Tag Archives: Clavinet

Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Skagly” by Freddie Hubbard

Freddie Hubbard was one of the most important trumpet players of the post bop era. His many interactions in music had him involved with some of the most important developments in jazz throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Running from playing with Wayne Shorter,replacing Lee Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and beginning to lead his own groups. One of his best known works is 1970’s Red Clay-not only his first for the CTI label but the very first release Creed Taylor’s label ever put out. After several successful releases there,Hubbard began recording for Columbia.

Hubbard’s most famous album from his post bop period is Ready For Freddie from 1961. And so far,the only Freddie Hubbard album I have in any format. He’s an artist I’ve heard many times,but neglected just as much in terms of album purchases. He actually made some amazing contributions to the jazz-funk genre in the 70’s as well. That’s especially true for his mid to late 70’s Columbia albums. Always playing along with the best musicians of the era,one perhaps unsung example of Hubbard’s music in this period is the epic title song for his final Columbia album from 1979 entitled Skagly.

Hubbard,saxophonist  Hadley Caliman and trombonist Phil Ranelin start this song out with a bluesy horn fanfare-with drummer Carl Burnett marching right to their beat. Burnett and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa then set up a Latin funk rhythm wherein Hubbard, guitarist Jeff Skunk Baxter, bassist Larry Klein, Billy Child’s Fender Rhodes and George Duke’s Clavinet all exchange a think rhythmic interplay together. Hubbard goes on an extended 8+ minute solo-expanding in melodic intensity and loudness before solos from Klein and Baxter lead up to the fanfare brings it all to an abrupt stop.

“Skagly” is a wonderful long form example of hard pop horn solos playing along with strong,live band jazz/funk interplay.  George Duke and drummer Carl Burnett in particular knew exactly the kind of rhythmic environment that would be both jazzy and funky enough for Hubbard to literally blow his horn over. Its definitely Hubbard’s show in terms of the solo,and nobody playing on this song ever forgets that. That may be way it is so live band oriented and less electronic than much jazz/funk of the time. That gives the song a certain distinction as late 70’s jazz/funk  built heavily around a trumpet solo.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Red Beans” by Jimmy McGriff

Jimmy McGriff was a major soul jazz era pioneer of the Hammond B-3 organ. The Pennsylvania native studied a number of instruments growing up-taking up a day job as a cop in Philly for a short time. He later attended Julliard-also studying privately with the major Hammond organist (and childhood friend) before him Jimmy Smith-among others. He led a series of jazz combos during the 60’s,some of which included later jazz organ icon (then sax player) Charles Earland before he began moving into a funk direction during the late 60’s and early 70’s.

By the early 70’s,McGriff would’ve been apparently content to have began a semi retirement on his Connecticut horse farm. Due the rapid rate of issues his new record label were doing for his music,he began  recording and touring again mid decade. One of his records during this period was 1976’s Red Beans. Only reason I know about the album and McGriff at all would be DJ/musician Nigel Hall. He played a number of tracks from his vinyl copy of the album on his radio show in the early/mid 2000’s. One of them was the albums opening title song.

A fast paced,almost Clyde Stubblefield like drum joins in with this flamboyant bass/rhythm guitar interaction before McGriff comes in-riffing right in rhythm on Clavinet.  After that,the horn section comes in and alternate with McGriff in playing the rhythmic changes of the groove. On the choruses of the song,there’s a rocking fuzz guitar that takes over with the horns. On a couple of the refrains,Michael Brecker (I believe) takes a spirited sax solo that extends over a number of bars. This instrumental back and forth alternates until the song concludes.

“Red Beans” is one of the more instrumentally energetic,perhaps even punishing jazz/funk jams of the mid 80’s. It adds a strong improvisational flair to a groove that,with its fast tempo and spirited melodies, has a similar musical vibe to something Larry Graham & Graham Central Station might’ve done during this period. The bright,high recording quality of the song also adds to its strength. It also showcases McGriff finding an instrumental place for himself in funk with him playing Clavinet as opposed to organ. And in essence it signaled the beginning of a musical rebirth for him at that time.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let’s Start The Dance” by Bohannon

Hamilton Bohannon is one of the key figures with me in getting into funk. Starting out as a school teacher,he eventually became a drummer for Little Stevie Wonder’s touring band in 1964. After moving to Detroit in 1967,his band The Motown Sound provided a similar function to The Funk Brothers-backing up many of Motown’s major acts. When the label moved to LA,Bohannon stayed behind and formed his own group. His name became part of the Talking Head spinoff Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love”-chanted rhythmically on the bridge of the song.

Where Bohannon,whose turning 74 today,came into my musical orbit was via the Best Of Funk Essentials  compilation that introduced me to funkiness as a musical genre. It was a song that took me totally by surprise then. And even 22 years later,it still has a similar effect. Last year,I located a used vinyl copy of Bohannon’s 1978 album Summertime Groove. Part of the reason was because I knew that that song was on it. And funk is something I’ve learned to look for in its original album context. Its a heavily funkified album throughout. But still,it just bursts out of the box with “Let’s Start The Dance”.

Bohannon himself kicks right into gear from the start. The majority of the song is a high octane dance groove with the drums and its many fills up high in the mix. The rhythm consists of a high pitched rhythm guitar,a Clavinet playing the melodic accents and a jazzy bass line playing across two octaves. Each choral section is split by refrains featuring Bohannon’s flamboyant break beats-as the guitar plays some of the most rubbery chicken scratch rhythms around. The second chorus gets started with a revved up,rocking guitar part before the Clavinet takes more of a role in the mix before the song fades.

“Let’s Start The Dance” is a superb example of how of hard funk where all the instrumentation and vocals are extremely high key in sound. Even the melodic instrumental parts are projecting the same rhythmic flamboyance as everything else in the song. The result is punishing,super heavy funk that was recorded during the height of the disco era. The powerful gospel belt of Caroline Crawford on the refrains,along the drum breaks/chicken scratch guitar really become the defining moment of this song even after all these years. One which makes this a true late 70’s funk classic.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” by George Harrison

George Harrison would’ve been 74 this Saturday. Remember very well the day he passed away because it was the delivery man for my parent’s new bed who told them he’d just heard the news. This was also around the time I was heavily exploring the music of “the quiet Beatle”. Harrison is said to have gone to Memphis on one of the Beatles trips to America and picked up some Booker T & The MG’s records. He loved playing the blues too. Later on,he developed a close musical relationship with Billy Preston. In addition to being one of the funkiest players around,Preston was also essentially a fifth Beatle during 1969.

Harrison’s first non experimental solo album All Things Must Pass was a huge success for him  in 1970. His following albums didn’t fare so well. His mid 70’s album Dark Horse and Extra Texture began adding soul and jazz/rock elements into his sound. But a horse singing voice with Harrison at the time was part of what hindered their success. He had a huge comeback in 1976 with the debut release on his custom label Dark Horuse Thirty-Three & 1/3. The song that opened the album was originally a 12 bar electric blues piece he wrote while touring with Eric Clapton in 1969. It was called “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me”.

Alvin Tayler’s drums kick into his shuffling,funky shuffle. Willie Weeks chunky slap bass and Richard Tee’s organ provide the intro before Harrison’s slide guitar provides the main melody. David Foster himself counters with some serious Billy Preston style funky Clavinet. On the refrain,the drum and Clavinet go into a heavy break beat before Harrison’s guitar segues into the next chorus. That bluesy slide guitar plays the chorus as an instrumental on the bridge-before the musical combination used in the intro goes into the final choruses of the song before it finally fades out.

The first time I heard this song,turned out my father I both heard the song as something quite different. I heard it as a thick mid 70’s funk jam. He heard it as a total 12 bar blues. Actually, both of us were right. Funk is,as most 20th century American popular musical forms are,a blues based one. And this song does a superb job at bridging the musical generation gap. Harrison’ countrified blues slide guitar with the electrified “united funk” arrangement of the song showcases how important the form of it actually is to the instrumentation. Surely,this is one of George Harrison’s finest moments of the mid 70’s.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Send Out For Sunshine” by Heatwave

Heatwave are a band I tend to avoid writing about because of a perceived personal bias. Readers of this blog are well aware of how my moms 8-track copy of their Central Heating album started me on asking serious questions about music. Such as those about songwriting,instrumentation and production. The band members were and (of those still alive) are among the very best of late 70’s disco era funk. Yet this year,we lost the most prominent songwriters for Heatwave with the passing of Rod Temperton. Yet with him an Johnnie Wilder Jr now gone,one member of the band prominent for me is still alive.

Keith Wilder,brother of the late Johnnie,is celebrating his birthday today. It was an exciting day for me when Mister Wilder accepted my friend invite on Facebook. He actually contributed to a number of Heatwave songs I love in the focus department. His voice has similarities to his brothers. Yet was generally in a lower range. And while in Heatwave, Keith’s singing had a gruffer soul/funk attitude about it. That made it ideal for the bands harder edged songs. One of my favorite Heatwave songs is from Central Heating. And its called “Send Out For Sunshine”.

An catchy,up-scaling Clavinet opens before a processed guitar brings the song directly into the refrain. This is an extremely funky lead Clavinet riff on the bassiest end of the instrument,backed up by a thick conga/percussion rhythm. Some heavily filtered,bluesy guitar riffs and occasionally bouncy synthesizer effects accent this mix. Between each refrain,a chunky rhythm guitar plays along. This guitar extends into the chorus along with the strings. On the final choruses,the song moves up a chord while Keith and Johnnie Wilder duet off each other until the song fades away.

“Send Out For Sunshine” is a song that has everything a funk song could offer. The groove is very Afrocentric -especially with Johnnie on conga’s,the Clavinet grooves and rocks at the same time and the rhythm guitar of Eric Johns really brings the song to life. The production sonics on this also have a strong space funk vibe in with the rawer elements-giving it a futurist flavor as well. Lyrically,using what might’ve been seen by some as a drug metaphor really demonstrates the power of natural serotonin  from the sun as a positive element in the often bleak scenario’s painted in the songs lyrics.

 

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Filed under 1970's, clavinet, Eric Johns, hard funk, Heatwave, Johnnie Wilder Jr., Keith Wilder, Rod Temperton

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Am I Black Enough For You” by Billy Paul

Billy Paul is another of far,far too many music icons of the 20th century who passed away during 2016. The Philly native grew up listening to jazz based singers such as Nina Simone,Carmen McCrae and Billie Holiday. After a stint in the army,where he was was stationed in post WWII Germany in the late 50’s along with Elvis Presley. Using this as an opportunity to further his love of music,he launched a jazz trio while in Germany. After getting out of the army,he became part of the burgeoning Philadelphia International Records,eventually releasing his debut album in 1970.

As with most people in America,my primary knowledge of this artist was via the ballad “Me & Mrs. Jones”. My father purchased a compilation of Billy Paul’s music. And after that,it became clear that this man did some amazingly cinematic uptempo tunes. Many of them with a very strong pro black sociopolitical bent lyrically. It was about a year ago when watching a documentary about Oakland’s Black Panthers that I heard a very funkified song with a very familiar voice. Turns out that voice belonged to the late Billy Paul. And the song (from 1972) was called “Am I Black Enough For You”.

A bluesy Clavinet riff dovetails into the percussive accented funky march of the drums. That Clavinet maintains itself throughout the song. At first,this is assisted by a bluesy rhythm guitar. The song has a rather elaborate,jazzy bass line holding the rhythm section together. The horns are both melodic and climactic-scaling upward on each of the songs choruses. Towards the end of the song,a fuzzed out guitar plays an eerie sustain in the back round as the percussion and a bluesy organ and guitar take over on the bridge. Then the songs main chorus takes over until it all fades out

“Am I Black Enough For You” is a psychedelic,bluesy funk number musically. One featuring a dense,thick instrumental sound. The melody is very overtly blues based too. Lyrically,the song speaks as much to the present day as it did for 1972. In both cases,an unpopular and widely disliked politician had become president. And anti black attitudes were a causal factor in both cases. This song lyrically suggests that strength in numbers will help black Americans to have power and dignity of person. And with Billy Paul no longer with us,that’s as fine a musical concept for him to heave us with as any.

 

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Filed under 1970's, Billy Paul, blues funk, civil rights, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, fuzz guitar, horns, message songs, organ, percussion, Philadelphia, Philadelphia International Records, Philly Soul, pro black, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar

Leon Russell: 1942-2016-Thank You 4 Your Service,Leon!

Stop All That Jazz

Leon Russell had an extremely good early 70’s. Not only did he release a series of highly well received albums but he would collaborate with George Harrison and Bob Dylan on Concert for Bangladesh in 1972. The same year he wrote “This Masquerade”,a song which would several years later become a huge hit for George Benson. Leon,an Oklahoma native had a musical sound that was almost impossible to classify. There was a very heavy country/blues component to his sound. But he is also clearly a part of the singer-songwriter era.

And he is always open about expressing the strong jazz and soul aspects of his sound. On earlier albums it was that country-blues side of him that took presidents for the most part. For this 1974 album,Leon began using synthesizers in his music. He also bought in a trio of brothers named Ronnie,Robert and Charlie Wilson from Tulsa to back him up. These brothers than called themselves the Greenwood,Archer & Pine Band. Later this would be abbreviated into The Gap Band. This albums serves as their introduction to the world. And that’s fitting since it’s the beginning of an important music breakthrough for Leon himself.

The title of this album is not meant ironically since it is in fact a very jazz oriented album. But since this is Leon Russell we’re talking about here. He starts out the album with a stomping New Orleans style R&B version of “If I Were A Carpenter”. That particular side of this album stays with him on originals such as “Leaving Whipporwhill” and “Working Girl”. On “Smashed” this very pointed jazzy soul groove comes out of this sound once the Wilson’s begin participating. This is one of the albums strongest numbers. That plus a very like minded soul-jazz version of “Spanish Harlem”,filled with Ronnie Wilson’s soulful horn charts and the appropriate dash of Latin percussion.

“Streakers Ball” blends a bit of a stronger,funkier groove into this sound with the synthesizers providing some otherworldly electronic orchestral touches to the almost countrified soul groove. Now in terms of serious funk there’s a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”. It’s a deep,uptempo,heavy bass and drum led funk march. With the Charlie Wilson’s vocal harmonies on full display the song is not quite full funk,or full blues or full gospel. But a hybrid strung together of the most powerful elements of all three. It’s unlike any other song I have heard before really. Closest comparison would be something like Rose Royce’s “First Come,First Served”.

The album ends with “Mona Lisa Smile” and the title song. Both are easy swinging jazz numbers,the latter with this heavy southern soul chorus blended in for good measure. The bonus tracks are some lush country-western takes on “Wild Horses” and a ho down of “Wabash Cannonball” sung with Willie Nelson. Especially with the bonus tracks,Leon Russell is out to do a lot of different things on this album. And he does. What keeps it from being a sloppy mess is that there is one strong unifying focus to everything on this album: that not so simple little factor of soul.

It’s part of everything from Leon’s…unique vocal style (an odd combination of Willie Nelson and Dr.John in a way) to the very way in which he composes,produces and arranges music. This album was recorded deep in the middle of what I will refer to as the funk era. And while it’s not an album defined by one particular genre,including funk,that particular musical era and the atmosphere it produced is evident from the very beginning of this album to the very end.
After hearing it,and it’s a very very difficult CD to track down I’ll tell you that,I have some trouble understanding why it’s not better liked than it is. It’s a carnival tent show of songs with a groove and directly in the eye of the groove. And the melodies and instrumentation are absolutely enchanting. It’s one of Leon Russell’s most musically and creatively potent works I’ve ever heard.

Will O' The Wisp

Now this album is not my introduction to the music of Leon Russel but it is as far as full length albums and,as far as I’m concerned there’s absolutely no disappointments to be heard. Now just to go back a bit to another point I made with a friend that,if one is looking for it you can easily find great funk in any aisle of a record store/department. It was a genre that consistently bled into rock,jazz,blues and during the mid 70’s the genre of funk was helping so much music to bleed together that it all came together (much as jazz’s creation from the outside) into a tasty musical gumbo with a lot of diverse herbs and spices of sound.

It’s not surprising with the Wilson Brothers’ (known today as The Gap Band) appearance on Leon’s previous album Stop All That Jazz that this was going to be the direction his music would continue to take and it did. The music on this album is a decidedly southern flavored blend of jazz,funk,country-soul,blues and excellent pop songwriting with some wonderfully fluid piano playing,occasional tasty sax riff and some wonderfully textural use of synthesizers. Some heavy duty funk such as “Little Hideaway”,”Make You Feel Good”,”Down On The Deep River” and the tasty groove of “Bluebird” really bring all of this together.

In addition all of these songs showcase the close back round harmonies of Mary McCreary,whose presence in both Leon’s music and life would grow only by leaps and bounds in the very short future. When you get to the elongated,percussive “Can’t Get Over Losing You”,”My Father’s Shoes”,”Stay Away From Sad Songs” and the tropically inclined harmonies of “Back To The Island” slow the funk down to a breath taking slow crawl in which the groove really has a chance to burn really hard.

Even though Leon was from Oklahoma and not New Orleans his music came out of a similarly torrid spirit as Dr.John,Allen Toussaint and The Meters and even though he never exactly gained the same type of recognition as any of those people this along with a handful of other excellent recordings Leon Russell made during his prime years would certainly put him easily in the same league.

 

Wedding Album

After the release of his excellent Will O’ the Wisp Leon Russell wed his backup singer Mary McCreary and the pair commemorated the event with a duet album between the two of them. One of the most exciting parts of the album is not only do the two share vocals on this album but Mary herself  a very active participant in this music with her new husband,playing synthesizer and percussion quite often and creating these beautifully elaborate choruses of back round vocals as well as her leads. The spirit of sharing and mutual cooperation,an integral component of any marriage lends itself here as a musical element as well.

Musically this album embraces styles Leon always had in his music as this is a full out funk-soul/R&B album with the textural synthesizers are enlarged in number,mixed far higher in the music and the melodic/harmonic arrangements of the music are more complex and elaborate. These songs are not in fact all too separated from what you might find on a Stevie Wonder,Smokey Robinson or Ashford & Simpson recordings of the period. The introductory song,the romantic “Rainbow In Your Eyes” is one of the very strongest and romantic songs Leon ever wrote.

The melodic keyboard/synth sound carries the song along with the intricate melody and it was so strong Al Jarreau covered the song very quickly on his album Glow of the same year,also opening the album with that song as well. The swelling “Love’s Supposed To Be That Way”,the cosmic sounding “Fantasy”,”Satisfy You” and “You Are On My Mind” all maintain the exact same level of quality and dynamic arrangements. Mary’s elastic,powerful vocalizing is a great combo with Leon’s tougher,rubbery singing style and the way they work them into the songs is just so wonderful to behold.

Unlike a lot of albums made after a musician gets married the intensity of the music actually increased in this case,largely because the couple were involved in making music and were already very experienced at doing so. “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” gets down into a heavy honky tonk/funk groove with Leon and Mary trading off some very meaty lyrics. On the midtempo “Quiet Nights” and “Windsong” the jazziness really gets going in the music. I would never call these songs sappy at all;they are beautifully cool and reflective in flavor and give both the music and vocals a chance to glide across each other smoothly.

“Daylight” closes the album again on a more uptempo melodic funk not. Considering it’s celebratory title this album fully lives up to it’s ambitions and concept in every way and upon hearing it I am very surprised it wasn’t more popular in it’s day than it was. Still it’s wonderful to have this very unsung and buried 70’s funk/soul masterpiece available (thanks to Wounded Bird again) and give modern listeners a chance to hear it with remastered sound and just the plain dignity of having it around again.

Leon and Mary Russell’s debut album together Wedding Album was a personal and musical triumph for everyone involved. So it seemed obvious that a fairly immediate follow up album was in order and they delivered one. At the very same time this is a completely different musical experience. Mary’s participation on this album on every front is somewhat played down as Leon gets a bit more involved. There’s more of a similarity to his earlier solo albums in parts and generally speaking is a mix of tunes similar in flavor to their debut album and some that follow Leon’s own musical lead a bit more.

“Easy Love” and the title song bare the most similarity to the previous album as somewhat uptempo soul/funk but the groove is a lot slicker and the synthesizer arrangements are a lot less thick overall. Still the music on these songs is every bit as brilliantly written as before. A good number of these songs such as “Joyful Noise”,”Now Now Boogie”,”Say You Will” and “Hold On To This Feeling” have a more organic,chunky honky tonk style funk groove more in keeping with some of the earlier Leon Russell solo albums and showcasing the band more than the individual styles of himself and Mary.

This album was released the same year as Saturday Night Fever so some of the style of disco does show up on a few of these tracks. Actually the ones that do;”Love Crazy” and “Love Is In Your Eyes” are harder edged disco-funk flavor tunes with some chunky,heavily processed Clavinet’s and some nasty rhythmic exchanges. The swoony romanticism of the previous album is replaced by a heavier sensual passion on this album and these two cuts display that more than others.

The last tune on the album features Mary the most on the somewhat psychedelisized Caribbean groove of “Island In The Sun”. As with the previous album there really are no bad cuts at all on this album. They’re all different though and that can be a wonderful thing often enough. In this case the pair require a cohesive musical concept to be their very best and this album doesn’t really possess that kind of cohesiveness so it’s only one star less powerful than the previous album.

 

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Filed under 1970's, country/soul, Funk, funky soul, Gap Band, Leon Russell, Mary McCreary, Music Reviewing

Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Fancy Lady” by Billy Preston

Billy Preston was,in a similar manner to Stevie Wonder,an artist who used analog synthesizers,organs and pianos to create totally new sounds during the early/mid 1970’s. Wonder often utilized jazz oriented chord progressions-often emphasizing European classical arrangements as well. The sounds that Preston created were all based in hardcore soul,R&B and what had already occurred thus far with the innovation of funk. What both of them emphasized was a strong love of instrumental layering and love of leading their whole show by soloing on the Clavinet.

By 1975,the connection with Stevie Wonder’s music by Billy Preston became extremely evident. The album he recorded that year,It’s My Pleasure,was recorded at the TONTO synthesizer complex-the same facility used by Wonder,The Isley Brothers and Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson during this era. One of this albums hits actually featured a vocal duet with ex wife and frequent creative collaborator of Wonder’s in Syreeta Wright. She would eventually go on to do a duet album with Preston in the early 80’s. The name of this song was called “Fancy Lady”

Preston starts off the song with a descending Moog bass before the drum kicks in. This is a thick snare/cymbal kick surrounded by a bluesy sea of synth layers. This continues on the chorus-with the Moog bass and Clavinet weaving through it all like needle and thread. The refrains that Syreet sang on repeats the intro of the song instrumentally. Their are two instrumental bridges. One features polyphonic synths playing a call and response horn chart while the second is a percussive,unaccompanied drum break. Preston plays a full on synthesizer solo for the last minute and a half or so of the song before it fades out.

From the first time I heard it over 12 years ago,this song always stood out to me. Always had a special affinity for the early synth/proto electro funk that emerged out of the mid 70’s. Especially in such cases like this,it again brought the bluesy soul musical past into the electrified/digitized future. As synthesizers expanded in complexity,electro based music began to rely more on the sound than the musical base. And this is a good example of music that didn’t. Its funky because the synths are fat,play bass,guitar and horn lines and always maintain a heavy,chunky instrumental flavor.

 

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Filed under 1975, Billy Preston, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Moog bass, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Syreeta Wright, TONTO

The Crusaders Remembered: “Honky Tonk Struttin” (1980)

Wilton Felder was lost to us earlier this year. And today is his first posthumous birthday. There’s a lot that I didn’t know about him for years. Aside from him being a founding member of the Crusaders,he also participated in songwriting and playing for artists ranging from Joan Baez to the Jackson 5. Thanks to an episode of the locally produced Bay Area TV show ‘Soul School’,hosted by my friend Calvin Lincoln and hosted by my friend Henrique Hopkins,I learned Wilton Felder played bass on the J5’s debut hit “I Want You Back”. This opened up a whole new understanding for me about the man.

Until talking to Calvin and Henrique,I had no idea that Felder was both a sax player and a bassist. And had two separate approaches to each instrument. Calvin,Henrique and myself have each had discussions with each other about how exhaustive it might be to figure out how many sessions the Crusaders played on. What I do know now is Felder also played bass on Marvin Gaye’s massive hit “Lets Get It On” in 1973. When looking for a song that exercised Felder’s duel instrumental talents,my favorite of the bunch was “Honky Tonk Struttin'” off their 1980 album Rhapsody In Blues.

Joe Sample and Stix Hooper get it all started with a grinding Clavinet and piano duet along with a percussion accented funky drum. This is the basic groove of the entire song-with melodic variations for the solos. The choral solo is a bluesy walkdown where Felder plays sax directly along with his own bass line. After that,he plays a full on improvised jazz sax solo on the first bridge. The second bridge features a honky tonk piano solo playing a similarly bluesy improvisation. Stix provides a little fanfare that takes the song right on home to the main chorus of Felder’s bass/sax duet as the song fades out.

This is one of those songs that really brings out The Crusaders most enduring and endearing musical quality. That is the ability to blend the sleek studio sheen (which defined their work from the mid 70’s onward )with their down home bluesy funk instrumental attitude. “Honky Tonk Struttin'”pulls all of this together with its sophistifunk groove and the bluesy instrumental walkdown soloing. It also emphasizes Wilton Felder strong with his two instrumental talents-the rhythmic bass and melodic sax in tandem. That makes it a true shining moment for The Crusaders.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, honky tonk piano, jazz funk, Joe Sample, Saxophone, Stix Hooper, The Crusaders, Wilton Felder