Tag Archives: 2009
Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: : “Million Dollar Bill” by Whitney Houston
As strange as it may seem, Whitney Houston has been gone for five years as of yesterday. The tragedy of her and Bobby Brown’s only daughter Bobbi Kristina last year kept me away from writing about any of Whitney’s music on this blog. Of course with a good amount of time away from the negativity surrounding both of their passing bought Whitney’s positive musical triumphs back into perspective for me. Known primarily as a balladeer during the bulk of her career,the huge voiced singer continued to make quality comeback albums during the 90’s and early 2000’s whenever her personal situation allowed. By roughly 2004,even I had to admit she seemed to just disappear from the music scene.
In the late summer of 2009,Whitney burst back onto the scene with what turned out to be the final album she released in her lifetime. This album I Look To You was a very happy surprise for me having been recovering from the then recent passing of another 80’s era musical icon Michael Jackson. It was one of neo soul’s shinning stars in Alicia Keys and her then relatively new husband Swizz Beatz who really came through for Whitney on this album in terms of writing. And right at the beginning too because while the couple only appeared once here,it was a very memorable one at that. The result was “Million Dollar Bill”,a song that for me is one of Whitney’s musical triumphs of her latter days.
A fanfaring drum role starts off the songs 4/4 beat and accompanying chordal bass thumps. The refrain of the song features an elaborate drum solo that keeps putting itself in and out on the one with it’s brushing/cymbal work. It goes from subtle to right in your face right along with Whitney’s scaling,climactic vocals. The rhythm is kept going by a phase filtered Fender Rhodes electric piano right out of the Gamble & Huff school of mid 70’s uptempo Philly dance records. That keyboard solo occasionally takes on a higher,chiming tone on those more subtle moments. The instrumentation takes a total break for Whitney’s final chorus before closing out with a final burst of music and vocal power.
Actually this is one of my very favorite Whitney Houston songs ever. With her huge gospel/soul pipes, I always wondered why she didn’t tend to make uptempo songs a huge priority. Especially since she had so many excellent ones anyway. This song gave a modern production flavor to a classic disco era Philly uptempo dance groove. Especially with how Whitney’s go from nuanced to soul shouting right along with the drums-which themselves go from a light brushing sound to being heavier and higher up in the mix. It also shares a similar juxtaposition in tempo as Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” as well. Take n on it’s own,it’s one of Whitney’s finest uptempo numbers.
Maxwell ended an 8 year hiatus on the music scene with his 2009 album “BLACKsummers’night”, which was supposed to be part one of a three part series. We’re still waiting for parts 2 and 3, but Maxwell can be seen across the country on the touring circuit this summer. Maxwell is one of those artists in the ’90s who led the move back towards a more organic, musical and poetic style of R&B influenced by the classic years of the genre, which itself became a sub genre called Neo-Soul. Maxwell of course always had a strong funk connection as well, with his debut album, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite” being produced by ’70s vetrans Leon Ware and Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin. “Phoenix Rise” is the last song on the album, a funky instrumental that provided an instrumental vision of rebirth and redemption, which is a cool way to start this blog for April. Instrumentals, whether from James Brown, Booker T & the M.G’s, The Meters, Young, Holt & Unlimited, and many other bands, were one of the key musical forms that began the funk revolution in the 1960s.
“Phoenix Rise” is like a 2:41 wake up call. If my local R&B/Jazz station KBLX was still independent, this track would be an excellent one to play on the morning drive time, to simultaneously mellow people out and invigorate them. The song begins with a modern digital keyboard tone, playing a sweeping pad sound that sounds like waves washing up against the sand. The groove is introduced in stages, percussion making way for drummer Chris Dave’s big fat drum beat. Dave’s drums are well recorded, up front, definitely informed by the type of funk drumming that was heavily sampled in hip hop’s golden age, at the very least in how loud and upfront it’s recorded.
After eight bars of the drummers beat, sliding guitar lines are introduced, followed by Derrick Hodge’s bass, which plays some funky thumps and pops, the pops loosely form a bassline, but what they sound like more than anything are a muscle car revving it’s engines up, accenting the other instruments groove. Soon the bass and guitar settle into the main phrase, a vaguely Afro-Carribean accented phrase, doubled by a guitar playing in the low register, a common technique used to strengthen the sound of the bassline in the early days of recording. This phrase reoccurs every four bars, it’s a very funky phrase that also manages to be uplifting through it’s Afro-Carribean rhythmic accents. Single note guitar lines burstling with rhythmic activity liven up the groove as the main phrase takes root.
The horns of Keyon Harrold and Kemet Whalum III come into play right after a rock guitar is added. At the 2:00 mark the song breaks down, hitting the slowed down half time type feel that has been popular in hip hop since the 1990s and comes from the south, which has been very popular in roots funk musics like New Orleans brass music and D.C go-go. The half time section gives the horns a chance to play a soulful phrase as the bass moves a long in a reggae tinged lope, a la The Police’s intro to “Roxanne.” As soon as the “Phoenix” of the song rises, it disintigrates, as the horns hit some riffs and the whole song just fades out.
This song came out in 2009, which happened to be the year I lost my father. The idea of a funky instrumental, named after a mythological Egyptian bird was very appealing to me at the time, and remains so today. It’s a slice of mature, well polished funk with an Afro-Diasporic tinge that gets one energized. From footage I have found on YouTube it seems Maxwell and his band use it to open up their concerts, and it’s a great choice to do so! So enjoy the rebirth and reinvigoration of the “Phoenix Rise” this weekend and hereafter!