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.
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.
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.
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.
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!