Deniece Williams was born in Gary,Indiana-also the home town of the Jacksons. And is very close in age to the musical family’s eldest member Rebbie. Very much like EWF’s late founder Maurice White,she initially had her eyes on the medical profession-in her case in becoming a nurse and anesthetist. She dropped out after one year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She then recorded as a singer for a number of small labels until she joined Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove during the early 70’s.
After leaving Wonderlove in 1975,she released her solo debut This Is Niecy on the Columbia label,in the company of Maurice White and much of the Earth Wind & Fire musical crew. Her epic song “Free” really broke her into hit status,even getting her an appearance on Soul Train. She continued her association with EWF on through her followup album in 1977’s Song Bird. Discovered the album last year in the vinyl bins and became really entranced with every song on it. One particular song from the album that got my attention was the opening song entitled “Time”.
The Phenix Horns are fanfarring call and response style with the marching call like drum breaks on the intro of the song. After that,the entire musical flavor of the song thickens up with this big rhythm with a three note snare drum hit around the middle. Al McKay’s heavily reverbed guitar and Verdine White’s extended bass runs play musical hide and seek with Niecy’s vocals along with Larry Dunn’s electric piano and the Phenix horns. While the chorus merely changes the chord of the refrain a bit higher,the final part of the song finds the drums playing a more stop/start beat until it all fades out.
“Time” is the kind of intricately structured song EWF delivered in such a consistent,well oiled way during their mid/late 70’s salad days. Williams’ high and often quite loud voice literally does seem to sour and fly in her fine gospel drenched style throughout the entirety of this song. EWF were a band who had mastered their ability to be highly daring musically,often very jazzy and still leave room to accomodate singers with big voices. Like The Emotions,Deniece Williams was another such singer. And this song was a total funk triumph for her in her years recording with the members of EWF.
Miles Davis began 1985 having just received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the highest musical honor in the country of Denmark, in the last month of the previous year. Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg was so inspired by Miles’ achievement that he composed that he decided to compose a suite for him to record. The only major arranger Miles Davis had continually worked with before was Gil Evans. And even later on in their collaborations, Evans wasn’t as fully involved as he’d been when he’d helped to begin Miles’ career as a bandleader with the 1949 album Birth Of The Cool.
The album that came from Mikkelborg and Miles’ collaboration was called Aura. It was recorded early in 1985. Miles Davis was in the process of leaving Columbia for Warner Bros Records at the time. Despite the historic three decade association between Miles and Columbia, Aura wasn’t released until 1989 due to a contractual conflict of interest. It was music of many moods flowing together. It was composed based on notes corresponding to all the initials of Miles Davis’s first and last name. As for the rest of the album, I wrote an Amazon.com 9 years ago that digs deeper into what Aura was and still is.
Miles Davis,just about to leave Columbia records after a lucrative 30 year career with the label turned to Danish composer and musician Palle Mikkelborg to record a ten piece suite in Copenhagen in the late winter of 1985. After a frenetic fusion intro there are nine compositions titled after different colors of the “aura”: white,yellow, orange,red, green, blue,electric red,indigo and violet. Most of these songs,while musically very much in keeping with the early 80’s part of the “electric Miles” period showcase impressionistic “sound paintings” that not only bare a striking resemblance to Miles’ work with Gil Evans on albums like Sketches of Spain at least in terms of arrangement.
The main difference is that on these Miles plays against the melody most the time rather then with it,which while very much in the jazz improvisation tradition gives the music that sense of organized chaos common in Miles’ electric music:the idea melodies and rhythms that are completely different from each other and never coming to a resolution.In this context it could be seen as mixing different shades to make primary colors. The only really funky tune here is “Orange” which is indeed very fiery in nature. “Electric Red” and “Violet” are a slower burning kind of groove whereas “Blue” expresses a light reggae feeling for another musical “color”.
“Indigo” is the only real acoustic piece here. Some of these songs also feature the guitar of John McLaughlin who worked with Miles back in his Bitches Brew days. While the complex,almost ambient nature of ‘Aura’ might qualify elements of this album as off putting and some jazz fans might find some of these songs leaning towards the new age sound it is definitely one of the more unique and individual recordings in Miles’ vast catalog and he has many.
Aura is a true example of why albums matter a lot with instrumental jazz musicians such as Miles. When I first heard it,it was in the form of 30 second previews at a listening station when the remastered CD first came out. It sounded like dull electronic “new age” music in that context. And always avoided it. Upon purchasing the CD later and listening to it, it became clear these were songs that developed in sound and even genre as they went along. In that context,its innovative orchestrated jazz fusion. Therefore I recommend seeking out the Aura album on its own terms-to take in its brilliance.
*Listen to the funkiest song on this album called “Orange” here!
Billy Joel is at the core of how I tend to relate to pop/rock music. A Bronx native, Joel’s music career was less inspired by his father being a classically trained pianist than in his mother pushing him into taking piano lessons. This cost him the credits to graduate from high school-playing in a piano bar just a bit too long so it seems-trying to earn money to support his family. He eventually joined up with a band called The Hassles. He and the bands drummer Jon Small ended up forming Atilla and releasing one album in 1970. After the duo broke up,he began his solo career with the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor.
As his music developed,particularly after early hits such as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” after being signed to Columbia,Joel’s sound began to take on even stronger elements of the Broadway show tune and pre rock jazz styled pop that had always been an influence on him. This culminated in his 1977 release The Stranger,produced by the late Phil Ramone. Its followup 52 Street was part of my moms 8 track collection. And upped the jazz influences even higher. One song from the album that stood out for me on that particular musical end is a tune called “Zanzibar”.
After an opening piano flourish, Joel is dueting with himself on both a melodic and a bass piano arpeggio-with Liberty DeVito’s drums keeping in time with the rhythmic piano for the refrains. Dancing around this are a high electric piano and round bass line. The chorus returns to the more rhythmic piano style and bursts of rock guitar from Steve Khan. Joel duets with piano and a backwards keyboard loop before the bridge goes into a straight swinging bop jazz arrangement with Freddie Hubbard soloing on flugelhorn and trumpet. After a choral/refrain repeat,this swinging solo fades out the song as well.
After hearing this song enough for so many years, it has a quality of the progressive jazz rock being done by both Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan during the late 70’s. That Steely Dan influence-especially Hubbard’s trumpet solo,has been discussed by many people. Joel’s elaborate melodicism and way with a strong,funky rhythmic groove also maintained the Steely Dan like cryptic lyric regarding trying to pick up a sexy waitress at a sports bar. It also showcases,with both its writing and choice of musicians, how funky and soulful an artist like Billy Joel can be with a strong jazz base to their musical sound.
Johnnie Taylor has been a consistent conversation point between Henrique Hopkins and myself. And it was always in reference to him being a 60′ era soul singer who recorded and did consistently well with audiences up through the mid 90’s. The West Memphis, Arkansas native got his start as Sam Cooke’s replacement in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. In 1965, Taylor signed to Stax records. He became one of the labels major stars,leading to his nickname as “The Philosopher Of Soul”. After Stax folded in the mid 70’s,Taylor signed with Columbia-where he remained for nearly a decade after that.
Johnnie Taylor is also one of those artists who I knew about long before even knowing his name. That was from dancing around as a pre-teen to his major pop Top 10 crossover funky soul hit “Who’s Makin’ Love” from 1970-hearing it on oldies radio all the time. In fact,that was a song I almost reviewed today. But there’s another song of his that came out half a decade later of his. One that Nelson George described the success of so wonderfully in his book The Death Of Rhythm & Blues. And musically,it has a surprising twist for me that I’ll get into after describing it. The name of this song was “Disco Lady”.
The drums kick right off into a slightly delayed 4/4 dance beat,accented by shaking bells. A high pitched melody on electric piano opens up the melody,which is accentuated by an equally melodic eight note bass line and a pulsing wah wah guitar. On each part of Taylor’s chorus,the horns accent his vocals in different ways. Sometimes with hard pulses,other times with a building sustain. On the bridge,the rhythm becomes a bouncing march before it melodically builds back into itself-complete with fanfaring horn charts and rubbery keyboards. The refrain repeats itself consistently until the song fades out.
“Disco Lady” is actually one of those fairly stripped down disco era funk songs where the instrumentation and the vocals are both designed for a slinky,sneaky attitude as opposed to a raucous one. As for that surprising twist I mentioned,it became known to me years ago that Taylor was backed up by P-Funk musicians on this song. Bassist Bootsy Collins, the late guitarist Glenn Goins and keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell and drummer Jerome Brailey play on the song. Along with backup vocals by Dawn’s (as in Tony Orlando) Telma Hopkins singing the backup vocals singing the chorus.
This song doesn’t exactly have the sound I would ever associate with P-Funk. And certainly not Tony Orlando & Dawn. But its songs such as this that have the power to help people understand how musicians function. If someone reads the liner notes to albums and look for names online,they’ll often find out that the best musicians in the funk,soul and jazz world especially have an expert sense of musical diversity. They know how to give a song what it needs-whether its based more on singers or instruments. And at least to me,that ethic is one of the major contributions of “Disco Lady”.
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.
Joe Zawinul had a tremendous history in the development of hard bop jazz onto jazz fusion. He immigrated to the US from Austria in 1959. A year later he was part of Cannonball Adderley’s quintet. And he wound up being the composer of Cannonball’s best known song “Mercy Mercy Mercy”. By the late 60’s,Zawinul was playing and writing with Miles Davis on his fusion process album In A Silent Way. When he and another fellow Miles alumni Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report two years later,Zawinul was again pioneering jazz instrumentation into the era of synthesizers.
Between 1971 and 1984,Weather Report recorded 14 albums. Many of them were iconic in the annals of the fusion genre. The band was also well known for developing pioneering bass players. This included Miroslav Vitous,Alphonso Johnson and best known of all the late Jaco Pastorious. The bands final album in 1986 came totally by accident. They thought they’d fulfilled their Columbia contract with their previous album in 1985’s Sportin’ Life. This didn’t end up being the case,so they had to make one more album. And Zawinul really made it one for the road with the title song to their final album called “This Is This”.
Mino Cinelu starts off with some fast paced Afro-Latin percussion mixed up high. Peter Erksine plays a steady,marching groove that fits like a glove into the spaces left in Cinelu’s percussion. Zawinul and new bassist Victor Bailey rolled right along upfront with one of Zawinul’s most melodically hummable synth bass lines. He provides two for this song-the other a deeper 8-note one later on. Carlos Santana also provides two different guitar parts here-one is high pitched,cosmic guitar atmospherics and some of his exciting lead soloing as well playing call and response to Zawinul’s synth bass lead..
Santana actually get’s accompanied by Zawinul providing two synth brass lines-the first orchestrated big band style ones. This part comes into play after the first few choruses. On the last few choruses of the song, the other synth brass part arrives playing more succinct,funkier charts. By this time Santana’s guitar,Cinelu’s percussion,Erksine’s drums and Zawinul’s synth bass all come together in a beautiful,rhythmic unison of colorful sounds. Little by little,each instrumental element drops out of the mix. And the song slows back into percussion,bass and guitar as it fades.
Before people like Billy Preston and of course Prince,Joe Zawinul was a major pioneer of the bass synthesizers. By 1986,synth brass was the big thing in American pop music with the advent of the Minneapolis sound. With Zawinul having worked it for years,”This Is This” is a highly underrated song for Weather Report-perhaps one of Zawinul’s strongest compositions. The groove is strongly Afrocentric,and the playing is as funky as they come. It really brings out the best in ever instrumentalist involved and allowed Weather Report to go out again innovating with some electro funk style world fusion.
Filed under 1986, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Carlos Santana, Columbia Records, drums, elecro funk, Funk Bass, guitar, jazz fusion, Joe Zawinul, Mino Cinelu, percussion, Peter Erksine, synth bass, synth brass, synthesizers, Victor Bailey, Weather Report, world fusion
Miles Davis late 70’s retirement period was the basis of the main plot in Don Cheadle’s semi fictitious biopic Miles Ahead this year. While he recorded some unreleased sessions with Gil Evans during this period,Miles made what he admits to be the one crucial mistake of his career. He stopped practicing trumpet. As a beginner level alto sax player as a child,I understand how lack of practice can lead to losing ones embrasure-the key to playing any horn instrument. When his nephew,the drummer Vince Wilburn convinced Miles to start recording again,regaining that embrasure was Miles’ biggest challenge musically.
When Miles got back in the Columbia studio in 1980,he was working with a group of younger musicians. The then 54 year old trumpet icon once said of his approach to music overall was to keep creating and changing. To would keep from getting stale and safe. One of the new musicians was the bass player/composer Marcus Miller. Miller as also a multi instrumentalist. He understood along with the other players such as Bill Evans, Al Foster and Robert Irving III how to bring Miles into the 1980’s. His 80’s debut The Man With The Horn contains a superb example of this in the song “Shout”.
Thick sheets of up scaling synthesizers bring in the song over rolling percussion. After that the drums kick into place. Along with a six note bass line which equals out with the instruments lowest and highest tones. Miles himself plays a succinct, indeed shouting main melody on the choruses. Each trumpet solo is accompanied by Randy Hall’s chicken scratch guitar that plays throughout the song. After the refrain where Miles’s solo becomes more rhythmic in tone,he takes an improvised solo that extends right into higher pitched soaring before the song fades out on the chorus.
Composed with Randy Hall and Robert Irving III,”Shout” might be the finest funk SONG Miles Davis had done up to this point. Rhythmically it’s very structured. Miles s keeps the melody strong on the main themes and improvised soloing. Hall and Irving also seem to have had the same early understanding of Prince’s Minneapolis sound. The horns are soloing elements while the synths and guitar lines play orchestral roles. With the rhythm locked in tight,yet the sound so full this song sets an important standard with Miles for more electronic orchestrated jazz funk for the remainder of the 1980’s.
Filed under 1980's, chicken scratch guitar, Columbia Records, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, jazz funk, Miles Davis, percussion, Randy Hall, Robert Irving III, synthesizers, trumpet, Vince Wilburn
Miles found himself in 1968 in a very new world of music. Psychedelic sounds were everywhere and different sorts of music were bleeding together into all kinds of combinations and ending up becoming a whole new form.Sly & The Family Stone and Hendrix were popularizing it and on one of his later album with his classic quintet Miles very obviously had his ears all the way open. On the majority of this album Miles,a musician who had been edging towards a kind of avant garde sound on his previous few albums such as Miles Smiles and now a new kind of rhythm was coming into the equation.
From “Paraphernalia” to “Black Comedy” onto “Country Son”,even with the presence of George Benson,Miles was putting everything happening musically here into the context of rhythm. Believe it or not this was part of the beginning of the jazz-funk movement of the 70’s. Recently a discussion I had with my good friend from Oakland (who I realize I name drop a lot in these reviews) bought up the point that much of jazz even at this point was not as on the stop as it seemed;that there was a deeper understanding among jazz musicians who were able to translate their musical traditions from a basic theme into something very original.
The themes here do seem to be buried somewhat if your not listening close enough.But the truth is it’s because their all based in some form of communal rhythm: Wayne’s sax,Ron’s bass and Tony?Well let’s just say that his drumming on everything here is far heavier-not necessarily loud but full of a weighty bottom that stands as more then steady support for Miles’ playing,itself usually associated with “tugging at you a little softer” by his own description. The tune that pulls everything together here is the opener “Stuff”. It opens it all up-EVERYTHING Miles would do on his breakthrough electric albums such as Bitches Brew and even to some extent On the Corner begins here.
Herbie’s newly found electric piano soloing,the bass leading the whole way from the bottom up and…….a rhythm that comes in and around the psychedelic stew to what is possibly Miles’ first released tune in the funk genre,then a fairly new genre to most people. Even though not psychedelic music in the traditional sense of the word,everything from the trippy album cover all the way down to the rhythms and instrumentation all bleeding together find the influence firmly in place. This is the kind of jazz and funk I can imagine having a lot of appeal to people who usually listened to things like Country Joe & The Fish or even the Grateful Dead. And even for them Miles and the kind of rooted,complex funky music his quintet were making on albums like this will hopefully bring them into a good place to begin grooving to rhythms that were at once communal,improvisations AND jamming!
Originally posted July 6th,2009
LINK TO ORIGINAL REVIEW HERE!
*Listen to “Stuff”,Miles’ second quintet presenting prototype jazz/funk fusion.
Filed under 1960's, Columbia Records, drums, electric piano, funk process, Herbie Hancock, jazz funk, Miles Davis, Psychedelia, Ron Carter, Saxophone, Tony Williams, trumpet, upright bass, Wayne Shorter
Earth Wind & Fire had one important thing in common with a lot of 50’s and 60’s era black groups. Their creative and commercial momentum developed in a slower way. In their case,it seemed to be the more artistic reasons that played into this earlier on. Maurice White retained only brother Verdine on bass when he left Warner Bros. for Columbia. Their 1972 debut for the label Last Days And Time featured Ronnie Laws, the Friends Of Distinction’s Jessica Cleaves and Roland Bautista. But also introduced Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Larry Dunn-the first two of whom are still the core of the band to this very day.
After that label debut that was still somewhat in the mold of the bands two Warner Bros. albums,the band regrouped still further. Ronnie Laws and Roland Bautista left. This opened the door for successors Al McKay,who’d played with Charles Wright as well as Andrew Woolfolk on soprano sax and an additional guitarist in Johnny Graham. Still retaining Cleaves for the time being,the band released their second Columbia album Head To The Sky. It has a somewhat unique sound for them as it has their renowned slick production, but retains a lot of their more experimental musical elements. In terms of funk,it’s the song “Build Your Nest” that really stands out for me on this album.
The song actually fades in with it’s intro. Musically the intro is a round,expanding wah wah guitar with a light and lilting Clavinet in the back round. A grimy guitar solo gets the main groove of the song going. The rhythm is based around a slower swinging funk-heavy on cymbal and with a strong brushing sound. The bass has a very gruff and brittle wah wah going about it while the rhythm guitar has that percussive James Brown flavor. Organ and Rhodes piano occasionally accent this thick musical bed. On the melody,there’s a descending chord that takes the main melody into a much higher key. The song returns to it’s main choral theme as it fades out.
When I first read about the Head To The Sky album in the Allmusic guide in the early 90’s,it was described as having some of the best uptempo songs the group ever made. That’s a big statement to make for sure. But this one is still very distinctive for them. First and foremost because it’s one of the few (if any) 70’s EWF funk numbers that succeeded without the presence of a single horn,let alone a horn section. The rhythm section entirely carries the groove. Lyrically the song allows Maurice to illustrate how important it is,especially for black couples,to fight for and maintain a happy domestic life. On that level,it’s actually one of my favorites of EWF’s earlier funk numbers.
Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Columbia Records, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White, wah wah guitar
Bill Withers became a soul/folk icon with his early 70’standards such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”,”Use Me”,”Grandma’s Hands” and his signature song “Lean On Me”. Even in their time,these tunes were popular cover material for different artists across the soul,pop and jazz spectrum. A working class hero who literally demoed his songs and recorded his album (as it’s cover indicates) while employed as an assembler for Douglas Aircraft Corporation,Withers huge early success on the Sussex label evaded him by mid decade. By 1975 he signed to Columbia. And after his debut album Making Music, he released it’s follow up Naked & Warm the next year.
It wasn’t until the release of the documentary film Still Bill in 2009 did I notice any big revival of Withers music beyond his earlier hit period. It would seem his first two Columbia albums were not the major success he would have later in the decade with songs such as “Lovely Day”. Let alone his early 80’s collaborations such as “Soul Shadows” with the Crusaders and the smash of “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. The man wrote his songs across the entire spectrum of soul-concentrating heavily on the down home 12 bar blues form in a similar manner to Gil Scott-Heron. His second Columbia album started right out of the box with another groove called “Close To Me”.
The funky drummer on this song starts right out slowly jamming hard on the one-accompanied by thick chords from the electric piano. This is soon accompanied by accenting percussion from a ringing cowbell before the thick and round synthesized bass line begins popping along with the another of the electric slap bass variety. The song itself sticks heavily to this main theme throughout-with the synthesizer emerging in higher tone generally before Withers’ vocal refrains. There is a brief bridge to the song which features a more sustained electric piano sound before the song begins a very slow fade out with Withers’ vocals going into sensuous talk singing coo.
While Bill Withers classic songs had a live instrumental naturalness that was proto neo soul in tone,this 1976 jam was something very different. His songs had always had a strong funk undertone. But it was here that his funk really emerged fully formed. The structure of the composition is pretty much the same as a “Grandma’s Hands”,”Use Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”. But the slow crawling beat hits right where the funk is supposed to. And the use of big round blurts of mid 70’s synth bass with electric bass slapping adds some heavy thickening of the funky stew this song generates. In a lot of ways,it’s my favorite out and out funk jam from Bill Withers.
Filed under 1970's, Bill Withers, Columbia Records, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Grover Washington Jr., slap bass, Sussex Records, synth bass, The Crusaders, Uncategorized