Fourteen years after Walter Becker’s solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack, he returned with this sophomore release. Ever since the end of Steely Dan’s first run in 1980, we’ve often had to wait years (sometimes decades) for new music to appear by Becker & Fagen,either together or apart. In the beginning the results were exceptional (as on Fagen’s Kamakiriad or Steely Dan’s first comeback Two Against Nature). But recently, we’ve seen an unfortunate side of this comeback. Steely Dan were consistently spun off one classic after another on the same album in their heyday.
Of course, some of the trademarks of Becker & Fagen’s sound were crackerjack musicianship, production, songwriting and incredible lyrics. After the success of their first comeback the result were albums like Everything Must Go or Fagen’s recent solo date Morph the Cat-both of which relied on sound and musicianship but lacked in incredible songwriting;I just have to be objective because I LOVE Steely Dan but…..you know. This album isn’t exactly an exception from that in that the album relies more on sound then anything.
Becker had one great idea and that was to up the reggae/dub strains in his music. Most of the songs on this album will, believe it or not, make you feel more like walking with a skank then being jazzy and funky. But it doesn’t mean those elements aren’t present. “Door Number Two” and “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” of two great songs that are very successful:the former jazzier, the latter more reggae. Hardcore fans of the classic Steely Dan sound may be surprised (I would never say put off) by the reggae rhythms permeating much of the music here.
The result (as is typical of much of that genre) is the songs have the illusion of sounding somewhat alike;they really don’t at all but come off that way. Becker rises to the occasion though in a big way by closing the album with “Three Picture Deal”,nearing a complete restoration of everything that makes Steely Dan’s sound so special and unique. Some might want to know why he didn’t begin with that sound and take it from there. But at least by adding the Jamaican rhythms Becker is going for something new in his sound. And it makes you wonder what the next Steely Dan release is going to pull out of it’s hat.
Walter Becker is one of those players whose proven himself the ultimate “comeback kid” as it were. The Queens native met Donald Fagan while the two attended Bard College. And of course they would soon be the core of Steely Dan. While the songwriting of Steely Dan was a collaborative effort between the two,Becker’s instrumental influence generally came through his guitar solos. They grew from a virtuosic blues rock style in the early 70’s to an intricate,crisp jazz tone later on. A serious of exhausting events led Becker to leave Steely Dan following their Gaucho album-remaining musically inactive for a decade.’
In 1993,Steely Dan reformed and began touring. Becker released his solo debut album 11 Tracks Of Whack a year later. With a somewhat more stripped down musical approach and vocal style closer to that of Eric Clapton,his albums were as critically successful as Fagans. But didn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. It would be another 15 years later that his sophomore album Circus Money. This was an independently released project from 2008 that featured the same superb studio players Becker had worked with in the past. It also started out with just the right groove on the song “Door Number Two”.
A bass and light snare based beat,crystalized sounding piano and bluesy rhythm guitar provide the intro-along with a moody electric piano solo. The basic rhythm of the chorus than comes in. This is a bossa with a clean guitar burst playing a single chord on every other bar or so-with the piano,keyboard and slippery bass line playing along with the female backup singers vocalizing the choral lyric. The refrain finds Becker singing a bluesy line with more piano improvisations behind him. Chris Potter provides a great bop sax solo on the bridge and extends it into the chorus that fades out the song.
Years of being a record producer and even a one time member of the sophisti pop group China Crisis really helped to enhance Walter Becker’s musical flavors as a solo artist. It wasn’t until revisiting “Door Number Two” for this overview did I realize that it has the vibe of a lower key “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The bossa Latin/boogaloo funk is there in the rhythm. Still Becker’s love of jazz comes through all the way-with musicians Keith Carlock,Jon Herington,Jim Beard and Ted Baker all solo right in the pocket of this groove. And it all makes for a great example of jazz with a raw rhythm attitude.
Maysa Leak is an artist who came to my attention after first hearing her expert,smokey alto in the early aughts. The Baltimore native graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in classical performance. She performed in the Morgan State Choir. It was there she met Stevie Wonder,who brought her in to be a backup singer in his late 80’s/early 90’s edition of Wonderlove. She was most prominent on his soundtrack for the 1991 Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever. She released her solo debut in 1995 as well. While performing with different groups over the years,its a clear memory where I first heard her.
During the same time I was deep into bands like Jamiroquai,discovering Rufus/Chaka Khan,Miles Davis and the jazzy side of funk my mom picked up a CD called No Time Like The Future by Incognito. This is the first time I ever heard Maysa singing on songs such as “Get Into My Groove”,which I’ve already covered here. Her jazzy style permeates much of her life,so much so that she named her daughter Jazz. And that jazzy groove attracted me to more and more Incognito albums over the years. Their 2008 album Tales From The Beach contained one of my favorite songs sung by her on “I’ve Been Waiting”.
Maysa begins the song by saying “if my heart should betray my emotions,I hope you understand just what it is I’ve been feeling”. Following that,a VERY Stevie Wonder like major/minor jazz chord progression played on a high and bass toned Oberheim synthesizer begins the musical end of the song. This consists of a flutter wah wah guiter and light cymbal/bass drums kicking off a thick slap bass line playing along three chords. After a couple bars of that the slow,funky drums come in along with the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Bluey’s liquid rhythm guitar.
In between this refrain,there’s a brief musical bridge which brings in the tight horn charts-which play call and response to Maysa’s vocals. The Rhodes also plays a strong counter melody to this as well. When the chorus comes in,Maysa is multi tracked within a sea of percussive drums,wah wah guitar,dancing horn charts and the even snakier slap bass line. Just before the second round of choruses and refrains,the keyboards take over for yet another short bridge on the outro. The music strips down to its most percussive elements on the final choruses as the song closes out on a breezy Rhodes coda.
One day,I’m hoping Incognito will be somewhat more recognized worldwide for their often ingenious continuation of 70’s jazz funk in the modern age. Again as has been a continuing theme with me lately,this is a complexly arranged composition. The chord progressions and melodic changes,along with the changes in instrumental soloing throughout,make this one of the most sleekly arranged jazz-funk jams of the new millennium. Maysa’s strong personality and determined “grown folks” outlook on sensuality really make this one of 2008’s major jams of the year for me,anyway.
Filed under 2008, Baltimore, drums, Fender Rhodes, horns, Incognito, jazz funk, Maysa, Morgan State Choir, Morgan State University, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, wah wah guitar, Wonderlove
Chante Moore is one of those bay area natives whose music I came to far later than my actual knowledge of her existence. A lot of female soul/R&B vocalists in the early 90’s were coming into the genre from the world of hip-hop. Moore came into it with a jazz back round. And her earlier albums especially had that mid to low tempo urban contemporary production close that looked to zero in on her multi octave vocal range. Have those early albums in my collection. On the other hand I never thought of her as a huge instrumental oriented artist. It was a bit more recently when that perception was challenged by digging a little deeper into her latest musical output.
One day while at the local record haunt Bullmoose I located a pre owned CD copy of Moore’s 2008 album Love The Woman. It had been on my interests list for a long time but never bothered to pick it up. This was during a period when my conversations with Henrique Hopkins were bringing me a far broader understanding of what an artists musical ability can do with programmable electronic instruments. It was really widening my understanding of modern grooves during the early days of doing this very blog. There was one song I wanted to write about from this album since those early days. It’s the album opener entitled “Can’t Do It”.
A powerful horn fan fare opens the album-backed up with implied percussion. Suddenly a strong funky beat chimes in. And the percussion gets turned back up in the mix on every other chorus. On each musical refrain,a quick and huge burst of horn maintains the one in the rhythm. Towards the end of the song,there’s a digital bell that suddenly adds itself to the percussion. That along with a harmonic string synthesizer part coming up from behind the groove. Every time the horn blasts come in and out of the refrains,the rest of the percussion and beat disappears from the mix to give those horns the room for audible flight. And it’s with those horns that the song comes to a stop in the end.
Instrumental programmer Warryn Campbell does a wonderful job setting up the groove on this song. It sounds as if he is actually playing live drums,percussion and recording horns for this song. But that,in the manner Henrique recently mentioned to me, he cuts them up sample style in the mix. The thing here is that he does so very much in the flowing style of a live band playing. Moore’s usually scaling ranginess is subdued here in favor of her using her lower voice. And she does so in a rhythmic element similar to the way Beyonce often utilizes her vocals in a percussive style. In the end this is one of the finest examples of nu funk from the first decade of the 21st century.
For this weeks posting,I wanted to play a little jazz for everyone. Considering this blog was started with the intention of projecting modern songs in the entire jazz,soul,funk,R&B,blues and pop spectrum? I’ve neglected going too deep into jazz because the critical medium of that musical genre has a tendency to take itself much more seriously than perhaps other levels of critical assessment. Yet there was something about this artist and this song that was right up my alley in terms of actually writing about it.
Lorraine Feather,herself the daughter of famous NYC jazz critic Leonard Feather. Her mother Jane was a big band singer in the trio Full Swing. After studying musical theater acting in LA,Lorraine returned to New York to pursue that career. Eventually landing nigh club gigs between numerous waitress jobs. After a successful career doing songs for films by Disney among others? She began her recording career in the year 2000. And nine years later released her sixth solo album Language,which includes the song that’s the subject of today’s post in “We Appreciate Your Patience”.
Instrumentally the song is is a very stripped down mid-tempo bluesy number. That with drummer Gregg Field and percussion Michael Shapiro actually providing a slow,loping and rhythmically well accented hip-hop/jazz swinging shuffle to the music itself. This is accompanied by the melodic participating of pianist/co-writer Shelly Berg,bassist Michael Valerio with Spanish tinged acoustic guitar from Grant Geissman. On the bridge Field’s dreamy brushing is accompanied by Berg scaling back and forth similarly on piano-taking a solo before returning to the main theme that the song fades out on.
The best thing thing about this song for me is how it updates the traditions of vocal jazz. It takes on the dragging shuffle of the hip-hop beat for sure. But also focuses on Feathers embracing of the witty cultural references in vocal jazz lyricism. The concept of dealing with calling customer service lines over the phone is a thoroughly modern frustration. Feather illustrates this with her own singular wit and mildly dry,yet harmless sarcasm about being put on hold while listening to “some music from the 80s”,as well as being directed to said company’s website as the preferred means of contact. In the end,it appears she develops a crush on one particular rep. Both musically and lyrically? This is one contemporary acoustic vocal jazz number that is right on time.
Filed under 2008, Blues, customer service, Grant Geissman, Greg Field, hip-hop/jazz, humor, Jazz, Leonard Feather, Lorraine Feather, Los Angeles, lyrics, Michael Shapiro, Michael Valerio, New York, Shelly Berg, vocal jazz