Walter Becker is one of those players whose proven himself the ultimate “comeback kid” as it were. The Queens native met Donald Fagan while the two attended Bard College. And of course they would soon be the core of Steely Dan. While the songwriting of Steely Dan was a collaborative effort between the two,Becker’s instrumental influence generally came through his guitar solos. They grew from a virtuosic blues rock style in the early 70’s to an intricate,crisp jazz tone later on. A serious of exhausting events led Becker to leave Steely Dan following their Gaucho album-remaining musically inactive for a decade.’
In 1993,Steely Dan reformed and began touring. Becker released his solo debut album 11 Tracks Of Whack a year later. With a somewhat more stripped down musical approach and vocal style closer to that of Eric Clapton,his albums were as critically successful as Fagans. But didn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. It would be another 15 years later that his sophomore album Circus Money. This was an independently released project from 2008 that featured the same superb studio players Becker had worked with in the past. It also started out with just the right groove on the song “Door Number Two”.
A bass and light snare based beat,crystalized sounding piano and bluesy rhythm guitar provide the intro-along with a moody electric piano solo. The basic rhythm of the chorus than comes in. This is a bossa with a clean guitar burst playing a single chord on every other bar or so-with the piano,keyboard and slippery bass line playing along with the female backup singers vocalizing the choral lyric. The refrain finds Becker singing a bluesy line with more piano improvisations behind him. Chris Potter provides a great bop sax solo on the bridge and extends it into the chorus that fades out the song.
Years of being a record producer and even a one time member of the sophisti pop group China Crisis really helped to enhance Walter Becker’s musical flavors as a solo artist. It wasn’t until revisiting “Door Number Two” for this overview did I realize that it has the vibe of a lower key “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The bossa Latin/boogaloo funk is there in the rhythm. Still Becker’s love of jazz comes through all the way-with musicians Keith Carlock,Jon Herington,Jim Beard and Ted Baker all solo right in the pocket of this groove. And it all makes for a great example of jazz with a raw rhythm attitude.
The Crusaders were a band whom I somehow would’ve thought were out of commission by the mid 80’s. In 1983,the bands original drummer Styx Hooper left the group. And they hadn’t recorded any new studio material under their own name for a few years at that point. The core of the Crusaders,by any other name,was always Joe Sample and Wilton Felder. Neither are with us anymore. But in 1984 they rebounded as a trio with George Duke’s former drumer Leon Ndugu Chancler as the successor to Hooper. That year they released the album Ghetto Blaster,with cover art by the ever distinctive Ernie Barnes.
Ghetto Blaster is the first album to help me to realize the Crusaders were very active as a group during the 80’s. They continued to record and tour every few years during the decade. I found the vinyl copy for under a dollar about 15-16 years ago. Every song on the album was so diverse and impressive,actually decided to hunt down the original CD. It wasn’t terribly easy to find,but managed to get hold of it last year. Its an album that I always wanted to cover a song from here on Andresmusictalk. In the end,the best track I could pick to break down would be its first,entitled “Dead End”.
Ndugu and the songs composer Joe Sample get the groove started with their combination of a two bar drum that kicks heavy on the snare around the middle and the slithering 9 note synth bass. One of the five guest guitarists present on this album picks a rhythm guitar lick into another rhythm guitar lick on top of the basic groove. Sample comes back in with some heavy polyphonic synth brass-changing chords at the B section before adding his trademark electric piano solo on the first bridge. Wilton Felder takes a solo on the second bridge before the song fades on its original theme.
“Dead End” is a wonderful example of the Crusaders updating their signature well oiled jazz funk sound for the boogie/electro funk era. The lean production of the era was actually really good for the Crusaders rhythm section based sound. Where this differs from a lot of boogie/naked funk productions is that it totally maintains the jazz/funk genre’s emphasis on instrumental soloing. Sample provides a superb and very vocal lead synth brass melody. But he and Wilton also take the time to solo in their classic style. That makes this song perhaps the ideal Crusaders song for the mid 1980’s.
Genesis began their career in the early 70’s as a progressive rock outfit,whose lead singer was the charismatic performer Peter Gabriel. Up until 1975,the bands sound was based in different forms of European classical music. Phil Collins succeeded Gabriel as a vocalist as well as being the drummer and one of the writers for the group with 1976’s Trick Of The Tail. Gradually, Genesis began to take on elements of jazz/rock fusion of a type Collins was playing in his other band Brand X. By the time of Genesis’s 1981 album Abacab,elements of modern funk and soul became an aspect of their sound as well.
That same year,Collins released his solo debut album Face Value. It was a very diverse album that’s now considered a classic. And also had its share modern funky/soul uptempo numbers. For both Collins’ solo effort and Genesis’s,Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns. They consisted of trumpeters Rahmlee Michael Davis and Michael Harris-along with the late,greats in sax player Don Myrick and trombonist/bassist Louis Satterfield. As a drummer,Collins musically related very well to the horn sections combination of melody and rhythm. This really showed in Genesis’s big hit from 1981 called “No Reply At All”.
The song starts out hot. The refrain consists of Collins’ percussive,fast paced rhythms with Tony Banks’ equally percussive synthesizer melody adding to Mike Rutherford’s phat,jazzy funk bass line. The Phenix Horns accent hard on every second beat. On the chorus,Collins’ drum roll brings in the refrain where the keyboard,guitars and bass line play along with a fuller horn chart-until another drum roll bridges each refrain/choral exchange. Banks on a solo piano with a Wall Of Sound style drum from Collins’ represents a bridge that leads into the choral/refrain exchange the closes out the song.
In terms of an English band mixing progressive pop/rock with Afrocentric,percussion/ horn based funk,”No Reply At All” is one of the finest examples at the beginning of the decade. The sound is not at all overcooked,which is a frequent aspect (and to some writers and critics,a complaint) about Phil Collins’ own solo combinations of the styles. Because this is coming as a collaborative writing effort from Genesis,a power trio band,each member deals with the combinations of rhythm,melody and arrangement extremely well. That makes this probably the funkiest moment Genesis had up to this point in time.
Midnight Star are a band who represent something that this blog was founded on: showcasing unexplored directions in artists/bands music. One of the things about a lot of the early to mid 80’s electro/boogie funk bands is that many of the bands who helped developed it didn’t begin their careers doing that. Midnight Star are a prime example of this. The band formed in 1976 at Kentucky State University by the horn player Calloway brothers Vincent (who celebrates a birthday today) and his brother Reggie-along with singer Belinda Lipscomb.
When the band released their first album The Beginning Solar in 1980,they had a completely different sound than the more electronic grooves they’d start to develop by their next album in 1981’s Standing Together. Their sound on this debut was based around the horns in mid/late 70’s funk style-showcasing a very live instrumental sound with strong songwriting and brightness.With the exception of one song produced by Leon Sylvers,the rest of the album was handled by Harvey Mason. Including my favorite song on it in the closing track entitled “Two In Love”.
A high stepping Afro Latin march of a drum beat opens the album. The Calloway’s horn blasts segue into a pulsing synthesizer,an exploratory bass line and occasional muted trumpet accents from Reggie Calloway. This represents the chorus of the refrain. The refrain has a more conventional post disco dance beat-along with the bass/rhythm guitar interaction along with the strings. The bands brightly melodic vocal harmonies along with Lipscomb’s lead segue into each chorus. The bridge consists of a vocal improvisation where the chorus builds back into itself as the song fades out.
“Two In Love” represents one of my favorite types of funk. Its got just about everything in that respect. The climactic Afro Brazilian jazz/funk beat on the chorus,the textural mix of horns and synthesizers and a bright,gospel inspired melody. The sheer passion in this song goes right along with its epic instrumental groove. Its not likely that too many will associate Midnight Star with this particular side of their sound in the future. It not only surprised me to hear it for the first time. But was also surprised to find one of my favorite Midnight Star songs on their lesser known (and not particularly defining) debut album.
John McLaughlin might very well be the best electric guitarist in the jazz fusion genre. He worked through the UK psychedelic rock scene,even giving guitar lessons to a young Jimmy Page. Finding much of this creatively unsatisfying,he picked up with Tony William’s Lifetime in 1969. As well as launching his own solo career.This led him to his iconic work with Miles Davis on his fusion breakthrough album Bitches Brew the following year. With the enormous acclaim working with Miles earned him, McLaughlin formed his own group The Mahavishnu Orchestra shortly thereafter.
Mahavishnu Orchestra’s actual lineup remained fluid over the years outside McLaughlin. In its original lineup though it consist of drummer/percussionist Billy Cobham,bassist Rick Laird,violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboard player Jan Hammer. In a similar manner to Miles,the band would become a platform for many future fusion band leaders. Their debut album in 1970 is called The Inner Mounting Flame. It consists entirely of McLaughlin compositions and is considered a fusion classic today. One of the songs on it that best epitomizes their style and groove for me personally is entitled “Dawn”.
Cobham and Hammer slowly accompany each other on a slowly funky mixture of cymbal heavy drumming and appropriately melodic electric piano. Cobham’s drums become louder as Laird’s bass (playing the exact counter line to Hammer’s keyboards) comes in for Rick Lairds violin solo-one which has a high pitched,sustained tone. He blends directly into McLaughlin’s guitar solo-full of Hendrix like flamboyance yet Santana style sustains. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm goes into a funkified hump with everyone playing their own accompanying solos together before fading out on its original theme.
“Dawn” is a song that’s full of feeling and passion. Listening to the way it instrumentally progresses,it does sound a lot like the day as it comes in. Its all very funky actually. The song has a slow grooving beginning-with the very hummable melody accented strongly. The bridge of the song,where the tempo gets into a faster and funkier groove,is like the sound the bright morning sunshine might make if it could. Jerry Goodman’s violin seemed to weep. And McLaughlin’s guitar seemed to be speaking and singing all at the same time. Its the best example of funky jazz fusion that can really speak to core of the listener.
Daft Punk,the French electronic house duo consisting Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo,have been extremely interesting to me. From their debut album Homework in 1997 up through their 2013 release Random Access Memories,their electronica /house combination has continually embraced elements of American funk and disco. And this tendency as gotten strong with each successive studio album they’ve made. The fact that both men play bass and guitar adds strongly to their rhythmic understanding of funky disco grooves. And has afforded them much commercial success as well.
First heard of the duo one evening while home alone with my dad at some point in 2001. We had the radio switched to local college radio WMEB. And one of the DJ’s was playing this song that really caught my ear. Wondered if it was a new acid jazz song by an artist like Jamiroquai or something. But it had a totally different flavor. More electronic. Since most radio stations in my area tended to play blocks of music with no announcements of songs/artists after 2000,it surprised me to hear the DJ announce that the artist was Daft Punk. And the name of the song was “Voyager”.
A very distant drum machine playing a disco beat begins the song,with an airy synthesizer accompanying it as the main melody. That intro soon breaks into a harder pounding version of the same beat-this time with a Nile Rodgers like clean rhythm guitar line along with the main melody. Within this,a wonderfully funky bass line pops out every note between the note possible in this song. This song has two bridges. One reduces down to a percussive rhythm with a wah wah guitar. The next features a Japanese sounding synth solo in the pentatonic scale. This becomes part of the final choruses the fade out the song.
“Voyager” is very representative of the kind of disco/funk hybrid coming out of electronic groups in the early 2000’s that I personally found very appealing. It had the synthesized sonic’s and melodies very popular on the European club scenes. But it also embraced the hard funk/disco approach that came from the American idiom. The fact that it had a Japanese style interlude might’ve served as a reminder of Japan’s pop culture strongly embracing funk and disco in the 70’s and 80’s. In all areas,this song represents a dry run towards the sound that would culminate on their 2013 hit “Get Lucky”.
Edgar Winter is one of those artists whose musical arc I had extremely wrong most of my life. Knowing him only for the songs “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein” (which both come from the same album by the way),had him pegged as a progressive minded Southern rocker. Upon purchasing his debut album Entrance a decade ago,it introduced me to one of the most talented and musically distinctive artists this side of Prince,Todd Rundgren,Brian Wilson and even Miles Davis. His mixture of European classical,jazz,soul and blues instrumentation and harmonies made it quite a listening experience.
With The Edgar Winter Group he,Dan Hartman and Rick Derringer did indeed tend to explore their rockier side. He also had a band called White Trash who,on two occasions dealt with Winter’s gospel/funk/soul/blues side more. Much as with The Rolling Stones, Winter felt a deep affinity with black American music. And like the Stones,his music also evolved along with black American music in the 70’s. His next “solo” album was 1975’s Jasmine Nightdreams. This album was more a mixture of styles. And one song in particular that leaped out at me is entitled “All Out”
A drum roll quickly gives way to a slow shuffling swing. Winter than solos on the ARP synthesizer on a jazzy horn like melody before going into a solo on the ARP doing the refrain that improvises heavy on the 12 bar blues primarily. On both occasions,its backed up by a phat Moog bass playing an upfront descending line similar to what the upright bass would normally play. Winter takes off improvising the melody on sax before doing the same with his flamboyant,rangy scat singing. The choral theme repeats for a bar before the piano/synth arpeggio that segues into the next song.
Hearing this all out bop jazz number reminds me somewhat of how people like Thelonious Monk might’ve updated their distinctive style in the 70’s-with electronic instruments playing the roles the bass and organ normally would’ve. With a sound that suggests Winter likely played most of the instruments on this song himself,his improvisation of melody and spirited instrumental/vocal performance really showcase what a strong musician/composer Edgar Winter actually is. And having the understanding to have players in his circle who could help him flesh out his musical ideas even more so.