Tag Archives: avant-garde

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Freaks For The Festival” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, born Ronald Theodore in Columbus,Ohio, had a creative ethic strongly connected to his nigh time dreaming. That includes the two changes he made to his given name. As he started leading his own bands, his music grew from its hard bop roots to bring in elements of the avant garde and even older jazz styles such as ragtime. Kirk’s music also thematically explored the black power ethic of the 60’s-with a socially conscious comic wit that perhaps influenced 70’s funk era icons as George Clinton. As a multi instrumentalist, particularly with reed instruments, he was also a major innovator.

Blind from childhood due to a botched medical treatment, he developed a form of playing that has thematically broken records. It was known as circular breathing-which allowed him to sustain complex notes on saxophone almost indefinitely. Not to mention often playing three saxes at the same time. One album of his my father often playing parts of for me as a child was 1975’s The Case Of The 3 Sides Dream In Audio Color. It was a double album whose fourth side was largely empty saves for a sound snippet at the end. The song from it I’m talking about today though is called “Freaks At The Festival”.

Kirk’s rapping starts out the song before the ultra funky JB’s/Clyde Stubblefield style drum comes in-soon accompanied by Kirk’s bass sax melody. After this, his self made “one man horn section” accompanies the ever more flamboyant drumming, an amazing and complex funky electric jazz bass line. During the third chorus in, Kirk’s flute solo accompanies what I’m pretty sure is Richard Tee’s Fender Rhodes piano-with Kirk and the band exchange some their vocal raps. With some of the sax tones having some heavy fuzz peddle on them-all before everything comes to a big musical climax at the end.

“Freaks At The Festival” musically reminds me of what one might get if Cannonball Adderley,Art Ensemble Of Chicago and The JB’s all got together to do an avant funk record. The sound that the instrumentalists (who are hard to pin down due to crediting and my knowledge level at identifying musicians) is alternately controlled, focused, rhythmic and thematically chaotic. The wild way in which the melodies are played contrast heavily with its coherent funk rhythm attitude. And knowing what I know of him, this is one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s most defining songs that I’ve yet heard.

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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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Grooves On Wax: Black Wax In Black Music Month

James Brown Showtime

James Brown’s albums up to the beginning of the mid 60’s seem to be helpful in showcasing what was influential on the future Godfather Of Soul. This 1964 album,his debut for Smash,is an excellent example of this. JB starts out with a spirited cover of the R&B classic “Caledonia”,originally by Louie Jordan & The Timpani Five. As a studio album overdubbed with applause,these songs find JB singing the blues on a number of rhythm & blues shuffles-removed for the most part from his typical live show of the era.

Key Jams: “Evil” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”

Mirium Makeba

Miriam Makeba is an artist I’ve always interesting in hearing more from. This is an excellent album from 1967 for her. It really does a lot to bring out the sound of African soul-with a lot of elements that would eventually go into the world fusion sound in the future. Especially with the songs not all being sung in English. She even adds a folk song called “A Piece Of Ground”-which runs down the horrid inequity of apartheid in South Africa.

Key Jam: “Pata Pata”

Odyssey Of Iska

Wayne Shorter made this 1971 avant garde jazz album as he was transitioning from Miles Davis’s second quintet of the mid/late 60’s onto fusion pioneers Weather Report. And it really shows as Gene Bertoncini’s guitar-with it’s rhythmic overdrive along with former quintet made Ron Carter’s bass and Alphonse Mouzan’s drumming give this album the kind of Afro-Brazilian jazz/funk process sound Miles himself was already diving headlong into.

Key Jams: “Storm”,“De Pois Do Amor,O Vazio” and “Joy”osibisa-woyaya(16)

Osibisa are a  British,mostly Ghanan Afro pop group who were first described to me as being called “Obsidica”,and sounding like the Isley Brothers. Neither of those things being true of course,this 1971 album is in the Afro-Latin funk/rock/soul collection jamming much in the style of Mandrill and Santana.

Key Jams: “Beautiful Seven” and “Move On.

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Roberta Flack is someone who today could almost be considered the godmother of neo-soul. Her understated vocal approach and naturally based instrumental style was a precurser of that. Especially on her earlier albums.  On these records though,they caught some heavily funky fire on a song or two. This 1971 release actually has a bit more than others-especially her ultra gospel drenched version of the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody”.

Key Jams: “Go Up Moses” and “Sunday And Sister Jones”

Edwin Birdsong

Edwin Birdsong,keyboardist and songwriter for the Roy Ayers Ubiquity who later worked with Stevie Wonder,really put himself out on this ultra funky 1972 debut album. He was a heavy purveyor of sociopolitical “people music” message songs as well. Even the lone ballad “It Ain’t No Fun Being a Welfare Recipient” tells the kind of story you generally don’t hear on too many slow jams. Birdsong’s holds-no-barred approach to humanitarian lyricism really inspires my personal funky emotions.

Key Jams:”The Uncle Tom Game” and “When A Newborn Baby Is Born,The Gets One More Chance” 

Open Sesame

Kool & The Gang totally reinvent the chemistry of their groove on this 1976 album,in their positions as The Scientists Of Sound. The jacket folds in half on the front to find portraits of the band members in the garb of Morrish royalty. From the casting of the “genie of sound” on the title song onward,this album finds their sound in direct transition from the heavy jazz/funk based sound of their earlier music to the disco era soul/funk melodicism of their under appreciated late 70’s pre JT Taylor period.

Key Jams: “Open Sesame”,“All Night Long” and “Super Band”

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Brick’s sophomore album was where I discovered this heavily jazz based disco funk band. This 1976 debut album for them really helped put together their “disco jazz” type of music very well-with songs that featured more instrumental oriented jamming on many of the songs rather than the more heavily constructed pop type songs they would be known for on their following recordings.

Key Jams: “Dazz” and “Brick City”

Melba Moore

Melba Moore’s Broadway experience really helped her theatrical variety of heavily orchestrated soul balladry and disco/dance records she recorded during the 70’s. This 1978 album from her,produced by the Philly team of McFadden & Whitehead,contains one of my very favorite songs by her in the funkified “You Stepped Into My Life”.

Key Jams: “You Stepped Into My Life” and “It’s Hard Not To Like You”

Ohio Players - Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee -

The Ohio Players final album for Mercury from 1978 has gotten very mixed views from fans of this classic funk band. Yet from the very beginning,they make it more than clear that the then burgeoning disco sound was not yet effecting their heavy funkiness. As a matter of fact,this particular album is home to some of the hardest hitting funk the band ever made.

Key Jams: “Funk-O-Nots”,“Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee” and “Dance (If You Wanta)”

Pleasure

Pleasure’s jazz-funk sound out of Portland,Oregon is one that I am just beginning to explore. This 1980 album of theirs has become something of a big deal in recent years. With their sophistifunk production and jazzy instrumental solos,the band seem to have made their mark in the annals of funk as it transitioned from the 70’s onto the 80’s.

Key Jams: “Now You Choose Me” and “Yearnin’ Burnin'”

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Brass Construction’s title song for this 1982 album was one I thought came from Cameo due to a mislabeled MP3 sometime ago. It led me to the vinyl album,which is now recognizable as the bands transition to the stripped down,electro/naked/boogie funk sound of the early 80’s. It’s almost completely uptempo funk based saved for the jazzy mid tempo ballad “ETC”.

Key Jams: “Can You See The Light”,“Forever Love” and “Attitude”

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Slave were the last and youngest of the classic Dayton,Ohio funk bands,and were some of the architects of the boogie funk sound. That’s very prominent on this 1983 album,their first album of the 80’s without Steve Arrington. Actually,it’s a strong transition from their original live band approach to their more electro funk oriented sound that was about to come.

Key Jams: “Steppin’ Out” , “Turn You Out (In & Out)” and “Show Down”

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Ernie and Marvin Isley along with Chris Jasper struck out as their own trio in 1984. This debut album from the same year is actually one of the strongest boogie funk albums of its era. That’s because the brittle drum machines are accented by the same powerful percussion the 3+3 Isley Brothers were known for.  That rhythmic approach mixed with layers of synthesizers,bass and guitar make this an superb extension  of the Isley sound as heard on the Between The Sheets from a year earlier.

Key Jams: “Serve You Right” and “Break This Chain

 

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, Afro Funk, avant-garde, Blues, Brass Construction, Brick, Edwin Birdsong, electro funk, Funk, funk albums, Isley-Jasper-Isley, James Brown, Kool & The Gang, Melba Moore, Miriam Makeba, Ohio Players, Osibisa, Pleasure, rhythm & blues, Roberta Flack, Slave, Uncategorized, Vinyl, Wayne Shorter

Improvisations – Joe McPhee

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Improvisations

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Filed under avant-garde, free jazz, Joe McPhee, multi instrumentalists, Ron Wynn, Saxophone