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.
Filed under 1970's, Charles W. Miller, disco funk, Funk Bass, Galaxy, jazz funk, Latin Funk, Lee Oskar, percussion, piano, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizers, War
Lee Oskar had been a major part of the band War (now known as the Lowrider Band) during their entire run. Aside from Stevie Wonder,he was one of a few funk based artists who emphasized melodic harmonica as a key part of that bands diverse musical repertoire. During 1976,Oskar took a break from War to release a self titled solo album. He had a hit from this record called “BLT”,and it was all successful enough to garner him a solo career of his own coinciding with War’s ongoing career in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Today he’s a renowned player in musicians circles. And he has parlayed his musicianship into other creatively minded ventures over the years.
Two things I didn’t know about him until recently represent these ventures. Henrique Hopkins informed me about Oskar’s line of custom harmonica’s for sale. Starting in 1983,Lee Oskar Harmonica (the company name) has been manufacturing harmonica’s suited for different Western and pan ethnic musical genres. In a manner similar to Joni Mitchell,Oskar is a fine painter with a vivid and colorful way with the paint brush from what I’ve seen. His rich,melodic and soulful approach to his craft came to light on a song from his 1981 solo record entitled My Road,Our Road. It was an extended number that was part of the album title itself entitled “Our Road”.
A sweeping string orchestration begins and ends the song-as a hot horn chart blasts into the main groove. This main groove has War member Harold Brown’s slow,deep in the clave drumming-with Lonnie Jordan’s timbales and Abraham Laboriel’s phat slap bass. At first Oskar duets with the synthesizer of Barnaby Finch. On the second refrain,Gary Grant and Pat Rizzo blows out loud (and somewhat discordant) jazz trumpet and sax solos. On the third chorus,hand claps and backup singers all join in for the title chorus. Everything quiets down midway-as the final half of the song focuses on Oskar’s solo upfront-with the ringing,bell like percussion of Airto Moreira and the vocals of his wife Flora Purim.
Produced by The Family Stone’s drummer Greg Errico,featured on percussion on this song as well,something about this song is very otherworldly. With a handful of it’s members aboard,this is still for all intents and purposes a War song. It has the bands signature bluesy Latin funk throughout it all. For the first half,it drives really hard. On the second,it becomes a more ethereal experience-with Airto and Flora’s Afro-Latin percussion and shamanistic vocal chanting providing a meaningful spiritual vibe. With the slap bass,the Brazilian percussive flavor as well as the blending of dreaminess and reality,this is some of the deepest instrumental funk of the early 80’s.
Filed under 1980's, Abraham Laboriel, Airto Moreira, Barnaby Finch, Brazilian Jazz, clave, drums, Flora Purim, Gary grant, Greg Errico, harmonica, Harold Brown, horns, jazz funk, Lee Oskar, Lonnie Jordan, Pat Rizzo, percussion, Saxophone, slap bass, strings, synthesizer, trumpet, Uncategorized, War
In recent years its come to my knowledge that during the late 1990’s,War was splintered apart due to the fact that many of the original members wished to separate from their manager. And lead singer/multi instrumentalist Lonnie Jordan wished to remain. In the end it would up in a fashion: Lonnie and his new band maintained the War name while the original members began to tour as the Lowrider Band. So people looked up,and for all intents and purposes there were two War’s out there. And on the road pretty consistently. Sadly many of their admirers became bitterly disappointed at the supposed legal betrayal between Jordan and his former band mates-often citing that,since its instrumentalists who generally make or break singers in funk bands,that this was all an example of greedy committee thinking. Not even to mention Jordan’s own instrumental abilities. All of this of course occurring during what I refer to as an often bitter credibility war within the music industry as a whole.
Its only now that War have re-emerged with a new album that I had no idea was even coming until less than a month ago. It is packaged as a double album with their original Greatest Hits album-a long hoped for compilation for War admirers on CD. Many of the original bands’ supporters could interpret this as insult added to injury. But for me it represents equal time. And I refuse to get in the middle of the Lonnie Jordan/War schism which,I personally feel,was motivated largely by shifty and ear whispering lawyers anyhow. What matters to me is the music. And on that level there is much to take in here.
“That L.A. Sunshine” starts out the album with that Afro/Latin/Reggae type rhythmic pop bump that has the same type of bright beats and melodic flavor of War in their mid 1970’s prime. “Mamacita” is another type of sprightly groove that has a salsa/rock type flavor with a beeping,Clavinet type keyboard and featuring a guitar solo from Joe Walsh along with the brassy participation of the iconic Tower Of Power horns. “It’s Our Right/Funky Tonk” is an exciting early 70’s James Brown type slow grinding funk number (with a contemporary production twist),which by the end features a piano solo from Jordan inspired directly from The Godfather’s Sex Machine.
“Just Like Us” is a sweet,acoustically textured soul mambo type number while “Inspiration” throws down a rocking wah-wah powered psychedelic soul/funk groove where Lonnie personally thanks fans of War (in any configuration) for sticking by them over the years. “Scream Stream” musically and lyrically basically picks up where 1972’s “The Cisco Kid” left off-providing a complete musical continuity with War between what they did 42 years ago all the way up to today. “This Funky Music” is a strong,declarative statement of the vitality inside of the funk era music of which War were a huge participant-fusing together the the idea of needing to “dance off their frustrations” with an instrumental sound that has Prince’s spare late 80’s funk sound very much in mind. Its one of my favorites here. “Outer Space” sounds very much like an orchestral modern hip-hop/soul type number with the lush cinematic harmonies of War taking high presidents.
A retooling of Edwin Star’s huge Motown hit with “War/War After War (A Soldiers Story)” showcases a half sung spoken narrative illustrating themes similar to what Stevie Wonder focused in on with his Front Line-difference being its a more contemporary setting of a disabled veteran returning from the Iraq war to face unemployment and hardship. The presence of the USC Trojan Marching Band really adds instrumental tonality to the concept as well. The industrial soundscape of “Bounce” and the theatrical arena sounds of “Everything” embrace the mid/late 90’s alternative rock style (ironically of the era in which War were absent as a recording entity) which aren’t bad but don’t mesh too well with War’s thematic approach to me. “It’s My Life” takes a more strident approach to contemporary funk/rock with a strangely self focused lyrical message while a bonus track of “That L.A Sunshine”,featuring comical inserts from Cheech And Chong rounds out the album.
Overall this album really embodies the spirit of war-whoever happens to be credited with that name at any given time. A few songs even feature some contemporary touches such as the rapping of LA Flats,whose apparent East LA style meshes well with the bands flavors. Mainly they’ve kept their “afrolatinfunkadelic stew” sound very much intact here. And the couple of songs that embrace the darker side of the alternative rock sound are at least very dramatic and emotional. War’s colorful sound has always represented a unique sort of pan cultural American hybrid. They did for LA what Santana and Sly & The Family Stone did for the bay area. And with this quality album? I am hoping it’ll be well before two decades before the band deliver more new grooves and messages!
Originally Written Today
*Here is a link to my original Amazon.com review. Please like and comment on that review as well. Thank you!