Tag Archives: 2017

Charles Bradley-1948 to 2017: Losing A 21st Century Soul Man

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Charles Bradley’s cancer was made aware to me by my friend Henrique Hopkins about a year ago. That was a time I now refer to with weariness as the “funkpocalypse”. So many classic musical icons, both in and out of the soul/funk spectrum, were passing away faster than many could count it seemed. Again as Henrique pointed out recently, that was an unprecedented event. Bradley’s passing today reflects how the foreknowledge of his passing has provided the necessary time to reflect on where he fit into the contemporary soul/funk/R&B world.

Six years ago, a documentary film on the man was released entitled Charles Bradley:  Soul Of America. Its one I haven’t seen. But there was a lot I already knew about him. He was raised by his grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. His mother had abandoned him as an infant. But by age eight, she took him back to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. Witnessing a James Brown show with his sister at the Apollo in 1962, Bradley became fascinated with perfecting JB’s vocal style and image at home. At 14, he ran away from home to escape the poverty of his life. For a time, he was essentially homeless.

After enlisting in the Job Corps, he ended up in Bar Harbor, Maine. He trained to be a chef there. He worked in that position for ten years. During this time, he overcame his stage fright. Mainly at the encouragement of co workers. He performed nights with a local band-who eventually got drafted into Vietnam. He then left Maine to travel out west. Eventually living in different areas of country. And performing small shows between odd jobs until 1996. At that time, he began working as a James Brown impersonator under the name of Black Velvet

This all occurred amidst trying to re-connect with his mother, almost dying after an allergic reaction to penicillin. Plus dealing with the murder of his brother. Finally in 2011, he became part of the Daptone label’s revival of late 60’s style soul & funk. And this is where my own saga with Bradley begins. I remember purchasing his first album No Time For Dreaming  at Borders Books & Music-right as they were liquidating. I purchased his third album Changes during the time of finding out about his cancer diagnosis. In musical terms. I somehow still associate Charles Bradley with new beginnings.

Having been a predominantly Latino/African American man growing up in 80’s and 90’s Maine, its very compelling to me to think of a man who looked and sang so much like funk innovator James Brown being a chef in Bar Harbor. Although a port city in Maine with a good level of diversity, I am today very aware of the states less then 1% African American population. To think of a man like Charles Bradley first realizing his calling in Maine during the 1960’s is simply amazes me. Through all the man went through, he not only survived but thrived. And emerged as an artist fully funkified. He WILL be missed.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Are You Ready” by The Isley Brothers & Santana

Erinie Isley said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine  that he first crossed paths with the Carlos Santana at Columbia Records convention in the 70’s. He recalled Santana’s band “took all the oxygen out of the room” playing their hits such as “Black Magic Woman” from their Abraxas album. Both Santana and the Isleys. Both were innovating in the late 60’s-a time where Latin rhythms, psychedelic bass/guitar and soulful vocals were all coming together for a music that was both highly funkified and rocked out. It would not be until 2016 that a pairing of the two began to take shape.

My friend/blogging consultant was the one who informed me of the collaborative album Power Of Peace. Ron Isley’s sister in law Kimberley-Johnson Breaux, a member of Rod Stewart’s band when she made the introduction between the two,which resulted in a two song collaboration on the Santana IV album in 2015. For their newest project, they are covering a collection of 60’s era topical and spiritual “people music” songs originally from the likes of Willie Dixon, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Curtis Mayfield and Burt Bacharach. The first song is a version of the Chambers Brother’s “Are You Ready”.

Santana’s classic Afro-Latin percussion starts the song before the jazzy funk bass comes in-playing in a deeply melodic manner around all the polyrhythms. The drums soon come in play a classic two-on-three funk beat. After that Ron Isley’s lead vocals play call and response to a combination of Carlos’s clean guitar tone and Ernie’s heavily filtered psychedelic style. Both play off of each other in beautiful unison throughout the song over melodic backup singing. After a drum/percussion break with on the beat vocal grunts, the drums and guitars close out on a duel psychedelic rock guitar extravaganza.

“Are You Ready” showcases precisely what one might expect from an Isley Brothers and Santana collaboration-even half a century after their salad days. Carlos Santana and Ernie Isley are playing with each other at the top of their form-as if the two guitar icons have been playing together consistently for decades. The groove itself literally has everything message oriented “people funk” would ideally have: that percussive Afro Latin rhythm,the psychedelic solos along with the funky drum and bass line. And its a reminder of the musical daring that generations of musicians need to always remember.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Joy Ride” by TLC

TLC are a group that I never thought would come back. After all in terms of membership,its all come down to Chilli and T-Boz. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was in many ways the heart and soul of the 90’s trio. Since the time of Left Eye’s passing, the remaining two members have made some appearances,collaborations and been the subject of a biopic here and there. But even with all the trials,tribulations and financial ruin of their heyday,it didn’t seem that the passing of a key member would ever find them re-emerging in a huge way in terms of new studio material.

All of a sudden in early 2015,T-Boz and Chilli announced they were going to be releasing and fifth and final studio album using a Kickstarter campaign. Other artists such as Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake made major donations to their crowdfunding effort. The new self titled album was released June 30th of 2017. A couple of years earlier, the duo format of TLC went on tour with the New Kids On The Block and Nelly. And they released two new singles from their forthcoming album in Japan the next year. One of them is what I’ll be talking to you about today. Its called “Joy Ride”.

A three beat,echoed drum with a four note descending/ascending bass line provides the intro. A horn blasts gets into the funky shuffling drums,the bouncing pop of a rhythm guitar and the continuing bass line from the intro. Along with a three note,descending hip-hop style piano. As the song progresses,with little melodic changes from refrain to choruses,the rhythm alternately shows down as silences,horns and hand claps all join the instrumentation in different parts of the song. An extended chorus of the song concludes it all with the duo’s harmonies echoing the song to its fade out.

“Joy Ride” is a superb arrangement for TLC. Its based in their classic mix of live instrumental funky soul with a hip-hop friendly twist. The melody and harmonies of the group are just as locked down too. Written by Rebekah Muhammad, the song certainly understands the history of whose doing it. As I said to Henrique, its not something that shows TLC’s sound as changing all that much. But in as much as the original trio kept the funk and soul alive in their hip-hop based music in the 90’s, its just a really comforting thing to be back on the TLC tip. Even if it is just for one last time.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Yellow Light” by Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams has had four years since the summer of 2014. That was the summer that almost every town in America had people making YouTube videos to his stripped down soul jazz styled dance number “Happy”. Thus far,its likely the anthem for the 2010’s. And a somewhat unexpected one at that. Since that time,Williams has immersed himself in supporting social causes along with his usual production work. Among them was the 7 continent ‘Live Earth’ concert done with Al Gore to help raise awareness of and pressure governments to act on climate change.

Considering the recent global climate change conferences and the phenomenal response to “Happy” four years ago, Williams is fast proving the cynics wrong. That music can actually change the world-one song at a time. Recently Universal has released the sequel film Despicable Me 3. The 16 song soundtrack is set to feature seven songs from Pharrell Williams. One of them is a song which I heard via a Vevo search, for the very first time, just a couple days ago. And something about it just hit me over the head. The name of the song is “Yellow Light”.

Williams’ vocals popping along to the popcorn style synthesizer make up for the intro. The then main body of the song comes in. For the most part,its made up of a brittle and funky drum machine beat with a number of fills-accented on the final beat with a hi hat sound. In between that is a thick, bassy wah wah style,higher pitched synth wobble. Between each section of the song, there’s a break where an electric rhythm guitar accompanies William’s gospel like vocal shouts exactly. A vocal sample of someone saying the word “yo” fades out the song.

Musically speaking “Yellow Light” speaks to Pharrell Williams putting his special touch on his ever growing musical fusions. His basic style here is based on 80’s electro funk/hip-hop: instrumentally condensed and focused directly on the groove. At the same time, non of the mans soulful passion and love of humanity is lost on the song. Its an anthem for what he calls  “the united states of uncertainty”-praising sunlight as the “best disinfectant”-even throwing subtle shade at modern Hollywood with the line with “everyone’s overdosing the blue light use”. All and all,another one of Pharrell’s finest.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Tin Foil Hat” by Todd Rundgren featuring Donald Fagen

Todd Rundgren has been one of those DIY singer/songwriter/musician/producer’s who was successfully able to meld his many talents into collaborative projects. Coming out of The Nazz into his own solo career,through Utopia and onward. Yet it wasn’t until his most recent solo album White Night,released just over a month ago. The majority of the album concentrated on collaborations with a diverse range of artists. Among them old friend Daryl Hall and one particular partnership that really got me personally interested: one with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

This particular collaboration came during a time when America and to a degree much of the Western World is in great turmoil. It was turmoil that actually stopped me from writing this blog for a week or so. Unlike the post 9/11 years happily, very few American artists have any fear in challenging the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump. In fact,Rundgren made news (even on Fox) regarding his desire not to have Trump supporters in his concert audiences causing trouble.  All of this is presented as part of his collaboration with Fagen entitled “Tin Foil Hat”.

A bluesy,vibraphone like two note keyboard line opens the song unaccompanied. Following that,electronic drums come in playing what seems to be a slow jazzy swing in 6/8 time. After that another keyboard comes in playing an organ type part-with that opening line assisting a swinging bass keyboard and guitar (or guitar like) tone. On the choruses,the chord changes to a slightly higher one before descending back into the refrain via a brief re-appearance of the organ style solo. By the final choruses, a bluesy piano joins the affair before the songs comes to an abrupt stop.

“Tin Foil Hat” is a song that addresses the entire Trump fiasco so well. Instrumentally,its a classic R&B/jazz/blues shuffle in Fagen’s classic style-with Rundgren’s vocal effects and own musical touches going right alongside it. Presented here is an accompanying music video,which has the songs wry and biting humor but also has a mild dire element of conspiracy theorists in high positions constantly foreseeing a coming apocalypse. Its an example of a funky,bluesy and soulful type song in 2017 delivering a message for the American people with both humor and effective social commentary.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sneak You In” by Bassel & The Supernaturals

Funk represents quite a lot more than just music. The elements of jazz,rock and soul within it expresses the 60’s era social changes that became more mainstream in the 70’s. Bassel & The Supernaturals are a superb modern example of this. Bassel Almadani, the bands lead singer and (from what I can see) founder, is a Syrian American who sees the Supernaturals’ jazz/funk/neo soul sound as holding an ethnic and social identification with the the immigrant refugee issues that are now becoming a major problem for the world. This is refreshing when so many no longer feel that music can change society.

I found out about Bassel & The Supernaturals this past Monday via local community radio station WERU’s night time funk/soul/jazz show Upfront Soul,hosted by a DJ who calls herself Sanguine Fromage. WERU often plays artists with progressive political causes to push forward. And Bassel & The Supernaturals are involved with nationally-acclaimed SXSW showcase ContraBanned: #MusicUnites- which showcases musicians from the diaspora of the countries targeted by Donald Trump’s travel ban. The song I remember Sanguine Fromage playing by them is called “Sneak You In”.

A swinging shuffle starts out the song-with a glistening electric piano and wah wah guitar in unison with a bouncing,equally shuffling slap bass line. The represents of the refrains of the song-each of which caps up with a hi hat heavy breakdown at the end. Horn charts accent the melody at its strongest points within every aspect of the song. The refrain builds,grows and changes in chord progression-in between two bridges that showcase more percussive drum fills and a jangling Latin rhythm guitar solo. The second such bridge builds up to a horn filled outro that drum brushes the song to a close.

“Sneak You In” has a rhythmic and melodic structure that brings to mind the neo soul friendly jazz/funk song structures of musicians such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. Bassel has a beautiful,clear vocal style that relies on sustained phrases and controlled pauses. Conveys a lot of emotion along with the instrumentation’s probing, exploratory groove. In this song, Bassel sings of romantic love as a source of strength. And in the most poetic manner I can imagine. From hearing this, Bassel & The Supernaturals have the potential to be a leading voice in present day jazz/funk.

*You can download Bassel & The Destroyers full length debut Elements here. Every donation to purchase this download from $10 or above goes to the Karam Foundation’s humanitarian efforts for Syrian families. Including the family of Bassel Almadani. https://www.basselmusic.com/store/

*More about the Karam Foundation here: https://www.karamfoundation.org/

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Bad Ass And Blind” by Raul Midon

Raul Midon represents that strong Afro-Latin cultural and musical intersection for the mid to late 2000’s. Born in New Mexico,he and his brother Marco (currently a NASA scientist) were both blinded after birth due to an incubator malfunction. He went on to attend the University Of Miami,which he sought out for its strong jazz curriculum. He migrated to NYC after that,playing guitar for different Latin artists such as the then newcomer Shakira. While he started his solo career at the end of the 90’s,his big break came in 2005’s State Of Mind album,produced by the late great Arif Mardin.

Midon’s music was consistently a must buy,every album artist for me during the mid to late 2000’s. Being of Afro-Latin descent myself,the mans mixture of acoustic Latin jazz,soul and funk really spoke to a than strongly developing musical heart. During the 2010’s,I began neglecting following up on Midon’s career for no positive reason. And that includes his current album Bad Ass And Blind. But the other night,I decided to explore the albums songs on YouTube,where Midon had personally posted some of the albums songs. It was the title song that instantly stood out for me.

After a count off to four in Spanish,the song kicks right into gear. Its the main theme that extends musically throughout much of the song. The funky shuffling drums are accompanied by Midon’s equally bouncing acoustic rhythm guitar-along with a bubbling bass line right along for the ride. Only on one brief refrain does this rhythmic pattern change-quickly changing in rhythm to a hand clapped powered English folk/rock type melody. During the bridge of the song,Midon adds in a rap he wrote and performed before concluding the song with a rocking electric guitar solo.

“Bad Ass And Blind” has a vibe to it that reminds me somewhat of the vibe that Prince brought to his music. It has that sense of fusing a funky rhythm with acoustic folk/rock,hip-hop and rock instrumental elements. All while keeping the groove hot and alive. Midon also uses this to lyrically point out his musical uniqueness in this day and age. He discusses the modern means people use now to hear music and see videos. He also comments Stevie Wonder style on the unique musical visions his blindness engenders for him. So its an excellent example of hybridized funk grooves for 2017.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Cloud 9” by Jamiroquai

Jamiroquai were a band who,two decades ago now,were the musical lifeblood of my personal interest in funk and disco. Its a story that’s been told on this blog at least once. They’ve had their lineup changes over the years for sure. Even still over the years,their mid to late 90’s albums are ones that I still continue to return to many times. As a matter of fact,they tend to define how how I view the contemporary nu funk movement as a whole. That being said,never been one to give into blind idolatry of any musical figure either. And Jamiroquai have been no exception to that rule.

Following their (unintended) 9/11 release of A Funk Odyssey, Jamiroquai album releases became less and less frequent. Albums such as 2005’s Dynamite were promoted with the over modulated hip-hop influenced single “Feels Just Like It Should”. And with their 2008 album Rock Dust Light Star fading seemingly as quick as it came, Jamiroquai seemed to have faded into the annals of the past. Early this year,they announced the release of their 8th studio album Automaton.  The title track was released first. But this EDM influenced song didn’t speak so much to me as the newest lead off single from the album “Cloud Nine”.

A deep piano chord,an ethereal synth and vocal pulse provide the intro to the song. A string burst opens into the refrain of the song. This consists of a thick disco beat-with a polyphonic synth playing the lead melody. And assisted by a pulsing rhythm guitar and bubbling synth bass line playing the higher ends of the changes. The rhythm guitar and bubbling bass are higher in the mix on the choruses-along with the string burst that leads into the heavily echoed bass/synth line on the bridge. The refrain and chorus are lightly improvised upon until it fades-accompanied by a jazzy synth solo before it ends.

“Cloud 9”, as far as I’m concerned ,is Jamiroquai’s strongest single since “Little L” came out 16 years ago. It showcases the band moving in their own career arc much the same as funk did during its first generation. Much as Jamiroquai were a live percussion/horn based jazz/funk band with extended jams and instrumentals when they started out,they are now a post disco/boogie funk group with strong jazz/funk melodic influences by the time their 8th album is about to drop. Only the future can tell if Jamiroquai’s future is going to remain in this strong progression. But “Cloud 9” is an excellent step in this direction.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Show Me The Way: by Thundercat featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins

Thundercat (born 1984 in LA as Stephan Bruner) is an artist I’ve wanted to profile for quite some sometime now. He’s had a very diverse career as a bass/guitar player. He began in the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies. As well as working close to nu jazz mainstay Flying Lotus. On his own,he has brought his talents to a diverse range of artists from Kamasi Washington,Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar. He began his solo career in 2011. While it maintains his diversity of sound to a degree,his focus has tended to be on the modern nu jazz/funk approach in terms of his own material.

The only Thundercat solo album I have is 2013’s Apocalypse. Its mix of electronica and jazz/funk was a very moving one. Cannot honestly say I was too crazy about all of his lyrics. And that is the main reason I’ve avoided covering the music of this child prodigy up until this point. Just a personal preference that funky music be a very complete package. That being said,he is about to drop a new album called Drunk. And his first song released from this album was introduced to me both by friends Andrew Osterov and Henrique Hopkins. Its a duet with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins called “Show Me The Way”.

A processed Fender Rhodes piano,with Thundercat’s bass line tickling the chord changes next to his falsetto voice,opens the song before the drum-itself a three snare/two cymbal hit,comes in. During the choruses of the song,the Rhodes is phasered very heavily with a twinkling high pitched synthesizer. On the refrains,the arrangement calms down to a meditative soft jazz/funk/pop Rhodes and bass line. On two of these refrains,McDonald’s and Loggins’ vocal parts are introduced by Thundercat and light applause noise. The synthesizer/Rhodes duet improvises its way all the way to the songs fade.

“Show Me The Way” is an excellent tribute to the reality of the “soft rock” or “yacht rock” label often disguising strong jazzy funk/pop artists-that “funk/soul in every section of the record store”. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald were prime examples of this ethic. Thundercat clearly understands how to compose such melodic and instrumentally intricate jazzy/pop/soul tunes with a strong funky groove as they did in their time. This mid tempo number features a lot of elaborate melodic improvisations-always very hummable. And is a superb comeback for all three artists involved for 2017!

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