Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.
Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.
A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.
“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, ARP string ensemble, Chuck Rainey, Donald Byrd, drums, Fonce Mizell, Funk Bass, Gary Bartz, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, organ, Saxophone, trumpet
Eryka Badu is always a human being whom I admire and respect,even more so after reading her recent interview for Wax Poetics magazine. She’s insightful,has a good socio-musical understanding and manages to deal with her unique variation on Afrocentrism very well. One of the things I will say about her though is that musically she often has some level of difficulty bringing her ideas into a clear musical focus. Her “neo-funk’ sound always grooves with jazzy rhythmic touches and as much electric piano layering and psychedelic soul musical touches as she can pack into her music. As such the three-four minute pop is not exactly her friend. On this album there’s a concerted effort to remedy that. This album,originally intended as an EP is a ten track album running about ten minutes short of an hour primarily featuring songs of either very short or very long in length.
The overall effect is not so much that of a jam band mentality but more over that of stretching out her broadly chorded and scoped melodies and harmonic effects to their maximum limit. That is exactly what happens on “Bump”,”Back In The Day (Puff)”, and “I Want You”. The overall songs stick within her basic musical framework:spare funk with an MG’s like quality of every instrumental lick counting although it’s loose rather than precise and far far cleaner produced,with puncuated bass synthesizers added for an important measure. The songs also totally split apart by the end,either with a few minutes of free form vocalese or simply slowing the tape down gradually on the songs conclusion. On “The Grind” and “Danger” she brings more hip-hop up front as she brings out that the modern inner city problems of money and the stress that comes with it are as if not more vital today than they were during the period when the music that inspired her was originally being made and the rapping in the songs,by her and others further look to that concept.
Her lyrical focus on general,sometimes non sexual romance (either internally or externally focused) are similarly open ended. The album comes to a very strong conclusion with “Think Twice”, a song in her signature style with fully acknowledges the strong influence of Donald Byrd in her music as well as “Love Of My Life Worldwide”,a more mid length and very well crafted funk song (emphasize song) with a rap provided by Queen Latifah and a very dynamic and inventive bridge. As with just about everything Erykah Badu does musically one does have to expect the unexpected from this album. That is after all part of the essence of who she is as a person and an artist and the lines aren’t as far apart as one might think. Because of the extended runs here she is about to find a little more focus than usual by stretching out the songs so her broad approach doesn’t seem too confined and held back and for the listener and music lover it’s an excellent way to present her artistry.
Originally posted on October 11th,2010
Link to original review here*
Only in recent years have I come to realize just how significant Harvey Mason is to the progression of jazz-funk on through “chill” and into the modern expansive era of the jazz idiom. As a drummer,being a band leader was an inevitability because of that age old tradition of the drummer leading the marching band during the ragtime era-or even as a communicative instrument in Africa. Having been a founding member of Bob James’ 90’s era super group Fourplay,Harvey has continued the occasional solo and ongoing session work as he had always done. Realizing the nature of his talent as a musician of many musical colors,Harvey put together a new group called Chameleon which consisted of himself,sax player Kamasi Washington, keyboardist Corey King,Jimmy Haslip on bass and classic Headhunters era percussion Bill Summers in the mix. This album serves both as a Harvey Mason release and an introduction to the new band as well.
“Black Frost” takes Bob James’ composition into a place where all of the instrumentation revolves around Mason’s spiraling drum sound. Bobby Hutcherson’s “Mantara” gives a similarly involved workout to a very complex yet compelling melody. “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”,long associated with Quincy Jones funkiest years has a single vocalist for this occasion in the somewhat more contemporary Chris Turner. “Looking Back” and especially “Mase’s Theme” are both just over one minute interludes that showcase a full on return to the driving,clavinet driven Headhunters style of jazz funk while Patrice Rushen’s “Before The Dawn” allows for the band and Harvey to groove in a softer manner belying the intensity of the dynamic composition. Donald Byrd’s “Places And Spaces”,featuring vocals from Corey King again focuses on the spiritual,avante garde end of the jazz-funk genre. The album concludes with a re-arranged version of Herbie Hancock’s title song-one which emphasized the hindewhu effect more than the synth bass of the original. The bonus number (several tracks later “Looking Forward (Breaking Bad)” is a lively full band arrangement with an uptempo rhythm.
Overall this music is not as easy to pin down as the virtues of Mason and his intention would make it out to be. Of course the same thing could apply to the Headhunters as well. Though they were rather clearly based in funk at the core. This album is quite different at the base. The sound doesn’t have the phat bass lines and breaks that are essential to hard funk. Nor does it have that breezy,glossy studio overcoat that would commonly be found on a “chill” (once pejoratively referred to as smooth jazz) type of album either. What this does is provide a full musical picture that integrates elements of what Mason did in the Headhunters and his totally separate style forged in Fourplay. So this is sort of a hybrid sound to a degree. At the same time,a live band and very jazzy (on the fusion end) sound is emphasized. That being said,the music here successfully bridges one generation of jazz fusion with another that has the feeling of a pair of paternal mentors leading their musical children and cousins. The musical unity creates a strong and uniquely grooving sound on this album and it is more than a welcomed addition to Mason’s vast and diverse musical catalog.
*For original review,click here: