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.
Stanley Clarke was a musician whose solo albums of the 1970’s were always talked about. Yet there was one album that hardly ever did-only occasionally as a mentioned titled in some discographies of his music. It was his 1982 album Let Me Know You. First I found the album on vinyl,then picked it up on CD. Then realized why it might’ve been left out. This is basically a full on post disco/boogie album from Clarke-featuring the likes of Greg Phillinganes and Paulinho Da Costa among the musicians. Here’s an Amazon.com review I wrote just over a decade ago that goes more deeply into its musicality.
Right after the release of the first Clarke/Duke Project LP Stanley Clarke and George Duke both decided to take a musical break from each other and do a pair of solo albums without the participation of the other.Duke produced ‘Dream On’ while Clarke produced this album ‘Let Me Know You’,both in 1982.Both albums are very much funky pop/R&B vocal albums with some curious differences.’Let Me Know You’ is the slightly more jazz oriented of the two and as always,Clarke is not quite as experienced (or communicative) as Duke.
The songwriting is extremely strong and three “Straight From The Heart”,”I Just Want To Be Your Brother”,”The Force Of Love” and the pounding “New York City” find Clarke moving away from hardcore jazz-rock fusion and into the world of tighter,more carefully crafted and arranged R&B,funk and pop.The sexy title song is actually the only instrumental on the album and is the only representation of the ‘old’ Stanley Clarke.
My favorite cut is the Linn drum/Leslie Amp powered “Play The Bass” the more or less trails off before it get’s a chance to get going-it’s funny how many R&B and funk artists elect to showcase some of their most creative music as brief interludes (read:Earth Wind & Fire).Nevertheless ‘Let Me Know You’ is a wonderful pop/funk album and actually one of Clarke’s most consistently enjoyable of the early 80’s.
Trouble is it’s also his only record never to have been released on CD up until now.And while I am sure that many like myself who have enjoyed listening to the vinyl record of this album the new CD is a treat.But I really hope fans of Clarke or the Clarke/Duke Project will revisit this if they’ve never heard it-fans of both artist’s music from the 1980’s will feel right at home.
Let Me Know You comes from a time where Stanley Clarke was looking to condense his music to a degree. He actually managed to solo many times on these songs. That being said,, this album had him striving ever more to look towards gaining momentum as a composer as opposed to mainly an instrumental soloist. He even got a bit of a dance hit with the album with the song “Straight To The Top”. Once heard Clarke himself refer to his music at this time as “pretty commercial”. But its still by no means a Stanley Clarke album to avoid. Especially if you enjoy funk that where’s its jazziest flavors proudly.
George Michael celebrated his first posthumous birthday yesterday. His death came very sadly and suddenly on Christmas day last year. Since that time,I have learned (along with my boyfriend) just to how important George Michael and Wham were to the post disco UK dance/funk/soul scene of the 1980’s. Wham were one of the “big four” bands on the UK’s major music program Top Of The Pops. As for Michael’s solo career, it operated from 1987 through 1991 before his record company conflict began. Yet that five years had Michael as part of a huge growth period for cutting edge,funky dance music.
His final single before these record company conflicts was originally recorded for his sophomore solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1. It eventually ended up being released for the AIDS charity CD entitled Red Hot+Blue in 1992. All the proceeds from that and Michael’s accompanying single went to HIV/AIDS related causes. It was also Michael’s first extensive use of sampling-from sound clips from The Graduate and The Tony Hancock Show to a sample from Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy”. The name of the George Michael song that did all these things was “Too Funky”.
A fast electronic piano drum rundown introduces the song. Its a thick,slow drum machine rhythm with some shuffling, Brazilian style conga/percussion accents. The melodic body of the song is a round,five note synth brass part-along with pulsing electronic strings and like minded bass line. The piano/bass/drum interaction make up the refrains. With each choral variation, the synth brass returns and varies in tone. After a bridge that condenses the song down to the drums and bass line,the chorus fades the song out to a close with the piano part and the final sound sample of the song.
“Too Funky” is a song that basically pulls together all of the funkiest elements of 80’s dance music innovations. It has the the percussive shuffle of DC go go, the dramatic synthesized horns of the Minneapolis sound and the repetitive bass and piano of house music. What makes it “too funky” is not merely the sexually free (yet somehow post AIDS) lyrical content. But also the somewhat slower tempo and that percussive jump on the rhythms. George Michael wouldn’t put any new music out for four years after this. But it sure capped off the beginning of his solo career with a strong groove.