Bob James is actually an artist whom I discovered within the last decade and a half. A Missouri native whose music was informed by (and on) the city of New York,his sound drew a great deal of inspiration of theatrical Broadway musicals and film scores. This goes into James’ talents as a pianist,composer and arranger. His jazz bass and embrace of the 70’s funk sound led him to being one of the progenitors of the production style referred to as smooth jazz. His solo career has carried on for over four decades. And he was also a founding member of the smooth jazz group Fourplay.
It was actually due to another conversation with my parents that got me into first hearing Bob James music. The question posed to them was that,as a choreographer,had my mother ever done a piece based on a popular song. While the exact information was somewhat vague,she did remember that sometime in 1976 she had heard the Bob James song “Westchester Lady”. And something about it’s progression made it sound like it would be a good song for all the members of her troupe to choreograph as a group piece. So today,I’m going to endeavor to overview this song on a musical level.
Harvey Mason’s hi hat drum swing hugs Will Lee’s upscaling 7 note bass line on the intro,as Hugh McCracken’s mutron filtered electric guitar rhythmically plucks away. This is the entire rhythmic base of the entire song. The main melody of the song finds James’ electric piano playing a very riff filled with blue notes. That’s when the strings come in-at first playing along with the bass line. On the choruses,a huge horn ensemble comes in playing a very cinematic melody-accompanied by ringing bell like percussion along with the sweeping strings that grow in intensity.
The second refrain of the song features a bluesy sax solo from Grover Washington Jr. as the main instrumental part. The second chorus of string actually extends for a much longer time-adding more fluttering violins on the second turn of it. On the final refrain of the song,James’ electric piano and Eric Gale’s guitar play some bluesy call and response solos duets with the darting horn charts. As this bridge continues,their playing grows more intense and dramatic. Then the song simply goes back into the quiet groove of the first refrain as it proceeds to fade out entirely.
Considering the emergence of Isaac Hayes and Barry White during the first half of the 1970’s,it was no surprise that Bob James and the productions he did at CTI and on his forthcoming solo career would become part of the evolving jazz/funk fusion genre. The nature of this groove,with funkiness being the supporting element and the orchestration accenting it,indeed makes it ideal for a contemporary modern dance piece of it’s day for an ensemble of dancers. Each musician brings something important to this song’s funky dramatics. And that’s what brings this instrumentally danceable funk to life.
Filed under 1970's, Bob James, choreography, cinematic soul, drums, electric piano, Eric Gale, Funk Bass, Grover Washington Jr., Harvey Mason, horns, Hugh McCracken, jazz funk, New York, rhythm guitar, strings, Uncategorized, Will Lee
Chaka Khan’s very musical essence could be summed up through jazz. It was listening to Billie Holiday growing up in a family of visual artists that inspired her whole vocal approach. As a late 60’s counter culturally inclined teenager,she became involved with organizations such as the Black Panthers as well as Affro Arts out of her native Chicago. She encountered folks who’d later be members of both Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Earth Wind & Fire through Affro Arts. And this was all before she teamed up with a band known as Ask Rufus,and went on to enormous success as a leader singer and eventually a solo artist. So from jazz to rock to funk,Chaka never strayed from what inspired her.
Now in my late teens,there was one piece of vinyl of Chaka’s that I suppose would be referred to as a grail by the modern vinyl collecting community. It was her self titled 1982 album. While the least commercially potent of her early/mid 80’s Warner Bros. albums produced by Arif Mardin,it was known as being among the most unique and funkiest of her solo records.I personally found the vinyl in Boston. Eventually I managed to purchase the rare CD import offline. The album itself is a masterpiece of brittle yet cinematic electro funk. Chaka’s solo albums generally contained at least one musical tribute to her love for jazz. And on here it was perhaps her most defining one in”Be Bop Medley”.
A powerful drum kicks off with Chaka’s screaming vocalese before a chanking rhythm guitar strums along. A Vocoder kicks into a sturdy 4/4 dance rhythm with a synth bass scaling down. That’s the rhythmic element linking each part of the medley. The Hot House part of it has a metallic synth playing the chordal pattern whereas a Arabic style Fender Rhodes solo segues into “East Of Suez” along with some spirited percussion. An electric sitar begins the frantic synth bass take on Epistrophy whereas Yardbird Suite and has Chaka duetting with the Vocorder. Con Alma slows the song briefly to a swinging ballad tempo as a sax led Giant Steps finds Chaka scatting her way out of the song.
Having listened to this particular song over and over again for fourteen years now,this is one of the most instrumentally intricate and futurist examples of jazz/funk in the 80’s. It showcases once and for all that the electro funk movement did not represent a great to the funk genre. As Miles Davis-later a friend and collaborator of Chaka’s might’ve said, all quality music needs is the best caliber of instrumentalists. Steve Ferrone,Will Lee,Hiram Bullock and especially Robbie Buchanan’s rhythmic synth bass absolutely burn on this song musically. Plus her jumps from melody,harmony to chordal based singing-changing pitch and speed on a whim,make this perhaps Chaka’s most defining solo number.
Another significant musical element to this is how Chaka and the musicians playing with her on this showcase how much the instrumental innovations of be bop carry over into the funk era. It’s a stripped down,synthesizer derived naked funk that provides the main groove of this song that’s present throughout. It protects the beat much as Max Roach might’ve with Charlie Parker. Showcasing the evolution of bop from Bird,Dizzy and Monk on through John Coltrane is accomplished here by Chaka’s lead voice being the horn like voice,and her backups being much like string orchestrations. So also on a purely musical level,this paved the way for a possible whole new level of funk for the early 80’s.
Filed under 1980's, Arif Mardin, be bop, Chaka Khan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, drums, electro funk, Fender Rhodes, Hiram Bullock, Jazz, jazz funk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, Saxophone, scat singing, Steve Ferrone, synth bass, Thelonious Monk, Uncategorized, Warner Bros., Will Lee