptualized Jamal as being a thoroughly jazz/funk based musician. When actually nothing could be further from the truth. That being said,the man did put his understated style to some sleek funk over the years. My friend Henrique introduced me to another interpretation from 1978 of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”.

Ahmad Jamal plays every melody on this song on the Clavinet. The intro,much as on the original has that direct bassy sound-accompanied by light percussion. As the drums build in,Jamal’s Clavinet tone becomes much higher for the refrain and is accompanied by a heavy drum beat and powerful funk bass line improvising every melodic change. On the choruses,the lead vocals are handled by three backing singers-one of whom is Eloise Laws. As the song progresses,these backup singers vocalize their way around Jamal’s increasingly rolling Clavinet improvisations as the song fads out.

Ahmad Jamal really does this song justice here. And not by altering too much,but rather expanding on what’s there. He upped the tempo just a bit and made it more percussive-which is about all he really changed. Instrumentally this song is a massive jazz/funk showcase for it’s present and funk’s future. The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine is responsible for the sizzling percussion while the rhythm section and vocals are arranged by future SOS Band mentor Sigidi Abdullah. In terms of a cool jazz veteran interpreting then contemporary funk smashes,Ahmad Jamal really had it locked down.

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Filed under 1970's, Ahmad Jamal, clavinet, cool jazz, Funk Bass, Hal Blaine, jazz funk, percussion, Sigidi Abdullah, Steely Dan

Anatomy of THE Groove: “On The Case” by Alphonso Johnson

Alphonso Johnson seems to me as a bassist whose contributions to the iconic fusion band Weather Report are rather under heralded. That could be because he was sandwiched in between their original bass player Miroslav Vitous and of course Jaco Pastorious. As a session man,he joined up with Billy Cobham on and off for many years. He also had stints back up Genesis/Phil Collins on multiple occasions as well playing on former LTD lead singer Jeffrey Osborne’s 1982 solo debut. The reason I personally tend to view Johnson as a rather obscure artist is because I only found out that he even had a solo career at all just under a decade ago. And have the feeling I may not be the only one.

One of the greatest things to happen in the post millennium internet age is the advent of two things: reissue record labels and YouTube. If it weren’t for those two things, this blog would be a lot different than it is. In 1976-1977 during his years with Cobham,Alphonso Johnson recorded three solo albums on the Epic label. These featured the backing of some of the major fusion instrumentalists of the time-all touched by the music of Alphonso in some kind of way. I have two on vinyl,since the CD versions were difficult to locate upon going out of print. Only his second album Moonshadows was something I was able to locate on CD. And one song that stood out on it for me was “On The Case”.

Alphonso starts off with a shuffling bass solo that has a bluesy,up-scaling melody that is very similar in tone to the electric piano solo on Steely Dan’s ” Black Friday”. Drummer Narada Michael Walden keeps that shuffle going while Dawilli Conga adds a counter melody on electric piano. Separated by progressive fusion bursts of intense drums, Alphonso’s solos expand along with the electric piano into fuzz toned psychedelia. On the second refrain,Lee Ritenour plays a mid toned rhythm guitar solo. This grows to a heavier intensity with the solo Lee takes on the third and final refrain of the song. Conga’s electric piano leads the shuffling rhythm to the songs fade out.

This particular song always stuck out to me with how much it finds the funk in the blues and the blues when it rocks. The rhythmic base of the song is in a strong groove-with Narada staying on the one primarily through the use of hi hat. And all of the musicians understanding of the jazz/rock fusion style comes out here as well. Alphonso’s funkiness on the bass gives it all a phat center that keeps the focus consistent.  I’ve started to realize that rock ‘n’ roll is often a far simpler musical form than it might like itself to be. Yet with the combination of jazz harmonies and electric funk within the fusion genre,songs like this found a great middle ground in which to rock up the funk.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Alphonso Johnson, bass guitar, Blues, Epic Records, jazz funk, jazz fusion, Lee Ritenour, Narada Michael Walden, Psychedelia, rock 'n' roll, Steely Dan, Uncategorized, YouTube

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mama Coco” by Gino Vannelli

During the mid to late 1970’s, the Montreal native Gino Vannelli was Canada’s musical answer to Steely Dan basically. With a strongly grooving progressive jazz sound in tow, Gino and his keyboardist brother Joe had signed their group to Herb Alpert’s A&M Records about a decade into the labels inception. It was also time when new record labels were far more open to more creatively minded artists. So Gino and company were able to really stretch out in terms of making music that was both instrumentally meaningful and commercially successful.

I personally discovered Gino’s music about 8-9 years ago. And quite by accident, as it came from a music recommendation based on my own browsing habits on Amazon.com. It wasn’t long before I was ordering used copies of his 70’s albums on CD from there. One that made quite an impact on me was his third album from 1975 entitled Storm At Sunup. It was a concept album dealing with a male 20 something coming of age during the post 60’s sexual revolution. The second song on the album called “Mama Coco” was the one which really blew me away!

A metallic synthesizer bursts into a mix of Afro-funk percussion accompanied by electronics playing a classical opera melodic theme. It drives right into a righteous rhythm with round,burbling Moog bass and Fender Rhodes electric piano playing the songs bluesy melody. On the refrains,one of which features a deep vocalese on the talk box, the song suddenly goes into a swinging Brazilian jazz mode before returning to the original chorus. Another refrain hard rocking bridge with a screaming guitar and electric piano solo before ebbing out.

In terms of funk, this song covers all the bases beautifully. It has the blend of European classical and soulful modern electronics, the Afrocentric jazzy instrumental attitude as well as the progressive rock arrangements of the time. It’s a wonderful groove stew. Thematically Gino is wittily making a point about the exoticism black women can provide in the mind of a free and single young white men. Even pointing out to Mama Coco that he’s “just a male Caucasian/I’m virgin to your kind”. It’s one of many examples of fine funk Gino threw down in this era.

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Filed under 1970's, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afrocentrism, Amazon.com, bass synthesizer, Brazilian Jazz, Canada, concept albums, electric piano, Fender Rhodes, Gino Vannelli, Herb Alpert, jazz funk, Montreal, Moog, percussion, sexual revolution, Steely Dan, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 5/8/2015: “Another Trippy Day” by Chicago

It’s been over a year since I first heard the song being discussed here. Chicago (once known as Chicago Transit Authority) have reveled in the musicality which made them one of the most popular and acclaimed bands of the 1970’s. Their channeling of melodic pop song craft along with progressive jazz and soul instrumentation has made them a model for many instrumentally inclined bands since their heyday.

In a similar manner to Earth Wind & Fire,with whom they toured about a decade ago now,and how are about to go on the road again with the Heart & Soul tour? Founding members such as trumpeter Lee Loughnane,trombonist James Pankow,sax and flute man Walter Parazaider along with the singer/songwriter Robert Lamm have continued to keep the band going with new members and studio albums every so often. “Another Trippy Day”,presented as a bonus song on last years Chicago Now-XXXVI,stood out for me personally as a shining example of why this band is still so incredibly vital musically.

A digital percussion sound opens the song before two round,spacey synthesizers play major/minor chords before the trumpet plays a bright and melodic solo. That’s when the the body of the song kicks in. It’s all about a a stomping, funkified beat. A bluesy sound slap bass accents each rhythmic exchange. All with that spacey synth,wah wah guitar and muted trumpet weaving in and out. On the choruses,all of these elements thicken up into melodic unison. A refrain starts out with an electronic symphony of synthesized sound before a full melodic horn chart,following by a pulsing drum,slap bass,synth duet before the chorus fades the song right out.

For me this song is an excellent example of cleanly produced,modern day West Coast style funky soul.  The song is defined by funk. That slow,stomping beat that has the average rhythm of the human walking pattern. Lamm takes this setting and lyrically explores the romanticism of the urban landscape-with allusions to “a hint of jazz and lovers embrace”. This song also evokes it’s strong California vibe that stands it’s own with the sassy and sweet jazz voicings of Becker/Fagen compositions with Steely Dan. And a welcomed jazzy pop/funk urban contemporary sound for the modern age.

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Filed under 2014, Chicago, Donald Fagen, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Pankow, Jazz-Funk, Lee Loughnane, Robert Lamm, slap bass, Steely Dan, synthesizer, trumpet, wah wah guitar, Walter Becker, Walter Parazaider, West Coast

Anatomy of THE Groove 3/20/2015: “You Gotta Love The Life” by Melissa Manchester

With now over four decades in the music business? Melissa Manchester has taken her soulfully theatrical wail of a voice and heavy melodicism as a songwriter from the singer/songwriter,blue eyed soul,new wave and synth pop genres of music. Since she comes from the pop music scene,having had her biggest hit album produced by one time Marvin Gaye producer and fine singer/songwriter in his own right Leon Ware? It’s no surprise that through it all,Manchester would maintain a strong jazziness about her sound as well.

After a decade as an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton musical school,Manchester was encouraged by some of her students to independently raise money for a new album she wanted to record. The album was released in February of 2015 along with a series of club dates to promote it,including a guest appearance on Tavis Smiley’s talk show on PBS. Including a bevy of powerful guests,including the the late Joe Sample,Bronx native Manchester’s title song to her brand new album You Gotta Love The Life really bought her back with a serious musical bang!

Starting off with a persistent kick drum from Mister Abraham Laboriel,the horn section of Tom Evans.Steve Baxter and arranger/trumpet/flugelhorn player Lee Thornburg make a serious rapid fire funky horn proclamation before a groove assisted ably by the bluesy piano of John Proulax,Hammond organ player Steve Welch-all led along by the percussion of Lenny Castro on a pumping dance floor friendly jazzy funk rhythm. On the bridge the rhythm,the piano breaks down to a cymbal based beat after which guitarist Peter Hume takes a fiery jazz/rock solo. After this Manchester’s toughly vocalized chorus kicks right back in and stays there until it comes right into the end with the songs title frankly sung.

With a guest of crackerjack musicians along with backup singers Vangie Gunn and Susan Holder? This song is of the sort that most professional musicians would want to begin their album with. The melody is bold,the rhythm is righteous and the band are absolutely on fire along with the performance of Manchester herself. She sings about devotion to the love of creating and performing music,even through all of the outside struggles that are put upon artists. Stating in the end that it’s all worthwhile since “you’ve gotta love the life”. The uptempo,hard horn packed jazzy funk vibe and the style of choruses,instrumental harmonies and rhythms are also right out of the Crusaders/Stuff/Steely Dan school as well-which also helps matters for the lover of a good groove. An excellent way for Melissa Manchester to launch her comeback album!

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Filed under Abraham Laboriel, Bronx, Jazz, Jazz-Funk, Joe Sample, John Proulax, Lee Thromburg, Lenny Castro, Leon Ware, Melissa Manchester, PBS, Steely Dan, Steve Baxter, Steve Welch, Stuff, Susan Holder, The Crusaders, Tom Evans, USC Thornton, Vangie Gunn