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.
Allan Holdsworth was a guitarist who not only crossed styles,but also technological areas of music. Sadly,he passed away this past Saturday at the age of 70. He was a truly academic player known for his advanced chord progressions. But he could play some serious blues with the same technical level. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s he played with both prog rock and jazz fusion bands in his native England/Europe such as Soft Machine,King Crimson,Gong and Nucleus. In the late 70’s,be became a member of Tony Williams New Lifetime before beginning his solo career as a recording artist.
The first Allan Holdsworth album was his 1986 LP Atavacron. Picked it up based purely on the cover and title-based on a favorite episode of Star Trek of mine. On the cover,the cartoon Holdsworth is holding an instrument called a SynthAxe. It was a type of MIDI controller manufactured in the UK which allowed for a more guitar-like playing style for synthesizers. Turns out it was fairly rare,and few outside Holdsworth and Lee Ritenour actually ever used it. One of my favorite songs on the mid 80’s fusion oriented Atavacron to use the SynthAxe heavily is called “The Dominant Plague”.
Future Level 42 drummer Gary Husband,along with Chad Wackerman provide the opening duel drum attack-which has a slow,gated African percussion style about it. Jimmy Johnson also provides his 6 note bass line that he improvises on throughout the song on this intro. Very the chorus Alan Pasqua delivers a wailing synth brass solo. On the refrains,over the same rhythm,Pasqua also provides a very glassy,steel drum like synth line. On the bridge,actually a chorus of the song,Holdsworth plays a rather Hendrix style SynthAxe solo-before the song fades out on the double drum rhythm.
“The Dominant Plague” is mid 80’s world fusion at some of its finest. It has the blend of Afrocentric rhythms played in a progressive new wave sonic approach. Holdsworth composition is both passionate and hesitantly chilly from chorus to refrain. I am not at all sure about this. But from its feeling and title, I’ve wondered if this composition was inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic than polarizing the world. One can only wonder. The SynthAxe is also used to fine affect here-allowing Holdsworth to sustain notes more than a guitar might’ve. Its my favorite song of his that I’ve heard so far.