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Go For Your Guns: 40 Years Of A Funky Voyage To Atlantis With The Isley Brothers

Go For Your Guns

Go For Your Guns is an album whose 40th anniversary occurred over a month ago. And it was something that pretty much demanded to be over viewed here. My interest in the Isley’s 70’s music flowed from Rickey Vincent’s book on funk during that time. He referred to them as the epitome of funky manhood-with Chaka Khan as the female equivalent of the time. How I ended up with a CD of  Go For Your Guns is a story in and of itself. And has a good deal to do with my great appreciation of this album over the years. Its actually included in my Amazon.com review I’ll include here.


Normally I tend not to do this. But there’s a personal connection with this album in my own life surrounding this album. During the Ice Storm of 1998,power was half out and everyone everywhere in the state of Maine was snowed in and/or iced in. It was an uncomfortably claustrophobic environment. The second day out,the driveway was cleared out just enough so people could get in and out of it. So we all ended up taking a drive to the nearby Borders Books & Music where,in their music section,they’d actually open and re-package a brand new CD if you wanted to listen to it.

I was in the R&B/soul section,where I always went first and say this album. I’d never heard any 70’s era Isley Brothers. Read about them during that period in Ricky Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One but had only heard them at that time via their newest album at the time Mission to Please. So I listened to the album and,since the price was exactly right for me that’s what I took home that night. I put my headphones on and listened. Listened in a context of great risk that the power might go out again and the family would swing into instant emergency mode. That didn’t happen. Yet this album made me feel very confident that better things were coming. Now,I’ll tell you why.

“Pride” starts the album out with some high octane wah wah and electric piano as Ron declares “when you finally break it on down/it’s your pride”-the Isley’s crowning manifesto of masculine consciousness that I think of as their most self defining funk jam of that era. With it’s creamily textured guitar and keyboard lines,the complicated melodic exchanges of the ballad type funk in “Footsteps In The Dark” evoke the lyrical imagery of a mature yet tentative romantic relationship with an uncertain future.

Chris Jasper’s pulsing synthesizer seems to call out from both above and below the spongy and melodic funk of “Tell Me That You Need It Again”-with Ron’s strong minded seduction oozing out of both the music and lyrics as well as the Isley’s ever did during this era. “Climbin’ Up The Ladder” goes right for the jugular of Ernie Isley’s guitar for a furious rocker with a clean,tight bluesy melody-again with Ron in his powerfully growling lower vocal range.

“Voyage To Atlantic” is a slower rocker focusing on an elaborate romantic fantasy. “Livin’ In The Life” and the instrumental companion title song are some of the most flat out amazing music the Isley Brothers ever made. It is the probably the most effective heavy metal funk ever made. The groove is solid and tight. Yet the synthesizers and Ernie’s guitar on the title song assault the music with a heavy biting steel. So the song accomplishes everything by embodying both funk’s instrumental cleanliness and rock’s instrumental passion.

Overall the one quality that defines this album is complete and utter confidence. It isn’t all necessarily testosterone fueled male ego by any means. Ron Isley goes out of his way to try to bring the feminine characters in this song to understand where he’s coming from-tending to respect their intelligence rather than demean them. More over however,on both an instrumental and vocal level,this album comes at the listener with the fervor of a sociopolitical musical preacher.

Some of the messages are non specific enough to be appealing to just about everybody,but the message is that love of the world begins with self confidence you can bring out in others. And the Isley’s all had plenty of reason to be confident with this album. As the 70’s wore on they gained progressively more and more control over every aspect of their music-from writing,producing and arrangement. Of course it wouldn’t be long after this that this would turn into some ugly ego regarding the generational differences of how the two sets of brothers conducted creative matters.

I do think that the strong level of confidence this album projects gives the listener the most positive overall view of the funk era. It certainly affirmed my appreciation of the music during a tense time for those around me even. And even at times when my confidence in funk itself was swayed for whatever reason? This album reminded me of what I loved about the music that no one could ever mistaken the sentiments of. So in that context along with the high quality music,this is one of a handful of funk albums I recommend as downright essential.


Go For Your Guns is album that hit me the moment I heard it,had the same effect when writing this review and its likely it always will. The Isley Brothers,especially during the 3+3 era combining the two generations of brothers in the family,dominated their funk in the recording studio much the same way they dominated the stage when performing live. Their music and persona was always a smoldering,passionately poetic funky fire that burns very strongly on every song on this album. Encourage all of you reading this who haven’t yet heard the album to check it out. You might just have a similar reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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Con Funk Shun’s ‘Secrets’ Album Turns 40: The Anti Sophomore Slump Funk Classic

Con Funk Shun (since they’ve recently reunited) remain a band with a strong personal connection to both me and friend/co-founder of Andresmusictalk Henrique Hopkins. For Henrique,it was a being childhood friends with Dameion Harrell-son of the bands sax player/flutist Paul Harrell. For me,the personal connection came from their 1979 jam “Chase Me” being part of that often discussed first long form exposure to funk via the compilation The Best Of The Funk Essentials. Somehow or other,the bands sound (along with Earth Wind & Fire) became a strong criteria for 70’s funk in my listening tastes.

Their 1977 album Secrets,which celebrated its 40th anniversary on March 25th, was reissued on CD during the mid 90’s funk reissue boom. I found it at the local Borders Books & Music. They’d let you listen to CD’s in a player behind the counter-since they had equipment to reseal opened media at the time. Having just learned that this had been the bands second album,hearing it really went against the film/music/literature cliche of the sophomore slump. All nine of the songs on this album were consistently excellent. And that was heavily reflected in my Amazon.com review of the album.


On their sophomore release these Vallejo California natives actually sharpen up a good deal of the harder edged elements of their sound found on 1976’s Con Funk Shun and develop something of a new flavor to their sound. Seen by many people who,as I was at first familiar with the band through compilations as something of a fully west coast answer to EWF.

Now that has some truth to it and not too. While bandleader Felton Pilate and Michael Cooper have similar vocal exchanges to Maurice White/Phillip Bailey and their harmony based,melodic groove sounds do have a passing similarity Con Funk Shun don’t concentrate as much of their concepts as they do instrumental exchanges and songwriting. And this particular album features endless examples of their new style.

Despite the hard driving nature of the hit “Ffun” and “ConFunkShunIzeYa” these two horn heavy grooves are by no means indicative of the entire album as a whole “DoWhaChaWannaDo”,with it’s elegent mix of melodic arrangements,on time rhythm and strong craft showcases this as music that stands directly in between th earlier,classic “united funk” and the pre disco sophistifunk style.

This also shows up on the smoother,more midtempo grooves of “Who has The Time” and the title cut,both powered by wah wah’s,heavily reverbed rhythm guitars and sultry harmonies. The outright ballads “Tear In My Eye” and “I’ll Set You Out OK” have all the sitar/orchestration effects of classic Northern soul with all the melody intact. “Indian Summer Love”,an uptempo instrumental showcasing the jazzier end of the bands sound has a George Benson/Wes Montgomery/Bobby Broom style guitar exchange between Michael and Felton that is pure icing on the cake.

Honestly have purchased this during the time I was really thoroughly exploring the funk genre I’d recommend this and other albums like it to those people who think they don’t like funk or find it “annoying”,an all too common phrase I hear sadly. It’s melodic enough to show how wonderful music in the groove can be. Also the instrumental ability of the band is more than strong enough to make this great for more serious listening as well.

Always mildly ignored and under praised when compared to some of their contemporaries with more name recognition (The Commodores,Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and The Bar Kays come to mind), Con Funk Shun had a definite niche carved out as among the smoother of them all. But smooth FUNK,not just smooth grooves and that’s important to distinguish. So one will likely just put this on and take the ride with them because it will be a happy surprise for anyone pretty much.


Con Funk Shun’s Secrets album was part of a huge array of funk classics that came out in 1977. To use writer Rickey Vincent’s terminology, albums of this kind stood as a transitional one between the early/mid 70’s “united funk” era and the later 70’s “dance funk” one. It was definitely a melodic album that was extremely catchy and singable. At the same time the combinations of rhythms,horns,synthesizers and bass/guitar interaction really typified the junction right between these two eras of funk music’s development. That makes Secrets one of the most important funk albums of its era.

 

 

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‘Sign O The Times’ At 30: Prince Bares The Cross Of His Time To Settle Down

Sign O The Times

Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.

My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.

Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.

Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.


I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.

Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.

The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.

There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.

So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.

“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.

On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.


Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.

It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.

Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.

On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.

My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear:

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‘Commodores’ Turns 40: The Tuskeegee Funk Icons Take It Easy As Sunday Morning

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The Commodores were a band who I didn’t personally associate with funk for many years. A lot of it had to do with how musical literature handled them. That was until it became clear through finding (and listening) to them that the Commodores first four albums from 1974 through 1976 were by and large hardcore albums in what is referred to as the Southern funk genre. The sound was inspired heavily by Milan Williams’ Billy Preston-like Clavinet and the bands extremely strong instrumental vitality. When 1977 came along,the band released their self titled album-one which is celebrating 40 years with us as of today.

This album marked huge changes for the band. Displayed proudly on the jacket,flying through the sky like a fictive jet airliner,is the Commodores new metallic “belt buckle” logo. This would seem to signal a new level of success for them. Commercially,that’s exactly what happened. It was their second #1 R&B chart album in a row. And it was their first album to cross over into to pop Top 5. It also had the advantage of containing the bands two signature songs in the classic funk of “Brick House” and the soul ballad “Easy”. Of course,I was able to convey some of its broader musical influence on my Amazon.com review of the album.


In terms of the funk era of the early/mid 1970’s? It was The Commodores,in terms of newly formed bands, who most thoroughly represented the genre on Motown. Milan Williams, William King,Walter Orange,Thomas McClary and of course Lionel Richie in particular had now proven important members of a formidable musical team. Many of the bands members were multi instrumentalists. With their previous album Hot on the Tracks,the bands funk was at its most diverse and creative.

Their funk was able to blend strong pop songwriting with hefty grooves that put them into the possible position of being a Southern version of Earth Wind & Fire in terms of success. Story goes that around this time,the bands co-producer James Anthony Carmichael had told Lionel that the songs he was writing for the Commodores didn’t work. And that he should be recording the songs he was writing for other people instead. This album marks The Commodores at the exact point before that change began to seriously take place.

“Squeeze The Fruit”,”Funny Feelings”,”Funky Situation” and “Patch It Up” are all very much in the league of the classic 70’s Commodores sound-that think,bass/guitar fried sound that…well to me always represented what made them distinct among the funk bands of that era. On the faster of those numbers? The feeling is almost rocking in a very clean and soulful way. On the slower numbers? The effect is very much in the Sly Stone vein-again with that Southern twist. “Heaven Knows” can actually fool you.

It starts out sounding like a mid tempo,melodic love ballad before spinning of into that Southern Sly Stone variant funk sound on the choruses. “Won’t You Come And Dance With Me” and “Funky Situation” both have slightly more jazz oriented choruses as a wraparound for the heavy funk elements. “Zoom” is actually a very elaborate,cinematic ballad that contrasts heavily with the the countryish gospel leanings of the big hit “Easy” which closes out the album. “Brick House”,with its bass line and cat calling is not only the best known Commodores funk hit but among their very sexiest as well.

Just as a frame of reference,without introducing any needless musical spoilers? This would be the last Commodores album that would have this particular sound about it. Their final two albums of the 70’s such as Natural High and Midnight Magic would favor melodic soul/pop and slow Lionel Richie penned ballads to a far stronger degree than hard funk. At least in terms of how their albums were put together. I do realize there are people who would say that entire change was already underway by the time of this album.

And if someone asked me over a decade ago I’d probably have agreed with them. But one thing I realize is even the Commodores slower numbers during this period represent part of a diverse,fuller funk/soul album package than they might’ve seemed. On this album? The slow songs are slow jams. Full of soul and full of cinematic funk. They have a rhythm and you can tap your foot to them. So when all things get done? This is in fact something of a coda on The Commodores classic funk sound. And a very strong one that any Commodores/Motown/funk admirer who doesn’t already have it should seek out.


Since writing this review,my personal views on the Commodores ballads have broadened. Much of that comes from seeing them through the eyes of my friend Henrique Hopkins. He experienced them through the strong black community of his native Oakland,California. And its helped me to realize how much true Southern soulfulness permeates both the fast and slow music on this album. That might have a lot to do with this having been their breakthrough album. It offered up the best and most soulful side of everything this band can do. And essentially began an entirely new musical period for them in doing so.

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‘Lost & Found’ Nearing Its 10th Anniversary: Ledisi’s Artistry Comes Into Its Own

Image result for Ledisi Lost & Found

Ledisi Young’s artistry represents that ever important intersection of black American music. Her story began in New Orleans (her city of birth) and continued in San Francisco. With a name taken from a Yoruba word that basically means “to bring forth”, Ledisi’s music came along at a time not only extremely friendly to black female vocalists. But also when jazz was becoming a very prominent aspect of black American music again. After releasing two albums independently in the early aughts, she signed with Verve Forecast later and released her third album Lost & Found ten years ago this coming August 28th.

Its an album that I heard half a decade after its release however. 2007-2010 was such a crossroads of the soul/R&B/funk world. Hip-hop based music had become the mainstream rather than the underground. And classic funk and soul instrumental approaches-from jazzy 70’s styles to electronic 80’s ones. And from that,many new hybrids were entering that expanded the natural oriented neo soul sound already in progress. Ledisi’s music was a prime example of this when she finally got major label attention. And this got reflected when I reviewed the album on Amazon.com several years ago.


Well it’s the 21’st century and it’s all too easy to become extremely cynical about any kind of art. As the Barenaked Ladies once mused it does seem like it’s all been done. So basically,in a world fraught with that sort of creative fragmentation as modern soul/funk the best thing anyone can hope to do is come upon new ideas without struggling too hard to try. Usually this sort of process works best if it happens organically. And after a number of failed tries on small labels Ledisi emerges on the normally jazz oriented Verve Forecast label.

Then she released an album that got so much of peoples attention that many people,including myself until very recently assumed was her debut album. It isn’t. But that’s important because it shows signs of strong artist development. And that’s on the verge of becoming a lost art in a world of “get-them-record-quick-so-we-can-get-them-a-reality-show” sort of ethic. Whatever the case this native of Oakland,already famous for it’s Black Panthers,Pointer Sisters and Tower Of Power is more than capable as a singer/songwriter here and fills herself out with showstoppers.

Musically one might say this album follows something of an aural concept. Avoiding the usual “retro-neo” soul approach of beginning the album and/or song with a record player being turned on and vinyl scratching this starts out with more the flavor of a jazz record,with “Been Here” beginning and closing out the album with the effect of applause for the atmosphere. And indeed that’s what this album is basically about. Jazzy,swinging and very funky midtempo numbers with some tricky melodic chord changes from “Joy”,”You & Me”,”Alright”,”Thinking Of You”,”In The Morning”,”The One” and “Someday”.

All of these numbers obviously had Sade and D’Angelo in mind to some degree. Yet Ledisi’s style of songwriting is informed more by jazz and gospel than hip-hop,bringing her lyrics about the joys and concerns of life some extra soul than it was even meant to have. When she gets more on the however we’re treated to some of the highest quality funk of this era. On “Best Friend” and “Get To Know You” both blend strong writing with chunky rhythmic grooves. “Upside Down” does the best job of this though with it’s use of bass keyboards for some jazz oriented descending chord changes-one of the most successful channeling of the often used Stevie Wonder style of writing.

That’s because she knows right where that style of writing is coming from. On the title song we have the only true ballad on the entire album,just Ledisi and the piano for the most part again delivering a passionate lyric and vocal. This is one of those people who genuinely does deserve all of the praise that’s been sent her way. And that’s true when it seems most musical sensations are based more in hype than talent. You’d literally have to hear the music before deciding weather these people are worthy of all their praise. Sadly that may have been part of what kept me at arms length with Ledisi.

Especially with female R&B/soul/funk vocalists there’s a lot of what I’d call synthetic commercialism involved. So when a new such individual emerges as “the next big thing” I’ll tend to ignore it. In the end,out of about ten of these artists that are heavily praised only about half of them will actually live up to it. Ledisi for sure is one of them. And it’s an important reminder to enjoy such people while they are so praised because,in a moment they could be as easily forgotten as they were remembered. Hopefully that won’t happen with this. But enjoy her great writing and great grooves for what they are regardless.


The career of Ledisi only continued to increase in scope. In addition to recording a handful of diverse albums since then,she also began collaborating with contemporary jazz innovator Robert Glasper. She also turned to acting-especially in portraying the Gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the 2014 movie Selma. While the sociological backdrop of contemporary black American musicians continues to face both its external and internal challenges,artists as strong and rooted as Ledisi are always worthy of any props given to them. And the Lost & Found album was truly the beginning of her period of greatest success and recognition.

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‘Ask Rufus’ At 40: Lifting You Up With An Everlasting Love

Image result for Ask Rufus

Ask Rufus was actually the original name of the band-named from an article in Popular Mechanics. It was a long road from their original lead singer Paulette McWilliams to her young friend Chaka Khan taking over. On January 19th,1977 that original name for Rufus was used for the title of their fifth studio album. Personally,I wasn’t sure if I much enjoyed it after first picking the vinyl up at a Boston record store in 2001. Perhaps the terrible quality of the record played into it. Especially upon hearing it on CD some years later,the album revealed itself as perhaps the bands strongest album from a musical standpoint.

Ask Rufus doesn’t exactly sound like the four that came before it. Some of that was intentional. As Chaka Khan once said,it was her an her husband’s Richard’s attempt to “do away with the leathers,feathers and wild child act”. She wanted to focus on the band and her vocal ability. Its also the type of album that can engender many personal memories for people. Its actually an album that inspired me to begin writing my own song lyrics with jazz/funk music in mind. In his book  Mo Meta Blues, Questlove gave his own personal story about it,and I quote:

My parents were going to do an extended trip. When they told me how long they’d be away, the string breakdown of “Egyptian Song” came on. And then the story got sadder. In Louisiana, my aunt Karen met a man, and they decided to get married. She took the record with her.”

There are many things I could say about Ask Rufus after having over 16 years experience with the album. One major recent revelation was my boyfriend Scott listening to the album with me for the first time and mentioning the first side’s closer “Everlasting Love” resembling George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”. Usually a more vocally focused music listener,I deeply appreciate Scott’s musical observation on that. Of course eight years ago on Amazon.com,I managed to get a hold on the musical vibe of the album on my review there-which of course I will now re-share with you.


Rufus And Chaka Khan,aside from CK’s amazing and influential singing have always been just mildly underrated as musicians. In the years after the debut,especially with the style of the previous Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan their style had been growing from that of a conventional 70’s funk band to what they became with this album.By far this would have to be described as Rufus’s artistic pinnacle and is today justly revered. It is here that Rufus made the transformation to being a fully sophisticated band with brilliant songwriting,fully mature and reflective lyrics and plenty of jazz influences.

With a couple minor exceptions this album showcases Rufus sticking with a mid tempo jazzy soul/funk sound and a great deal of sultry. Not only is it solid proof that funk doesn’t have to be a non-stop rhythm barrage to groove like mad but it features songs that all sound like mini classics.”At Midnight” is the main uptempo song here.The production is far from slick and features probably the best use of synthesizer on a mid period Rufus Recording-the simple beat sounds deceptively like disco but on the breakdown it’s perfectly clear that it isn’t.

Lyrically it’s clear that Chaka,who participates very strongly as a writer here is content on reflecting on how her own complicated marriage and personal life at the at time is effecting her feelings on her own womanhood-strong emphasizing emotional involvement.”Close The Door” is one mournful example;Chaka’s tortured voice and the spare backdrop just drips with melancholy of the soul.

The superb orchestration of Claire Fischer (cousin of the bands drummer Andre Fischer) not only makes that tune so wonderful but dominates the equally mournful instrumental “A Slow Screw Against The Wall”;the briefly funk blowout of “A Flat Fry”,featuring Ron Wood is pretty much the last tune of that type you’ll find here.The memorable and singable “Earth Song” features a cryptic lyric that,if understood sums up Chaka’s lyrical involvement here as she sings,”Stars/what a mystical woman you’ve made me” and on “Everlasting Love” we’re introduced into a deceptively musically simple vision of romance and sensuality.

“Hollywood” is…well almost an uptempo song because it’s so sprightly even as it looks at the effect fame and surroundings of luxury effect people.”Magic In Your Eyes” is yet another excellent romantic moment whereas “Better Days”,co-written by Chaka’s then husband Richard Holland reflects on a possible optimistic future for the then faltering couple.As for the music,let’s just say I think Dido was highly influenced by this song when she did her hit song Thank You ovet two decades later. The title of “Egyptian Song” sounds like the song and lyrics will be very complicated and they are.

 

From the melody down to it’s lyrics it reflects on Chaka’s journey to discover her racial identity that was evidently at that point still very much a part of her life. Here you here a very different kind of Rufus,challenging themselves all around to be a band to contend with a very different kind of groove for a very different kind of funk. There is little likelihood you’ll ever come across an album in Rufus catalog or anyone else’s that sounds quite like this.And that really says an awful lot for this.


Today,I have Ask Rufus on both CD and a far superior vinyl copy that included the original poster. Whether or streaming this album or hearing it via any physical media, no changes in technology will take away what Rufus accomplished on this album.  As I recently learned, it was the first and only platinum album. Perhaps their change in approach to a jazzier,more mature groove had something to do with that. Andre Fischer would be ejected from the group after this album. And it ended up being a dry run for both the bands future career as session aces and Chaka’s solo career that was right around the corner for her.

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Teddy Pendergrass’s Self Titled Debut Album Is About To Turn 40: A Blue Note Goes Solo

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Teddy Pendergrass’s debut album will be 40 years old this coming June 12th. It was a huge part of the Philly soul renaissance that peaked during the late 70.s 1977 alone was also one of the red letter years,along with 1977,where funky and soulful album masterpieces seemed to dominate the music world in general. Since this coming Sunday would’ve Teddy’s 67th birthday,it seemed fitting to give his classic debut album upon leaving Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes an overview. And luckily I already wrote one via Amazon.com,shortly after his passing in early 2010,that can be presented here.


Well here I go copping out lol. Teddy Pendergrass has just passed and here I am reviewing him for the first time. Interesting how when someone isn’t with us anymore that sometimes our thoughts about their artistry really come to the surface. In this case it’s a good thing because this is Teddy’s debut solo album and it was and still is a joyous occasion all around. This is one of those albums that,among it’s eight tracks you’ll be hard pressed to find a dud in the bunch.

Between the writing,production and lyrics of Gamble & Huff and the unmistakable sound of MFSB there is a level of consistency and musical potency here that so many people making their solo debut outside a group setting can hope to achieve. It wasn’t as if Teddy hadn’t already achieved a brilliant level of quality with the Blue Notes but at the same time he only outdid himself here. With the varying rhythms,tasty orchestration weaving in and out of the songs and Teddy’s elastic shouts and gruff coos not only made him a huge star with this release but made huge creative strides as well.

The tempo is raised on “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” and again,there’s a message in the music: let what that message is be a surprise when you hear it. Not only that but the percussive groove and the instrumental rhythms within them cross the boundaries between soul,funk,Latin,pop and disco music with such an ease you may in fact forget that the very nature of the Philly Sound embraces all of those flavors into it’s own sound with the musicality of those involved running on all thrusters.

“Be Sure”,the hit “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get,The More I Want” are all equally shimmering jams all emphasizing the same type of idea and all with the same catchy and well arranged tunes as well. As with many albums of this era the the mid tempo tunes really give singer and musicians the opportunity to stretch out in different ways. The soulful “Somebody Told Me” and the Latin inflected groove of “Easy,Easy,Got To Take It Easy” both allow the heavy,easy and mid range of Teddy’s vocal instrument to announce the versatility he was capable of.

“And If I Had” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” of course give you two of those great Teddy ballads,building on the same foundation as the uptempo tunes he does here. On this album Teddy sings about the ins and outs of romance,the twists and turns of the sexual revolution and the social concerns of people at the time-all embodying the strengths of the Philly Sound and few solo performers pulled it off quite the way Teddy did. In the end you have as astonishing a debut as anyone could possibly ask for.


Teddy Pendergrass: 1950-2010

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Blackstar: David Bowie’s Swansong Nearly A Year Later

Blackstar

David Bowie’s final album Blackstar doesn’t likely require much of a push from someone like me. It was a musically powerful final album from Bowie. And as depressing as it may seem,much of its notoriety likely derived from 2016’s unfortunate obsession with the cult of the dead. As you all know,my focus on reviewing songs and albums tends to be on music that’s happy in nature. Don’t personally listen to a lot of dark,depressing music. And  Blackstar has extremely dark lyrics and compositional approaches. What I didn’t know when it came out was that David Bowie was dying of cancer while making it.

There were elements of the album that reminded me of the somewhat brooding avante garde jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis’s earlier electric albums-mixed with its electronic and baroque elements. As my father informed me from his reading, a lot of this had to due with California jazz sax player Donny McCaslin. Bowie was an admire of his. And invited McCaslin to work on his new album with him. Thinking he was only there for the song “Sue”,turns out Bowie desired him to be present for the entire album. As for my first impressions on the album,here’s what I wrote roughly a year ago for Amazon.com:


While it seemed a personal opinion to me at first? It seems that 2015 was a very dark and tense year. Both in terms of America and the rest of the world. It was the first time in several years that I didn’t personally collect a lot of new music. Much of what came out, even from artists I normally enjoyed,seemed tame and lacking in vitality. It’s hard to believe it’s been over three years since David Bowie made his comeback after a decades absence with [[ASIN:B00AYHKIZ6 The Next Day]]. To be honest? Wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be that long until another album arrived. Due in part to being busy in my own life lately? Haven’t kept track of much new music in months. Until this birthday surprise from this artist arrived.

The title song that opens the album clocks in at near ten minutes. Within that time it combines a Gothic opera string arrangement with sections of both industrial drum ‘n bass and stomping 60’s style funky soul. “Tis Pity She Was A Whore” is a dramatically discordant dance rocker with it’s own unique sense of melody. “Lazarus” is a crawling alternative jazz/rock number with some sad,wailing sax. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime” has a similar flavor to the album opener-only with a more consistent rock flavor. “Dollar Days” is a plaintive acoustic guitar/piano led ballad while “I Can’t Give Everything Away” concludes it all with a densely arranged drum machine and harmonica led dance/rocker.

Overall this album has all the instrumental hallmarks of a David Bowie record. Soul,electronica,rock and opera are all combined together into an eclectic musical stew through which he and his musicians can thoroughly explore their melody and different senses of harmonies. Everything from the title and the imagery of both the packages as well as the lyrics are extremely world weary. So would have to agree with a lot of reviews this has at least that in common with the man’s mid/late 90’s output. That being said? It all ends with what seems like lessons learned,and the possibility of the future having good things to offer. A very good album from an artist who can handle the darkness of life with genuine eloquence and beauty.


It was of course only a few short days after writing this review that I learned of Bowie’s passing. At that time,I considered actually editing my Amazon review to accommodate the what was revealed as the cause of death. Elected not to do that. It was a good choice because,as the year went on,I began to learn other things about what went into the making of Blackstar. And decided it might be a better topic to deal with in terms of a fuller write up along with my original review on this blog. At the end of the day,its a great balancing of moods (musically and thematically) for a music icon about to leave us behind.

 

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Lonnie Liston Smith & His Funky Cosmic Echoes

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Lonnie Liston Smith represents for me the very reason why the icons of the 70’s jazz/funk genre should not be so unsung. I was exposed to Smith’s music during the late 90’s by my father. For the next decade and beyond,I deeply emerged myself in the in whatever music from him came my way. Having come up playing with free jazz icons Pharaoh Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk,he also worked with fusion pioneer Miles Davis. Smith would end up being a significant link between those two styles of jazz. His sound also opened the door  for contemporary chill jazz as well.

It was during the end of his time with Miles that Smith began putting together the Cosmic Echoes-some members coming right out of Miles’s band. He had bassist Cecil McBee,George Barron on saxes,guitarist Joe Beck and Miles alumni James Mtume as one of a quartet of strong percussionists. Was intending to do one of Smith’s songs as an Anatomy of THE Groove segment. At the end of the day though,Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes were album artists. So I am going to present an overview of their first five albums through my reviews of them from Amazon.com.


Astral Travelling/1973

With a pedigree extending from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers all the way up through his work with Pharaoh Sanders,it was very likely that keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith would have a good chance of changing the face of jazz as a leader. When Miles Davis made his earliest electric jazz works such as Filles De Kilimanjaro and Bitches Brew,he was inspired by psychedelia and the more avant garde side rock and jazz rather than anything pop oriented or commercial.

As a matter of fact Miles alum Herbie Hancock came at his earliest electric albums from the same approach. This would’ve been known as the “cosmic jazz” movement that embraced psychedelia,free jazz and electricity into exciting new combinations. For his part Smith was all set to take this already expansive music into a world of his own.

This album begins with the title song-filled with dancing percussion and the flowing scales Smith gets out of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. “Let Us Into The House Of The Lord” even more deeply explores the meaningful beauty of Smith’s electric keyboard textures-multi tracked for a wonderfully symphonic effect.

“Rejuvenation” and the closing “Aspirations” both extend from this joyous free-bop style rhythm with saxophonist George Barron inventing one penetrating melody after another harmonizing with Smith’s electric and acoustic piano. “I Mani (Faith)” starts off very gently but in the middle Barron’s sax solo begins to reflect the same intense,free associative playing associated with Smith’s former band leader Pharaoh Sanders. “In Search Of The Truth” finds both Smith and Barron again harmonizing their melodies beautifully over a round acoustic bass line interestingly reminiscent of the hook in “Love Potion Number 9”.

Every Lonnie Liston Smith album I’ve ever heard is like it’s own singular extension on a long and often continuing musical and,on later albums,lyrical journey. This album on the other hand is quite a different way to start even from that. Essentially it uses the Smith’s electric piano textures in what amounts to an acoustic free jazz setting with sax,bass,drums and percussion.

With it’s emphasis on rhythm through the heavy Afrocentric percussion and the swelling drum sound the music achieves,the melodies flowing from within them are more than capable of taking your thought process on a meaningful journey without the use of any mind altering chemicals. It’s very much an extension of the social ethic of the era when,for the first time perhaps ever the African American community were strongly emphasizing the regal and spiritual aspect of their heritage. This is a potent reminder of the importance of the funk/jazz era outside the stereotype of commercial dance music: music like this that contained the power to make the souls of the people move.

Cosmic Funk/1974

The spiritual musicality showcased on Lonnie Liston Smith’s first two albums were actually so individual they were in need of a word which would define what they were. They weren’t free jazz,the weren’t African music,they weren’t soul and they weren’t funk precisely. Somehow or other they embraced them all in new and unexpected ways.

It was very much a extension off of where jazz was starting to go in the junction between the avant garde and fusion. When your an artist however there does tend to be the need to be able to define the music you make outside a fairly impersonal label of a genre. It looks as if,very likely by coincidence,that Smith and the Cosmic Echoes actually came across that definition for the music they did with the title of this album.

The title song to his adds a much stronger (and somewhat more identifiable) funk influence to it-with the drum breaks,deep bass line and phat wah-wah guitar taking center stage along with Smith’s electric piano textures. On the vocal numbers “Beautiful Woman”,”Peaceful Ones” and the instrumental “Sais” the more cosmic end of the groove takes shape again on three wonderfully flowing numbers again strongly emphasizing the arrangements created with the dripping sound of Smith’s phase echoed Fender Rhodes.

“Footprints” has a more collective jazz flavor that goes back to a degree to the sound the Cosmic Echoes had on their debut album a year earlier. The album concludes with a wonderful vocal take on John Coltrane’s standard “Naimia”,again prominently showcasing Smith’s unique electric piano sound.

It’s very seldom in jazz funk circles outside the Crusaders do I ever hear a sound and instrumental style as well oiled and musically expansive as that of Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes. This album really served,along with their previous release Expansions to give their sound it’s signature quality that would make all the difference in the next few years.

Smith’s career would be a fairly long and creatively fruitful one. Much like Art Blakey,John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and the jazz greats he clearly admired he sought to uplift the spiritual quality of the music as it entered into it’s electric funk period. Creatively he succeeded on a level that it seems a lot of people with a great passion for music have embraced fully.

Expansions/1974

During the early 1970’s there was a massive change in the cultural consciousness of the African American community that changed the way they looked at themselves in the context of the world. African physical attributes,fashion,music and history was now understood to be a thing of great beauty and significance,rather than being some type of ignorant and primitive past that was in need of being rejected.

This had an enormous effect of literature,art,motion pictures and music. No coincidence that this all occurred surrounding what is sometimes referred to as the funk era. And jazz,enormous in the development of his new Afrocentric consciousness was making an enormous impact in and around all of this. Creatively speaking it was the idea creative environment for a talent with the creative stature of Lonnie Liston Smith.

The title song of this album could actually have been the anthem for Lonnie’s entire musical career. With fast faced,percussion poly-rhythms blending seamlessly with the meditative melodies of Smith’s phase-amp’d Fender Rhodes electric piano this funk mantra for peace and meaning in life extends beautifully into the instrumentals “Desert Nights” and “Voodoo Woman”,both of which stretch out that musical flavor into layers of flamboyantly beautiful,grooving electric piano improvisations.

“Summer Days” is a song that has a major key melody that expresses a great deal of joyousness and harmony as well,only on a mildly more active level,through a similarly themed impulse. “Shadows” takes you to a whole other place entirely with an electric piano effect like trickling water with these captivating horn phrases. “Peace” and the more uptempo “My Love” both express a similar harmonious impulse on very melodic vocal Latin jazz type numbers.

While his debut ‘Astral Traveling’ really got Lonnie Liston Smith on the map as a musical force on his own,this is the album that really went a long way at defining his sound. It’s also where he went for a heavier electric sound and began to thoroughly embrace the jazz-funk fusion sound with which he’s most often associated. He did non of this however to make a lot of money and/or sell out. His interest was in reaching the people with the power of his music and the spiritualism of his lyrical tones,both vocal and instrumental.

I realize a lot of people might get music like this mainly because they are fans of funk,rare groove or jazz and see it mainly for it’s nostalgic value. Fact is though it’s important that the message that this music,both instrumentally and lyrically,was trying to present not be forgotten either. This has the potential to be deeply influential for any funk,soul,R&B and jazz musician even today. And on a level they may not be able to put into words. That should also be considered when taking this album in.

Visions Of A New World/1975

The mid 1970’s were the prime years for what writer Ricky Vincent categorized as the “united funk” era. Music that celebrated the communal style of African American musicianship that was at the very core of funk’s creation from the beginning had become like a giant musical pine cone. It was a whole made up of many parts,scattering seeds everywhere and sprouting with new varieties of the groove from jazz to dance oriented sounds.

The last several Lonnie Liston Smith albums had been primarily jazz oriented affairs with a number of funk/R&B references-concentrating more on creating a unique instrumental feeling and flavor than with concentrating on being one genre or the other. However the jazz-funk movement of the time was almost ideal for Smith’s type of compositional style and playing. And since his previous album ‘Cosmic Funk’ was already headed straight into the realm of the groove,he went all the way there with this one.

“A Chance For Peace” is the song that really pulls it all together: the sound washes of echoed electric piano,heavier use of the ARP synthesizer and a beautifully percussive drum sound. “Love Beams” takes a very period Stevie Wonder-like rhythmic and melodic texture-adding a soprano sax melody that plays few notes but extends the ones it plays wonderfully.

“Sunset” evokes a similar flavor,only with Smith taking over on his beautifully trickling acoustic piano sound. “Colors Of The Rainbow” is a down and out electric jazz anthemic mantra with a dramatically sung and inspiring vocal part. “Devika (Goddess)” gets down deep into the most spiritual end of hard funk with a driving bass line leading the way. The title song however is a real centerpiece. Starting from a more atmospheric intro it goes into the Brazilian style,hyperactive and poly-rhythmic funk-jazz jam filled with bright melodic color,with it’s joyous Clavinet riffing.

“Summer Nights” ends the album on that same rhythmic and instrumental tone that is reflected throughout the slower songs on the album. At least to me this album stands as the most consistently fluid and funky album Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes made during their salad years. It serves as every bit the culmination of where Smith was taking his musical vision since he left Pharaoh Sanders and released his debut ‘Astral Traveling’.

There was definitely something about this era of funk that was very special in general. If one marvels at the music recorded and played by Earth Wind & Fire,Kool & The Gang,Gil Scott Heron,Stevie Wonder,Curtis Mayfield,Rufus and the Isley Brothers during this time you’d be presented with rhythmically and melodically challenging music that was all at once catchy,wonderful to dance to and had your mind moving in directions you might never have suspected. And in it’s own way,this particular expression of that era almost captures that spirit on it’s highest level.

Reflections Of A Golden Dawn/1976

Visions of a New World was likely the most consistently flowing album Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes had done thus far,at least from the funk perspective. His instrumental and compositional style had fully grown into himself. He had entered into his peak period as a musician. And was poised as one of the major creative innovators of the spiritual end of the jazz-funk sound. In the year between that album and this,there began to be signs of a chance on the musical horizon in terms of funk.

The type of rhythm that would eventually evolve into the disco-dance style was beginning to make itself noticed. At the time,it actually seemed like a welcomed contribution compared to how it would be perceived by the public several years later. Lonnie Liston Smith’s musical path in the 70’s had basically been one of consistent rhythmic revolutions. And since there was something new on that horizon,Smith was enthusiastic to embrace the rhythms of the times.

“Get Down Everybody (It’s Time For World Peace)” approaches the new dance funk sound in a manner similar to Brass Construction-filled with high octane Afro-Latin percussion. On the other hand it keeps it’s foot firmly inside the message of his music,even adding a little melodic reference from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On on the refrain. It’s probably one of the strongest uptempo tracks Smith ever made.

“Quiet Dawn” and “Meditations” return to his signiature sound of richly melodic keyboard textures,only far sleeker and slippery than the usual open sound he got with this approach. “Sunbeams” and “Beautiful Woman” (revisited from his Cosmic Funk album) both have a bright sunshine funk groove to them-full of major key melodies and rhythmic joyousness. “Peace & Love” takes that to another level,reaching right into the hardcore uptempo funk end again with a meaningful message and one of the slipperiest bass lines Smith has ever had in his music.

“Goddess Of Love” and the slower “Golden Dreams” both musically come out of a place that’s hard to explain even for Smith. They are sleekly produced yet as meditatively swelling romantic jazzy grooves as he ever put down. On “Journey Into Space”,interestingly enough he presents one of his view songs with a very prominent African influence-both rhythmically and harmonically. Overall this album is very much an even stronger expansion on what came before.

In fact this and it’s predecessor could album be two parts. There are some differences though. The production on this is far more slick and the instrumental tone is somewhat less round than it was on earlier albums. That’s especially true to Smith’s keyboards. In the end the slight change in production style does the music good because it helps to add yet a new musical color to Lonnie Liston Smith’s already vibrant musical rainbow. Musically it’s another extremely strong release and definitely something to be proud of.


With those five albums reviews spanning 1974-1976,I hope that the general aura of Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes comes through. As John Coltrane had in acoustic jazz a decade before him,Smith viewed his style of jazz/funk as a medium that could speak to people’s souls. That there could be a certain harmonic atmosphere along with the rhythms. Its probably the closest jazz-funk got to what we’d call new age music now. Even so,all of it comes from completely Afrocentric terms. And that what makes Lonnie Liston Smith,however unsung,such an important figure in the world of 70’s jazz/funk.

 

 

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