George Benson could likely call the 1970’s the salad days of his musical career. He began the decade with an instrumental interpretation of the entire Beatles album Abbey Road. And ended it with a double that included a hit version of L.T.D’s “Love Ballad”-redone as an uptempo song. Benson’s musical virtuosity and style of scat singing in accompaniment to his playing made him a contemporary jazz guitar icon of the decade. Especially combined with his strong, soulful singing voice. Still there is one particular George Benson album from this period I’ve had yet to explore all the way through.
Benson’s second live album Weekend In L.A. was recovered over three days in autumn of 1977 at the West Hollywood Roxy Theater. And released in 1978. Its probably his most famous and popular live album too. Its been a fixture in my family’s record collection since I’ve been alive. But still know it primarily for songs such as “On Broadway” and “The Greatest Love Of All”. Decided that, in lieu of having not yet explored the album as its about to turn 40, decided that it would make some sense to take an in depth look at the albums instrumental title song.
Benson’s introductory solo begins the song-with Harvey Mason and Ralph McDonald’s drum/percussion rhythm laying the groundwork for the Nick DeCaro’s string synthesizer providing some beautiful harmony. Stanley Banks’ round, popping bass line joins in on the sunny, major key chorus of the song. The first solo comes from the electric piano of Jorge Dalto-with the harmonic counterpoint coming from Stevie Wonder’s keyboardist Ronnie Foster on synthesizer. Benson takes an extended refrain/choral solo during the center of the song-with everything in the song being built around it until the very end.
“Weekend In L.A.” is, as a song, representative of George Benson’s Breezin’ era late 70’s commercial and instrumental peak.This album showcases his guitar talents. In its 7+ minutes, it gives Benson every opportunity to explore his melodically singable guitar solos. Musicians like Mason, McDonald and Foster understand as Benson how to keep the song jazzy, soulful, funky and poppy all at once. Benson even takes a moment to quote Gershwin’s standard “I’ve Got Rhythm” on guitar near the end of the song. Making it one of his strongest live musical moments.
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.
One thing I’ll say for Aretha Franklin in the late 60’s: she managed to record almost constantly and churn out one classic after another. Didn’t matter if it was an original or an interpretation. Everything felt so soulfully brand new with her then. Hard to talk about Aretha without mentioning soul all the time. She surely didn’t invent the genre. Nor was she the only soul artist of her day making a gigantic musical statement. . But her identity could be felt a mile away. And with her key year of 1967 having come to an end? 1968 arrived with the lady not losing a single step in her stride.
“Chain Of Fools” starts out the album in all it’s bassy, bluesy gospel/soul glory. She throws in the stomping uptempo gospel soul for a version of James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You”. Not to mention her version of PJ Proby’s “Niki Hoeky”, the horn based funkiness of “Since You’ve Been Gone “Sweet Sweet Baby” and the rave up of Ray Charles “Come Back Baby”-all Southern fried uptempo funky soul of the highest degree. Of course you have her iconic take of Carole Kings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”-that rich string drenched,Sweet Inspirations honeyed vocal gospel/soul ballad treasure.
Good To Me As I Am To You” goes down into the belly of the blues while ‘Ree pumps out every last drop of the gospel soul from the Rascals “Groovin'” before taking on her sisters Carolyn’s souring soul ballad “Ain’t No Way”. Listening to this reminds me of the very strange way I actually got into Aretha’s music: it was very lopsided. It started in 1985-86. And thinking at the time she was a new artist. Of course, it was a year or so that I discovered oldies radio and there was “Respect”, “Chain Of Fools” and “Think”. Same goes for James Brown.
It was more recently that I realized albums like this were also the start of three very important factors in the soul genre. There was the move from balladry to melodic, horn driven uptempo numbers. There was also the idea of crafting albums in mind of being something you’d want to listen to all the way through. Rather than skip to popular radio hits. Not to mention the thematic assertions this made for female artists in general. So as with most of Aretha’s late 60’s Atlantic albums? This was a big time game changer that’s still a delight to look back on.
Joni Mitchell did something very special in the mid to late 1970’s. Something that impacted on me personally roughly 25 years later. She began to combine folk oriented singer/songwriter instrumentation with jazz chords and harmonies. Her approach at this evolved from working with Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder to fretless bass icon Jaco Pastorius-all between 1974 and 1974. In particularly on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Mitchell’s music was her own unique hybrid. Neither jazz or folk. This all came to a tremendous head with her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
It was an album where the cover art (as was typical done by Mitchell herself) drew me into its musical world. It depicts three images of herself. One seems to be a herself as a teenager. The other is a character she portrayed at a Halloween party named Art Nouveau. This was based on a black man she met who complimented her at that time. Mitchell describes her soul as “not being that of a white woman”. And that she often writes from a black perspective. Embracing the jazz aestetic, from be bop style poetics to the music itself, all became a part of what made this 1977 double LP what it was.
The song “Cotton Avenue” starts the album with an overture, one where Mitchell is playing six differently tuned guitar tracks simultaneously. The song itself is a swinging number-heavily textured by Jaco’s atmospheric bass lines. The faster “Talk To Me” and the slower “Jericho” both explore the approach of Mitchell’s guitar with Jaco’s bass-playing in an almost Salsa like rhythm on the former, and back to the jazzy swing on the latter. “Paprika Pains” is a 16+ minute cinematic number, showcasing Mitchell’s improvised piano with full jazz orchestration.
“Paprika Plains”‘s music also serves as the soundtrack to a first person description of a late night bar gathering of Canadian First Nations tribe’s people-poetically touching on matters of alcoholism and despair. “Otis & Marlena” is a fairly conventional country tinged folk number. Its based in the acoustic guitar. Its a character sketch of two people vacationing in Miami while “Muslims are sticking up Washington”. “The Tenth Worlds” is primarily the work of Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, one which focuses only on his fluid Afro-Latin percussion and improvised vocal chants.
Weather Report member Alex Acuna joins in for “Dreamland”, my personal favorite number on this album.”Dreamland” merges an even broader (and somewhat slower) Salsa percussion sound with the highly hummable, Caribbean folk style melody of Mitchell’s. Chaka Khan provides a very tribal sounding back up vocalese right along with Mitchell’s on the song. The title song is somewhat similar to “Talk To Me” from earlier in the album-as well as “Coyote” from her previous album Heijra. The more rocky “Off Night Backstreet” and the folk oriented “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” close out the album.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter represents the official birth of what could best be described as a Joni Mitchell sound. Its true that jazz always accommodated other musical styles into it. Mitchell wasn’t new at doing that. But she did manage to expand on the possibilities of jazz fusion at the same time as she did the same for her own songwriting style. That coalition of personal and overall creative intent would is likely a lot rarer a thing than it might seem. And just for creating a welcoming and enticing entry point into Joni Mitchell’s musical hybridizing makes this album one of her most iconic ones.
One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.
As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.
Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.
Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.
Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.
Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.
Steve Miller, a Milwaukee native, had very strong connections to jazz growing up. His mother Bertha sang in a very jazz oriented manner. And his father George, called Sonny, did some record engineering in his spare time off his job as a pathologist. While attending the University Of Madison, Miller and his longtime friend Boz Scaggs formed The Ardells-eventually joined by keyboard player Ben Sidran. This began the circle of musicians who’d eventually become The Steve Miller Band. Their psychedelic blues sound evolved into a more pop friendly sound during the early 70’s.
By the early 70’s, The Steve Miller Band had a series of eclectic hits from the rock of “The Joker” to the synth pop/new wave of “Abracadabra”. After the band took a hiatus in the mid 80’s, Miller began recorded a series of blues and jazz oriented solo albums. One of them was 1988’s Born 2 Be Blue. It reunited him with Ben Sidran, who acted as a producer and keyboard player on the album. My father had the cassette of the album in the late 80’s. And there was one Lionel Hampton song Miller recorded at the end of the album that became an ear worm for both of us at the time. It was called “Red Top”.
Gordy Knudtson’s drum kickoff starts off the song-with the late sax great Phil Woods blowing away the melody before a break for Miller vocally introducing the chorus. Knudtson’s drum takes on a more New Orleans type flavor. Sidran’s synthesized organ plays a strong foundational role in this as well-along with Miller’s bluesy guitar riffs accenting it all. Billy Peterson’s bass line bounces right along with the drums. On the bridge, the rhythm all swings for Woods to take a full sax solo. After this the song has an extended chorus before coming to a stop on a reprise of the intro.
“Red Top” has been recorded by a lot of people since Hampton composed the song. There’s something about Steve Miller’s version that really brings it to a new generation. The song of course as a straight up 12 bar blues structure. But between Ben Sidran’s keys and Gordy Knudtson drumming, there’s a strong Crescent city jazz/funk flavor to this song that takes the actual melodic structure of it to another level. Miller himself seems right at home in this particular musical setting. And its actually among my personal favorite things I’ve heard Steve Miller record.
Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.
As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.
Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.
“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.
Nile Rodgers had a colorful life long before being the one of the founding members of Chic. This native New Yorker was born to a teen mother who, like his father, was a beatnik and heavy drug user. More importantly, it was an environment filled with music. Being drawn to the guitar at an early age, Nile began as a session player with the Sesame Street band-which was led by the iconic composer Joe Raposo. He gained much of his experience as the guitarist for the Apollo Theater house band. With them, he backed up acts as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and P-Funk.
It was while working for a Sesame Street stage show that he met up with bassist Bernard Edwards. Together they formed the Big Apple Band, who became the backup musicians for the vocal group New York City. After seeing a Roxy Music concert, Rodgers was inspired to change the name of the band to Chic. Their self titled debut helped establish disco as a genre of dance music-with songs such as “Dance,Dance,Dance” and “Everybody Dance” leading the way. The album also showcased what strong composers and musicians they were. Especially with album tracks like “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic”.
The song starts right off with an instrumental version of its chorus. This consists of Tony Thompson’s pocket dance beat with Nile and ‘Nard’s classic bass run/chunky rhythm guitar based rhythm dynamic providing the base of the song. Over that, there’s a chromatic walk down on piano. A glockenspiel and what sounds like an ARP string synth provide the harmonic sweeteners to the bottom of the song. The refrain take the song up a key slightly-emphasizing Nile and ‘Nard’s bass/guitar and closer piano riffs higher in the mix. After a barer version of it on the bridge, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Es-Ce Que C’est Chic” showcases many examples of different trademarks this disco outfit would have in their time. One was the use of their name in song titles-along with a chorus that was sung partly in French. Instrumentally, it takes older black American ideas from bluesy soul jazz and R&B. And really stylizes them with a lot of sonic polish and elegance. The song lyrics about about an actress seducing people to get to the top, sung sweetly by Norma Jean Wright, showcase the witty (sometimes topical) story songs that reflect the disco era realities of which Chic were part of the soundtrack to.
Airto Moreira is someone whom I recently covered here. Since his official birthday is Saturday, decided to pay tribute to a song by him that I just couldn’t resist. The origins of the album the 1976 Airto album Promises Of The Sun in my collection comes from the budget vinyl crate digging days. Just learned about Airto from his work on Miles Davis’s album from the early 70’s. And his solo albums were popping up on a lot of these crate digging exercises. The cover art depicting Airto in the middle of a ritualistic chant drew me to thinking this album would have a tribal musical content. And it actually did.
During a period where I was still actually making a lot of mix tapes, there was one song from this particular album that got my attention. Its title was hard to translate. But it apparently refers to anyone who came from another state to participate in the development of the city of Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil. So when it comes to increased knowledge of this songs place in Airto’s musical history, its good history on this song that ends the second side of the vinyl edition of Promises Of The Sun. The name of this particular song is “Candango”.
Airto starts off the song with swinging march-one that evolves into a percussion laden Brazilian swing with Airto chanting-likely in Portuguese. On the first part of the song it showcases Rhodes player Hugo Fattorusa,guitarist Toninho Horta and bassist Novelli playing to Airto’s melodically spirited scat singing. This breaks for a moment with Rhodes-before the second part of this verse goes into a much bluesier, psychedelic part of the song. Here Horta’s guitar plays a rockier solo with Airto’s chants and scatting blending together in this cavalcade of sound before the first verse closes the song out.
“Candango” is a song that,even after all these years, has an idiosyncratic air about it that still delights me to this day. Its a sandwiched type of song really. The middle is this psychedelic jazz/rock/blues explosion of Fender Rhodes,guitar and bass. But they are bookended with this swinging Brazilian jazz style melody that still retains Airto’s unique creative air throughout. Its a strong reminder of how much Airto and another fellow collaborator in the late George Duke had in common: both loving to compose music with abrupt changes in sound. For me at least, “Candango” is one of Airto’s top compositions.