Tag Archives: ballads

Is It Still Good To Ya: A Tribute To Both The Late Nick Ashford & To The 40th Anniversary Of This Classic Ashford & Simpson album

 

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Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.

After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number

“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.

It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.

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James Brown-Live At The Apollo, Round Two On Record, At Nearly Half a Century

James Brown’s career had a major turning point during 1967-68. Musically speaking,h is songs were not only taking on a completely different character instrumentally. But in terms of format? He had gone from 3-4 minute doo-wop soul balladry to extended,horn based dance jams that were getting their rhythmic character from Latin boogaloo and African high life music. This, of course was known as funk. With the recent passing of John “Jabo” Starks, who played in tandem with the late Clyde Stubblefield during this period very heavily, it seemed a good time to discuss JB’s own funk process onstage.

The “funk process” was entering it’s peak for James Brown. As was his sociopolitical consciousness and activity. During the summer of love, and the emergence of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, many black American’s in the early/mid 30’s even at the time were still very much in love with the suited up, processed haired JB. One who was a dramatic, gospel fueled soul balladeer. While his persona was still in the same place, James Brown’s second live recording at the Apollo would have to serve to illustrate the change in perception of his artistry.

The album begins with an introduction that goes into a faster tempo’d,heavy grooving version of “Think”, where James duets with the sassy Marva Whitney. “I Want To Be Around” and “That’s Life” are both ballad standards making strong use of orchestration and his Famous Flames. “Kansas City” is done at a very fast tempo and in a different key than I usually hear this sometimes over covered song played in. It is through “Let Yourself Go”,”There Was A Time” and “I Feel Alright” are an elongated,bass/guitar driven funky process all it’s on that leads to…”Cold Sweat” of course-his big record at the time.

After an equally furious tempo on “It May Be The Last Time” and a brief intro of “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, JB goes into an elongated version of “Prisoner Of Love”-similar in approach to “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Lost Someone” later in the album. “Bring It Up” has another a very fast tempo similar to “Please Please Please”, which concludes the album. “”Try Me” meanwhile is done more traditionally.  I once heard this  album described as erratic it sounding- likely because it emphasized extended soul ballads rather than focusing on JB’s funk innovations of the late 60’s.
On the surface, there actually is some fact in that. Taking this album out of the literary context and back into the more human one? The fact these ballads are done in 7-10 minutes lengths is musically futurist for soul as well-anticipating the approach Barry White and Isaac Hayes would take several years later on conceptually thick studio albums with a similar style format. Likewise, the shorter uptempo numbers (which are often combined together here) anticipated the musical formats of the disco era medley’s that would show up within a decade from this albums release.
Also, this allowed more vocal oriented fans of James Brown to acclimate to the idea of extended runs. Also,when the funk is on fire here? It’s SERIOUSLY on fire-probably because it was performed as it was being innovated. Not to mention how these JB’s musical innovations were generally closely linked with his live performances. Combined with James’ grateful, appreciative and loving interaction with the audience? This is also JB’s key transitional moment as a performer-as he was further emphasizing the instrumental sound of the JB’s more then the vocal centered one of the Famous Flames.

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Bootsy? Player Of The Year At Just Over 40 Years Old!

Bootsy Collins’ career as a band leader started around 1971 when he and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins put together The House Guests in Cincinnati. And after five years of being folded into George Clinton’s P-Funk collective of Funkalelic and Parliament. In 1976, Bootsy merged some of those former House Guests with other members of P-Funk to form The Rubber Band. From the very beginning, the venture revolved around Bootsy and his stage persona. So he and the Rubber Band’s cartoon like concept attracted a younger audience into enjoying P-Funk.

By1978 , the P-Funk juggernaut was at it’s prime. It had spin off acts flying all over the place. And has a loyal fan base keeping a vested interest. On this album we start out with Bootsy declaring “what’s the name of your town?” on..”Bootsy’s What’s The Name Of This Town”, a frantically quick tempo’d stew of bass/drum rhythm with call and response vocal exchanges. It’s flat out hyper-energized funk. “May The Force Be With You” is a great example of ballad paced funk-with Bootsy’s thick bass pops and the choral vocals illustrating a sexually charged Star Wars metaphor.

The trill falsetto voiced Gary Mudbone Cooper (in contrast with the quirky sighs of Robert “P-Nut” Johnson) takes the lead on the the rather soul/reggae oriented love song of “Very Yes”-cooing in a comically alluring yet sensuous manner. This all continues with “Bootzilla” which, along with “Roto-Rooter” both meld rhythmically exciting,full band funk-thick with orchestral synthesizers and a Bootsy’s explosive instrumental presence. “Hollywood Squares” is a slower crawling, foot stomping  P-Funk number.  These songs embrace that classic P-Funk embrace of satirizing American advertising slogans.

This form of satire comes right from the black DJ tradition. And late 70’s P-Funk expanded on them to promote their own musical concept. “I Love You” features P-Nut and Mudbone again on a more fluid,very jazzy oriented slow groove ballad with strong psychedelic undertones. This album represents Bootsy’s Rubber Band right in it’s musical prime. The energy level,even on the slower songs,is just infectious. And considering P-Funk’s relatively nil commercial reception in the long term scope of things? One doesn’t require the charts for success because as Bootsy might say? The proof is in the footing.

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Life Is A Song Worth Singing’ by Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass, at least for his part, wasn’t keen on the notion that he’d be a contributor to the notion that there was a shortage of high quality music in 1978. Life Is A Song Worth Singing stands out as a strong example to the contrary. As potent as the Philly sound was in the 70’s, there were signs in the middle of the decade that there was a need to adapt the style in order to accommodate changes in the R&B/soul/funk world of music. Gamble & Huff already had been doing that as far back their second album with The Jacksons’ Goin’ Places.

Gamble & Huff were taking basic Philly orchestral soul/funk/disco sound, and swinging it just a bit harder driving. Where orchestration was a major part of the whole on Teddy’s debut, this album takes a different approach already with the first two cuts-including the title song and “Only You”. The strings take a strong backseat whereas the horns are upped in the mix. And the slower beats and rhythms are channeled into the same forward thinking musical approach. All with a strong use of rhythmic style electronics and keyboard textures while still being very recognizably the Philly Sound.

The title track not only showcases this production style to a strong degree, but has an excellent message about taking the time to find an inner strength (and hope in yourself) in times of crisis. It’s a message of self determination that Teddy is channeling directly from what James Brown,Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield did before him and extended into the disco/funk era pretty much uncut. And I also have to thank Gamble & Huff for keeping that going too. “Cold, Cold World” offers another message of hope on a great mid-tempo tune that looks to the same new direction as the faster tempo beginnings.

The new direction of “Cold, Cold World” is a modernistic sweet funk type of sound- given a toughness largely due to Teddy’s dynamics and that of the arrangement. The classic “Close The Door” and “When Somebody Loves You Back” offer up similar concepts right where one needs them. “Get Up,Get Down,Get Funky,Get Loose” is definitely a classic “Philly Jump” kind of tune and an example of the most positive direction disco was going at this time..  Now “It Don’t Hurt Now” is the slowest song here however it extends on the overall positively affirming and genuine good intentions of these songs messages.

As with its predecessor Life Is A Song Worth Singing makes you think, makes you happy and is romantically and creatively satisfying at the same time. And that makes it yet another example of an album that avoids the sophomore slump syndrome  It’s also a prime example of what made Teddy Pendergrass such a great voice and artist. And on this album, Teddy also represented what writer Rickey Vincent referred to as the black male soul singer as a symbol of strength and pride. This makes Life Is A Song Worth Singing one of Teddy’s definitive albums.

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‘Chaka’-Life Is A Dance: Almost 40 Years Of Chaka Khan’s Debut Solo Album On Her 65th Birthday

Chaka Khan made a detour from Rufus in 1978 (just before they recorded their Street Player  album with her) to record her solo debut album. This came at a time when her  massively successful period as the lead singer of that band was beginning to become less personally fulfilling. With a more than enviable group of musicians at her disposal who all spanned the jazz, R&B and soul spectrum, the potent musical environment she was in an excellent position to create her persona outside of Rufus. It was  her presence that helped bring out the individual sound of  that band.

The question was still probably at this point about whether it was Rufus who were making Chaka the success she’d become. Or was it the other way around? This album actually revealed that it was a potent combination of both. “I’m Every Woman” of course starts things out,Chaka’s solo anthem and every bit a late 70’s Ashford & Simpson, piano laden disco-soul number if there ever was one. “Love Has Fallen On Me” is musically ideal for Chaka as the Charles Stepney composition has these heavy gospel/soul-jazz type chords and this intense change in arrangement.

“Roll Me Through The Rushes” actually extends the gospel flavor on what starts out as a very slow, electric piano heavy ballad than goes into some heavy funk at the end. “Sleep On It” and “We Got The Love”,with George Benson are both superbly grooving jazz-funk numbers filled with Richard Tee’s beautiful processed Fender Rhodes piano playing . “Life Is A Dance”, “Some Love”- with its chunky slap bass/wah wah guitar interaction, and “Message In The Middle Of The Bottom” get down to business with some gloriously produced funk that represent the most grooving songs here.

This album also features the more jazz-funk side of disco soul here on “A Woman In A Man’s World”,the more somber flip side to “I’m Every Woman” lyrically and closes with a potent,musically modernized update of “I Was Made To Love Him”,originally by Stevie Wonder and sung from a woman’s point of view. As a matter of fact, it’s the woman’s point of view that defines this album. Chaka presents herself here,from the cover art to the lyrics,as someone with a great deal of sex appeal but someone you could have an extremely deep conversation with as well.

Chaka’s creative approach is always very honest. In terms of her singing, this album is both instrumentally and vocally one of the more ambitious of her solo albums. This was helped all the more by the masterful production of the late, great Arif Mardin. The range of tempo and instrumentation in the material is diverse, not always 100% commercial and she even does herself one better than her customary singing her own back up vocals-all  by multi tracking them with some fuzzed out echo here for a symphony of Chaka’s. And for a wonderful a, promising debut  that gets better with each listening.

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Come Get It!’ by Rick James

Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown.  From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.

“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.

“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.

When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.

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88 On The Longplay: ‘Giving You The Best That I Got’ by Anita Baker

Anita Baker’s music always felt (to my childhood self ) like what it might’ve been like to be an adult. The music and lyrics came off as so learned and experienced in life. This is one of the key qualities of Baker’s music that I share a common interest in with my friend Henrique. Another quality that Baker’s 1988 album Giving You The Best That I Got is that it presents a relatively small group of musicians. With a sound that’s immaculately produced and compositionally strong all at once. As the follow up to the blockbuster album Rapture this album often suffered from unfair comparisons.

After all, when you have an album like that? Its usually a nearly impossible act to follow. Now I’ve been hearing this album in one way or another since the day it came out? I have to say that this album is packed with great songs and as always Anita’s distinctive voice. Between the styles of Sarah Vaughn, and several years later with Toni Braxton, has any female vocalist been able to almost instrumentally work their way around a song the way Anita does on songs such as “Priceless” and the title cut.  These are vital R&B/jazz compositions.

These compositions are to strong grooves Anita made famous beforehand. But on tracks like “Rules”, the barrier that developed between jazz and R&B melted right away. The instrumental  sound of these songs are both concise and elegantly produced. And that’s no small feat to accomplish. Michael J. Powell, founder of Baker’s former band Chapter 8, did a masterful job in that regard for this album. Critic/writer Nelson George described the kind of music Anita Baker specialized in as “retro nouveau” in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues. And I suppose it fits as well as any.

Songs such as “Lead Me Into Love”,”Good Love”,”Just Because”,”Good Enough” and “You Belong To Me” assure this album has no filler at all. The level of songwriting consistency is maintained throughout every one of these songs. Elektra was really and sound popping with some of the best fusions of jazz-pop, quiet storm and R&B/funk during the course of the 80’s. That tends to be what happens when musicians such as Omar Hakim, Nathan East and the late George Duke get together with a talent like Baker’s.  And if that period of music was a living being? It should be grateful to have had Anita Baker around.

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All ‘N All At 40: Earth Wind & Fire In A Land Called Fantasy

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth full studio album All ‘N All is music that’s continue to grow with me. Since the very first time I heard it. Only a few days before this writing, my friend Henrique even discussed with me how vital it was that EWF had three drummers aboard during their salad years. There was Ralph Johnson, as well as the bands founder and conceptualist in the late Maurice White. As well as his brother Fred. Maurice himself played drums on the song “Runnin'” from this particular album, a song that’s a particularly jazzy affair.

A somewhat humorous anecdote deals with All ‘N All‘s opening song “Serpentine Fire”. Again from Henrique. We were discussing the songs seemingly sexual playfulness. And how slow the tempo of the song was in relation to the rest of the playing. Turns out in timing the tempo, “Serpentine Fire” clomps along at around 69 BPM. So there is past, present and future lessons to be learned from All ‘N All for its listeners. The future is not ours to see of course. And its also important to absorb the past lessons the music on this album has taught. And I can only truly speak on personal experience in that regard.

All ‘N All has it own rich history. EWF as a band had just survived the tragic loss of Charles Stepney-as well as recording much of their following album Spirit without him. Maurice White then took a much needed vacation with his wife to Brazil and became deeply emerged in the Latin rhythms he heard out of Rio and Sau Paulo. Particularly those of Milton Nascimento. Milton and Maurice came to the conclusion that a combination of their sound would be a strong new element within Earth Wind & Fire. Especially since Afro-Latin percussion was already an enormous aspect of their sound.

Flash forward to the mid 1990’s and I am just getting into the albums of EWF. I remember riding my bike seven miles or so across a lot of traffic to get to the local mall area where there was a record store called Strawberries. Browsing through their cassettes I came across this album on tape. Though the cover was much tinier,it touched on a deep interest I’d had in ancient Egypt and the pyramids of Giza since before I even learned how to ride a bicycle to begin with. Recognizing at least one song on it,and seeing it was in my price range? I decided to purchase it.

After getting this tape home, I put it in my portable cassette player and…found myself travelling in a musical world I am going to try my best to explain to you now. Beginning with a somewhat Michael McDonald sounding Clavinet riff from Larry Dunn,”Serpentine Fire” kicks into high gear with clinging Brazilian percussive funk of the most meaningful order. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the lyric’s seemingly flexible meaning,but the slithering rhythmic nature of the music may tell the story even better. I’ve heard it said that “Fantasy” is rhythmically deep into the “4 on the floor” disco beat.

“Fantasy”‘s cinematic atmosphere transcends anything else for a song celebrating romantic imagination. The Kalimba interlude “In The Marketplace” goes into the furious horn funk of “Jupiter”-probably one of their cleanest played and most under heralded funk numbers they ever made. “Love’s Holiday” is a quintessential EWF mid-tempo groove that is more verse oriented when it comes to Maurice’s lyrical approach than his usually melodic style. The first part of Milton’s “Brazilian Rhyme” is next-concluding in a stomping,funky jam with Verdine’s bass bopping brightly.

“I’ll Write A Song For You” could be viewed somewhat as “Reasons” part II instrumentally -with the songs eloquently romantic lyrics building into a fantastically orchestrated climax. “Magic Mind” is another excellent uptempo funk number-with some of the most elaborate soloing from the Phenix Horns. “Runnin” is one of my favorites here. Starting out as a vocalese led melodic jazz-funk/fusion jam from Philip Bailey,the already heavy Afro-Latin strains in the rhythm come to a percussive frenzy by the songs second half-with Larry Dunn’s kinetic synthesizers bridging the two sections together.

“Be Ever Wonderful” closes the album with its only fully gospel/soul derived song on this album-ending with a triumphantly sung mid tempo ballad.  The only way I could even try to explain this is that the way in which the Brazilian rhythms and bouncing melodies on this album are carried out? The entire quality of the music on this album has the feeling of a journey, the feeling of motion towards a compelling knowledge outside oneself . This album brings mystery into focus,and brings time to a slower crawl. And its funk that is both spiritually deep and commercially successful.

All N’ All, from its gatefold artwork to its thematic content, also embraces ideas somewhere between monotheism and pantheism. Maurice White once referred to the albums title itself as referencing that idea of all human religions representing one higher power. EWF also blend in their variation of the classic secular/spiritual soul music themes. The romanticism of humanity seem to even become a spiritual matter on these songs. From the change in the bands logo to a golden roman style font onward, the entire affair was a musical rebirth for a band still deep in their peak musical powers.

The golden annivesary of this album seems far away. But at a mere decade away? It has just occurred to me that by 2027, all of the Earth, Wind & Fire members from this era may have passed away. But as its been said many times, the result of art is ones footprint in time. All ‘N All has the potential for its footprint not to be fully realized until all of its creators are gone. Thinking about the passing of Maurice White last year, his musical spirit in particular permeates this entire album. And he and his band of musical brothers fashioned a funk/jazz/soul masterpiece from that creative synergy.

 

 

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Funky Reflections On 1987: ‘The Right Night And Barry White’

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Personally I don’t think it’s possible to count how many times I’ve seen this CD on the racks of the local record store and never been moved by or aware enough of it to pay any mind. One key issue that had me re-thinking this oversight was a blog written by my oft quoted friend Henrique about an excellent song from this album. It again provided a strong reminder just how much funky music charted high both on radio and with the public during 1987. So it all gave me to understand that this was an album that I DEFINITELY wanted to check out. After doing so? It also shows just how much I missed out on not looking into this from the outset.

“Good Dancin’ Music” and “Sho You Right”,the song the directed me back to this album are both hard hitting,bass synth driven electro funk extravaganza’s with some of the most intricate uses of instrumental harmony I’ve ever heard. “As Time Goes By” is transformed from it’s original ballad style to percussive cinematic funky soul number with a sauntering Caribbean vibe. “For Your Love (I’ll Do Anything)” is a slow crawling,slap bass driven groove while songs such as “There’s A Place Where Love Never Ends”,”Love In Your Eyes”,”I’m Ready For Love”,”Share”,”Who’s The Fool” and the nostalgic title song all fall into his classic ballad style.

This album did an amazing job of showcasing how the more electronic instrumentation of the time was still perfectly able to support the man’s arrangements-especially as well integrated it all was. The music ideas and classic romantic monologues are all used to full affect on here as well. During the years I was growing up? Even if they were coming out fairly close together? Each and every new Barry White album was treated as a major comeback-almost as if he’d somehow disappeared off the map between those releases. In any case? This is one of those albums that I truly wished had been a part of my musical life a lot longer than it has been.

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