Bettye LaVette-Thankful ‘N Thoughtful: 2012

Bettye LaVette’s career is an example how it often seems that soul, in the context of a genre of music, refers mainly to a type of singing and playing.  You can have the right singing,the right playing and somehow it just isn’t quite soul. It’s very much a literal term. Very much an individual conception. LaVette here has a new book out,and one knows she has a lot of stories to tell. But I know two things for sure: her recording career was stalled for decades. And he has a reputation for being a headstrong personality with an enormous sense of conviction in the tradition of all the greats in the genre.

This album,celebrating her half century in the “biz” is musically dedicated to all the music that inspired her along the way. For starters,this album is extraordinarily funkified. In a very deep, southern way too-filled with heavily revered drums, electric guitar, bass and keyboards. Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken”, “I’m Not The One”, “The More I Search )The More I Die”, “Fair Enough” and “Time Will Do The Talking” all showcase this predominantly. Her take on “Dirty Old Town” seems to almost illustrate her own attitude and is presented here in two versions,the later longer and far more spare.

The rhythm goes up on the very heavily funky “I’m Tired”, and actually goes very much the opposite direction on the night time bluesy soul of “Crazy” and “Yesterday Is Here”. Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” gets a countrified treatment whereas Sly’s title song goes more to the gospel roots of the song. One appealing thing about LaVette right off the bat is that,as an interpretive singer,she never veers from altering the song lyrics in certain ways to personalize it, have it make more sense that she’s singing them.

On the other hand all the songs selected for thing album already make sense in terms of her doing them. And considering that this is the first full length Bettye LaVette album I’ve ever heard? The fact that comes out so strongly even for a relative newcomer (such as myself ) speaks volumes for her ability to grab the attention of the largely uninitiated. Also it helps if one is a music lover getting into more interpretive singers at a given time anyway as I am at this point. Even still the overall effect I get from this is that I’d never have known they weren’t originals given her take on them.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Bettye LaVette

88 On The Longplay: ‘Giving You The Best That I Got’ by Anita Baker

Anita Baker’s music always felt (to my childhood self ) like what it might’ve been like to be an adult. The music and lyrics came off as so learned and experienced in life. This is one of the key qualities of Baker’s music that I share a common interest in with my friend Henrique. Another quality that Baker’s 1988 album Giving You The Best That I Got is that it presents a relatively small group of musicians. With a sound that’s immaculately produced and compositionally strong all at once. As the follow up to the blockbuster album Rapture this album often suffered from unfair comparisons.

After all, when you have an album like that? Its usually a nearly impossible act to follow. Now I’ve been hearing this album in one way or another since the day it came out? I have to say that this album is packed with great songs and as always Anita’s distinctive voice. Between the styles of Sarah Vaughn, and several years later with Toni Braxton, has any female vocalist been able to almost instrumentally work their way around a song the way Anita does on songs such as “Priceless” and the title cut.  These are vital R&B/jazz compositions.

These compositions are to strong grooves Anita made famous beforehand. But on tracks like “Rules”, the barrier that developed between jazz and R&B melted right away. The instrumental  sound of these songs are both concise and elegantly produced. And that’s no small feat to accomplish. Michael J. Powell, founder of Baker’s former band Chapter 8, did a masterful job in that regard for this album. Critic/writer Nelson George described the kind of music Anita Baker specialized in as “retro nouveau” in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues. And I suppose it fits as well as any.

Songs such as “Lead Me Into Love”,”Good Love”,”Just Because”,”Good Enough” and “You Belong To Me” assure this album has no filler at all. The level of songwriting consistency is maintained throughout every one of these songs. Elektra was really and sound popping with some of the best fusions of jazz-pop, quiet storm and R&B/funk during the course of the 80’s. That tends to be what happens when musicians such as Omar Hakim, Nathan East and the late George Duke get together with a talent like Baker’s.  And if that period of music was a living being? It should be grateful to have had Anita Baker around.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anita Baker

Hugh Masekela 1939-2018: “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” (1984)

Hugh Masekela’s passing, occurring after suffering for a time with prostate cancer, reminded me of what an vital musical figure Masekela was to Apartheid era South Africa. Because of the racist political environment afflicting America at the moment, it felt appropriate to talk about Masekela’s musical life shortly after it all came to an end for him. He was born in Kwa-Guqa Township, the son of a health inspector and a social worker. He began playing piano as a child, but switched to the trumpet having been inspired by seeing the America film The Young Man With The Horn.

Masekela’s life was always politically enshrined. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston-anti-apartheid chaplain at the St. Peter’s Secondary School. From his time in Johannesburg’s “native” Municipal Brass Band  through his time with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in 1956, Masekela’s music became reflected of the inhumanity (and resulting struggles) of black South African’s under the racist system of Apartheid. He and his future wife Miriam Mekeba also toured the UK together as part of South Africa’s first blockbuster theatrical success King Kong.

By the 60’s he was recording and touring as a leader-with he and Mekeba even giving sanctuary to now radically anti apartheid exchange students. And of course having a major crossover hit instrumental with “Grazing In The Grass” on the international stage in 1968. As a flugelhornist and cornetist, his African jazz sound evolved along with the funk and disco eras to come. Reconnecting with many South African musicians in the early to mid 80’s, one song he recorded in 1984 was called “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby”. It was re recorded later. But for this occasion, I wanted to take about its original version.

Bongani Nxele’s in the pocket drums are assisted by what was likely Masekela playing the majority of the other instruments. The core if it consists of fast paced percussion and laser like synth bass stabs-all before a higher pitched synth pad takes over. Then Banjo Mosele’s rhythm guitar adds rhythmic heft. On the chorus, a quartet of female backup singers accompany Masekela’s horn. On the bridge, that horn solo takes on an echoing psychedelic affect-with a proto house music piano. Starting out the songs fading chorus, Masekela himself provides a rap before the backup singers reprise that chorus.

What brings this mix of the original “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” to life for me is what it meant for the African musical spectrum during the mid 80’s. In its original form, this is a song that represents an Afrocentric variation on the synth pop/new wave variety of dance/funk that was already permeating the clubs of London (which Masekela had already dealt with in the 60’s) as well as the US. Masekela’s jazzy touches and nod to hip-hop with his activist style rapping of ” you’re a winner when you beat the game” give “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” a strong musical and political relevance from its time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hugh Masekela

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Save Your Love (For #1)” by Rene & Angela

Angela Winbush has had an astounding musical journey. Its started in churches in her native St. Louis.  After a time singing to finance architectural studies, she began studying  with gospel legend Richard Smallwood. It was from there to stints with Mtume and Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove. That proved a training ground for Winbush’s talents at songwriting/composition-as well as producing and arranging. She teamed up with fellow singer/producer Rene Moore, the brother of Rufus’s bassist Bobby Watson. The duo recorded four albums together between 1980 and 1985 before perusing solo careers.

Before the (eventually) legal recriminations that broke the duo up, Rene and Angela also embarked on a career of writing/producing for other female talent. Namely the first four songs on Janet Jackson’s self titled debut album in 1982. The duo’s final album, 1985’s  Street Called Desire is their post popular. And features contributions from Quincy Jones alumni in producer Bruce Swedien and Paulinho Da Costa. As well as Jeff Lorber and the majority of Rufus. The albums opening song is one of my favorites on the album. Its entitled “Save Your Love (For #1)”.

An industrial sounding orchestral synth riser opens up the song-just before its basic groove kicks into heavy gear. That groove is based around a brittle 808 drum machine-with ringing cowbell effects. Not to mention guest star Kurtis Blow rapping the chorus. Along with a 3 note synth bass line and pulsing, razor like synthesizer. This makes up most of both the refrains and choruses of the song-with Winbush and Moore’s vocal exchanges making up for most of the melody.  On that chorus,  Da Costa’s percussion and some gigantic swelling synths take over before the song fades out on an extended chorus.

“Save Your Love (For #1)” is naked funk of the most transitional kind. Its sound anticipates the stripped down, beat based sound of second generation recorded hip-hop. While in terms of the rhythm, it maintains a heavy freestyle funk ethic that’s tonally sharp and cutting. Of the two voices, Winbush delivers the husky soul vocals. While Moore comes at it from the higher pitched, romantic croon. On the musical, vocal and conceptual level, “Save Your Love (For #1)” brings together different approaches to soul and funk that make its very approach fairly unique and special.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Rene & Angela

88 On The Longplay: ‘Stronger Than Pride’ by Sade

Sade’s first two albums Diamond Life and Promise were both enormous successes. Their respective hits being all over the place-that former album even ending up represented on a breakfast cereal premium sticker I had growing up. It was hard to believe that the band themselves-including the regal beauty of their lead singer Sade Adu herself, were very much unlike most hit musicians of their time period. They were straight out of the same UK jazz/funk scene that had spawned Loose Ends, Incognito, Level 42 and Spandau Ballet.

Despite succeeding on a level that perhaps exceeded the best that any of their contemporaries did, Sade always kept themselves just a little bit behind their own public face. Which was almost totally related to their music. And their music videos with a strong cinematic scope and stylish live performances. They had always possessed a very distinctive quality about their music-almost to the point where they deserved a genre all their own. When this third album, and final of their first decade, arrived in 1988 I have vivid memories of Sade albums somehow being an event.

Over the years I’ve actually had to do much growing into this album-somewhat like a pair of shoes that were just a tad too big for me. “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” itself is nothing like any Sade song I’d ever heard up to that point. There is a wide, empty void in the middle of the songs rhythm-extremely subtle percussion with only a stronger little heartbeat on the choruses. With its atmospheric,ethereal keyboards and sustaining melody it very much encompasses the feeling of a humid, sensuous encounter. Maybe even a mildly distant one at that.

Of course the rhythm is entirely absent from “I Never Thought I’d See The Day”,which flows right along with its moody melody as far as it can take it. “Paradise”,”Nothing Can Come Between Us”,”Keep Looking” and the closing instrumental “Siempre Hay Esperanza” all embody this grooving, heavily stripped down funk sound that has since become most strongly associated with Sade. They are filled with heavy percussion and some of the fattest and locked down bass lines Paul S. Denman has ever thrown down. And he’s thrown down many.

“Turn My Back On You” is a particular favorite of mine-built on a strong,subtle variation of the James Brown-like bass/guitar interaction following each vocal and instrumental chorus. “Haunt Me” is a pretty Flamenco flavored Spanish guitar ballad while “Clean Heart” takes a jazzier pop mid tempo ballad cue-a bit like a more stripped bare variation of some of the music on their debut. When I first heard this album? I didn’t really understand it. Though relatively intelligent by the age of 8, this album contains more adult oriented outlooks on romance. And melodies that were somewhat harder to hum.

During my earliest years of adulthood, I rediscovered this album By that time of course having absorbed a lot of Prince, Crusaders, Miles Davis and an entire myriad of jazz/Afro/Funk hybrids. So one day I found this album on CD,with my father having had the cassette for years and listened to it-as some point near or around the summer of 2003. All of a sudden this album leaped out at me in a way that it never had before. While present this album doesn’t focus in on the horns and piano as much as the first two Sade albums.

The entire album is very much oriented around a very spare type of funk. It was a groove which emphasized Sade’s singing as well as bringing the bass/guitar accents more out front. What I didn’t realize at the time was this Sade were laying the groundwork for all the music they’ve since created on this particular. And for the most part? That hasn’t been a bad thing at all. So in the context of where this took Sade rather than in comparison to what came before,this album is a resounding,romantic and hard grooving success.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sade

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Saturday Night” by Bobby Broom

Bobby Broom’s musical career has always, in some way, been tied into musical education. Born in Harlem in 1961, he went onto study jazz guitar with local player Jimmy Carter. He then went onto gigs with musicians such as Charlie Parker alumni Al Haig. After his university education at Berkeley, he began a stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, probably the ultimate training ground there was in jazz at that time. As well as maintaining a recording career, the now 57 year old Broom is also Director of African American Music at Studies at the University Of Hartford, Connecticut.

One of Broom’s childhood heroes was George Benson. Both physically and stylistically, that’s how he presented himself on his 1981 GRP/Arista debut Clean Sweep. In a career that would find him playing with both Sonny Rollins in the 80’s and even guesting on R.Kelly’s 12 Play album in the 90’s, Broom’s solo debut found his music in a jazz/funk plus a one jazz standard format similar to Bernard Wright’s ‘Nard album of the same vintage. Having listened to it, the album has no weak songs. And is generally instrumental. One of my favorite funk numbers on the album is called “Saturday Night”.

Marcus Miller walks right up to Buddy Williams’ funkified drums on the intro-settling into a seven note bass run as percussionist Crusher Bennett joins in on the congas. Broom’s very Benson like melodic guitar solos-both on the refrains and choral sequences, are accented by Terry Burrus Fender Rhodes textures and acoustic piano walks. The backup vocals of Lori-Ann Velez, Omar Hakim, Cliff Branch and Poogie Bell provide a party atmosphere in the back round of the entire song. After the drums kick up a notch for Broom’s extended solo on the bridge, the song fades out on an extended chorus.

“Saturday Night” is one of the finest electric guitar centered jazz funk grooves of the early 80’s that I’ve heard. Probably coming in right in the same league as George Benson’s “Off Broadway”. Marcus Miller both played and arranged the tune. And the conversational vocals and chants of Broom and the backup singers involved really evoke the atmosphere of a hip dance party of that period. As my friend Henrique pointed out, its also probably of the last generation of jazz funk that was not synthesizer based. And that makes “Saturday Night” the type of groove that spans an evolution within jazz/funk.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Bobby Broom

’88 On The Long Play: ‘Festival’ by Lee Ritenour

From the late 70’s onward, Lee Ritenour had focused primarily on developing his music in somewhat more of a jazz-rock fusion context. While it seemed that  music was starting to fade into a much softer sound, Rit managed to reflect that with a light instrumental touch that somehow managed to embrace great rhythmic and melodic strength to it. He became very in demand as a session guitar player too. Nearly a decade following his Rio album, Lee Ritenour makes a return to the music world playing solely the acoustic guitar.

And of course, this took him right back to the Brazilian music he never lost his affinity for. This album is home to two urban funk numbers in the opener “Night Rhythms” and “Rio Soul”. Neither blast you over the head with a hard groove,but present themselves as “fine wine”  type jazz-funk grooves of the era. It’s Marcus Miller, Omar Hakim and Anthony Jackson from NYC that bring these to life as well. The Brazilian musicians have a chance to really catch fire on the rich samba of “Latin Lovers” which, much like the deeply rhythmic “Odile, Odila” features Brazilian scat singer Joao Bosco.

On the Latin soul of “Linda”,another vocalist Caetano Veloso sings the lead in Portuguese. “Humana”,”New York/Brazil” and the closer “The Inner Look” all focus in on the melodic end of Rit’s acoustic playing. I’ve heard it said in reference to Earth Wind & Fire that their music is sweet as funk can be. Lee Ritenour’s music reflects a similar impulse as he too has been heavily influenced throughout his career by the Brazilian musical bug. And again,he’s been able to zero in on that crucial spot in his musicianship where he can play softly and melodically while at the same time reflecting a hard driving rhythmic groove.

This same musical ethic applies to the instrumental powers of the other musicians playing with him. Also by playing also as accompaniment to different types of vocalists-both from New York, Brazil and LA he was at least able to bring the sometimes divergent musical interests of northern,western and southern America together by virtue of the musical kinsman ship of the personal involved. And the end result is a resounding success.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lee Ritenour

Anatomy Of 1988: “Shanghai Confidential” by Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen is turning 70 today. It has only been a short while since his partner in Steely Dan, one Mister Walter Becker, passed away. And it just occurred to me what a revival Fagen/Steely Dan’s music began to have during 1988. After five or six years of semi retirement, and only occasionally writing/producing for other acts, Fagen re-emerged with the song “Century’s End”-made for the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. Last summer, I developed a love for the songs B-side entitled “Shanghai Confidential”.

This song is actually one of the very few instrumentals that Fagen ever recorded. And after the cassingle of “Century’s End” being in the family household so long? Am honestly surprised I’m hearing this song just now. Did want to credit music writer S. Victor Aaron’s article about the song for more musical information about the song. And even that was difficult for me to come by. Being that its largely the musicality of Donald Fagen that endears his music to me, this particular song really speaks to that end of his creative personality. So just what is the musical anatomy of “Shanghai Confidential”?

A clapping drum machine starts out the song-playing a sleek urban funk beat with  Manolo Badrena’s percussion ringing along with a bell-like rhythm. The bass/guitar interaction of Steve Khan and Marcus miller take over with Fagen’s flute like synth part playing a very Asian style melody. The main melody is a cooperative affair-with a classic Fagen jazzy walk down with the lead synth, Fender Rhodes and the bass/guitar riffs playing off the other. Khan and Miller even get a substantial soloing space for a minute long bridge before the song fades out-again with the flute like synth leading the way.

“Shanghai Confidential” has a musically conceptual theme that Steely Dan had been playing with since Aja. One that flows back to Duke Ellington’s idea from his Afro Eurasian Eclipse that the entire world was taking on an Asiatic atmosphere. The drum machine, which I’d never heard used in anything Steely Dan related before this, as well as the bass and guitar are based slick jazzy funk sound. Yet the melody and mode of the song seem based heavily in the pentatonic scale. This makes for a song that provides a possible (and under explored) new direction for Donald Fagen’s music.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Donald Fagen

R.Kelly Keeping The ‘R’ In His Music With His 1998 Double Album In Its 20th Year

Related image

During much of the 90’s, the success of R&B was largely dependent on how much alike (and how much of a party atmosphere) it had as opposed to any strong creative activity. Somehow, R. Kelly was one of a few who flourished as a standout artist during this time. That’s because he both resisted the contemporary soul/R&B/funk in its day and embraced it. One thing about this album is that it closed his first decade of recording by embracing the recently revived concept of the double album in the genre. Not only that but is also showed how the modern spirit seemed to resist the impulse of the double album itself.

The double album format was generally presenting a lot of quality music with extended runs. And little to no weak songs. This album might count as a slight revival of the format. Still, this album had many of the pros and cons of it’s era. Across 29 tracks and over two hours, this is probably one of the longest double sets-made for the CD era. Its main flaw was to fill nearly every available moment of space on the CD with music. Also as with all of R.Kelly’s 90’s albums, its uneven. Honestly, this would’ve made an excellent hour long single CD. And still been his best release of the decade.

But the fact it was so uneven was part of it’s charm. What the fairly generic 2-step style hip-hop/R&B (fairly new at the time) lacked in musical innovation they gained on in lyrical content. Songs such as “When A Woman’s Fed Up” and “Down Low Double Life” basically help the listener to understand the place modern women have in their failed relationships with “doggish men”-as R calls them-as well as their partial responsibility.
Musically by far two of the strongest songs here are the first two. “Home Alone” with Keith Murray and “Spendin’ Money”.

The two tunes here featuring Jay Z “We Ride”,”Only Loot Can Make Me Happy” and (to an extent) the Nas duet of “Money Makes The Wold Go ‘Round” all have a stripped down “nu-funk” late 90’s equivalents of the naked funk style. And they built on some thick, phat electric bass and excellent songwriting. There’s also two rather unique songs in the context of this particular album in the mid tempo, wah wah drenched “Suicide”,a scarily cinematic slice of slow funk concerning someone thinking the ending of a relationship as the end of his life.

“Dancing With A Rich Man” brings in light Latin dance ballad rhythm,keeping the “Spanish tinge” introduced from jazz to R&B and onward alive in his music. Of course, there’s also “If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time”-a completely Sam Cooke inspired vocal on a 60’s styled soul ballad and the more Motown flavored ballad “What I Feel/Issues” in direct counterpoint to the more obviously adult contemporary “I’m Your Angel” with Celine Dion. And also the addition of the epic gospel soul standard Kelly wrote “I Believe I Can Fly”.

So for sure ‘R’ has its lack of focus.  But in addition to allowing his musical unevenness to showcase the dual nature all classic soul artists tend to have, this album also shows how he tends to approach his albums in a similar manner to Persian rugs; he tends to leave one or more musical knot undone and flawed. Jus so the album has no chance of being perfect. It keeps his music human for sure. And sometimes it keeps things from being as good as they could be. No matter how one approaches this,  it’s still one of his finest releases.

Leave a comment

Filed under R Kelly