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Anatomy Of 1978: “Love Is” by Bill Withers

Bill Withers is certainly an artist I’ve grown with. Especially his non hit material, which never ceases to be wonderful to hear. And is often extremely funky too.  In 1978 he released his final album of the decade ‘Bout Love’.  It featured on it a song that I first heard recorded and sung by Herb Alpert on his Rise album a year later. When I first heard Wither’s version, it was a bit surprising he’d actually wrote it. As hadn’t paid proper attention to Alpert’ personnel credits. Still its the exact song I’d want to project for this Valentines Day-especially in America. The song is entitled “Love Is”.

Keni Burke of the Five Stairsteps gets the medium paced beat of Russel Kunkel going off with a heavy, rhythmic slap bass riff. Paul Smith adds a high pitched Clavinet (or Clavinet like keyboard) into the mix before the strings and horns kick in playing the main melody along with Withers’ voice. There’s a bridge where the bass and strings scale up before the song essentially builds back up from where it started-with everything building up from a milder sound to a more theatrical one. After another such scaled up refrain, that same pattern builds back up for a third time before the songs finally fades out on itself.

“Love Is” has both the structure of a funk song right on the one musically-with a gospel/folk like chorus-on-chorus melodic content. The funk is assured by Burke’s Larry Graham like slap bass and the overall Sly Stone type groove-mixed in with a healthy dose of disco era lushness with the horns and strings. Wither’s own guitar also plays a wonderfully supplementary role alongside Burke’s bass-especially with its bluesy drawl. Lyrically the call and response lyrics-alternately illustrating both love’s basics and more complex tenants are another aspect of why I love this song.

Holiday’s can be beloved, despised or even abandoned. Depending on the social and political atmosphere of the given time period. Valentine’s Day can be difficult even for those who generally love holidays. Bill Withers song here speaks a good message to such a situation. Suppose that when times of love for one’s individual self seems lacking? Or if someone is unlucky enough to be without love in a somewhat loveless community? Using romantic love as a worldly concept FOR community, empathy, caring and/or spirituality is one of the most positive things a soulful, funky song can offer. Happy Valentines Day!

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald emerged out of his native Ferguson, Missouri (and his first band Blue) to become one of the most important building blocks of the west coast pop/soul/funk sound out of LA-during the late 70’s and early 80’s. His first gig was in singing backup on Steely Dan’s 1975 Katy Lied. And he brought his distinctively jazzy soul way with the Rhodes piano to The Doobie Brothers when he joined them shortly thereafter. In doing so, he totally reshaped their southern rock sound into west coast funky soul such as “Takin’ It To The Street”, “It Keeps You Runnin'” and of course “What A Fool Believes”.

Turning 66 years old today, McDonald has had an equally varied solo career. Especially with his soulfully, distinctively slurred vocal delivery and raspy falsetto. He even made a more  popular comeback in the early aughts with two separate CD’s of classic Motown covers. Both with and without the Doobie’s, McDonald’s career has many exciting moments that got my attention. Especially 1982’s G funk building block “I Keep Forgettin'”. The song that I’m talking about today was from the 1986 movie Running Scared. And its the late Rod Temperton written “Sweet Freedom”.

A snare/tom based drum kicks into a percussion based intro with two corresponding synths-one playing a marimba like sound and the other introducing the main melody with McDonald’s refrain. Other layers of synth, including a brittle bass line come in as the drums fatten up. On the choruses, the rhythm guitar of (likely) Paul Jackson and the horn arrangements of Larry Williams beef up the arrangement. After a re-harmonized bridge ending with a pitch bent synth solo, an extended version of the chorus closes out the song.

“Sweet Freedom” is one of those songs I’ve personally enjoyed, sung and danced around to since childhood. And it makes sense now that its another Rod Temperton composition. It really brings to life that danceable, Caribbean inspired funky soul injected into the mid 80’s American pop landscape. It all had just the right mix of melodic sweetness and rhythm heft to make it work very well. And in terms of keyboards and vocals, this is some of McDonald’s finest work-with Temperton making the most of the artists jazzy twists as well. A wonderful meeting of two soulful icons in a very enjoyable setting.

 

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Anatomy of Two Late Funkateers: “Money’s Hard To Get” by The Temptations

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”,  both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.

Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns.  Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.

Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.

“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”.  Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.

 

 

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Anatomy of The Groove 2018: “Filthy” By Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake has had a very full several years. He had a successful comeback tour for his previous two albums-both parts of The 20/20 Experience. That tour was the subject of a Netflix concert film entitled Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. In addition, he also provided voice over work in the Dream Works animated film Trolls-as well as contributing the commercially successful single “Can’t Stop The Music” to the soundtrack as well. Since then, JT has been back in the studio. And at the end of this week, his newest album Man Of The Woods will drop to the public.

This latest album will feature 16 new songs from Timberlake-with two guest stars in the new millennium neo soul songstress Alicia Keys and another with modern country singer Chris Stapleton. So far there have been three videos for three of the new songs pre released from this album-including the duet with Stapleton. The first video/song from this new album to be released came as a bit of a surprise to me. And results showcased where Timberlake seemed to be focusing his musical energies as he was approaching his 37th birthday today. The name of this song is “Filthy”.

A rumbling guitar rumbles into a marching beat and a rocking, up-scaling riff as the intro the song. The drum suddenly changes to funky electronic tone-with a double percussion accent on the second beat. There is a dub-step style wobble bass starting things out on that rhythm. Than a live electric bass/guitar interaction comes into that mix for the song its main groove. Timberlake is rapping/chanting somewhat James Brown style in the beginning. On the chorus, an ethereal synth pad adds a high pitched layer of color. That pattern continues until a digital tone brings the song to a total halt.

“Filthy” is a song with a strong groove and a strong video-one with JT presenting himself as a Steve Jobs style figure presenting a animatronic dancing robot. The groove of the song is also an electro funk one as well.  The wobbling bass is normally associated with dub-step, EDM and trap. These are musical genres that usually emphasis more decorative beats and sounds. “Filthy” takes that modern instrumentation and brings it into a solid electro funk groove. Timberlake’s soulful vocal turns also help give the melody that funkified flavor as well. Making the song a good possible new direction for funk to take.

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Hugh Masekela 1939-2018: “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” (1984)

Hugh Masekela’s passing, occurring after suffering for a time with prostate cancer, reminded me of what an vital musical figure Masekela was to Apartheid era South Africa. Because of the racist political environment afflicting America at the moment, it felt appropriate to talk about Masekela’s musical life shortly after it all came to an end for him. He was born in Kwa-Guqa Township, the son of a health inspector and a social worker. He began playing piano as a child, but switched to the trumpet having been inspired by seeing the America film The Young Man With The Horn.

Masekela’s life was always politically enshrined. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston-anti-apartheid chaplain at the St. Peter’s Secondary School. From his time in Johannesburg’s “native” Municipal Brass Band  through his time with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in 1956, Masekela’s music became reflected of the inhumanity (and resulting struggles) of black South African’s under the racist system of Apartheid. He and his future wife Miriam Mekeba also toured the UK together as part of South Africa’s first blockbuster theatrical success King Kong.

By the 60’s he was recording and touring as a leader-with he and Mekeba even giving sanctuary to now radically anti apartheid exchange students. And of course having a major crossover hit instrumental with “Grazing In The Grass” on the international stage in 1968. As a flugelhornist and cornetist, his African jazz sound evolved along with the funk and disco eras to come. Reconnecting with many South African musicians in the early to mid 80’s, one song he recorded in 1984 was called “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby”. It was re recorded later. But for this occasion, I wanted to take about its original version.

Bongani Nxele’s in the pocket drums are assisted by what was likely Masekela playing the majority of the other instruments. The core if it consists of fast paced percussion and laser like synth bass stabs-all before a higher pitched synth pad takes over. Then Banjo Mosele’s rhythm guitar adds rhythmic heft. On the chorus, a quartet of female backup singers accompany Masekela’s horn. On the bridge, that horn solo takes on an echoing psychedelic affect-with a proto house music piano. Starting out the songs fading chorus, Masekela himself provides a rap before the backup singers reprise that chorus.

What brings this mix of the original “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” to life for me is what it meant for the African musical spectrum during the mid 80’s. In its original form, this is a song that represents an Afrocentric variation on the synth pop/new wave variety of dance/funk that was already permeating the clubs of London (which Masekela had already dealt with in the 60’s) as well as the US. Masekela’s jazzy touches and nod to hip-hop with his activist style rapping of ” you’re a winner when you beat the game” give “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” a strong musical and political relevance from its time.

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88 On The Longplay: ‘Stronger Than Pride’ by Sade

Sade’s first two albums Diamond Life and Promise were both enormous successes. Their respective hits being all over the place-that former album even ending up represented on a breakfast cereal premium sticker I had growing up. It was hard to believe that the band themselves-including the regal beauty of their lead singer Sade Adu herself, were very much unlike most hit musicians of their time period. They were straight out of the same UK jazz/funk scene that had spawned Loose Ends, Incognito, Level 42 and Spandau Ballet.

Despite succeeding on a level that perhaps exceeded the best that any of their contemporaries did, Sade always kept themselves just a little bit behind their own public face. Which was almost totally related to their music. And their music videos with a strong cinematic scope and stylish live performances. They had always possessed a very distinctive quality about their music-almost to the point where they deserved a genre all their own. When this third album, and final of their first decade, arrived in 1988 I have vivid memories of Sade albums somehow being an event.

Over the years I’ve actually had to do much growing into this album-somewhat like a pair of shoes that were just a tad too big for me. “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” itself is nothing like any Sade song I’d ever heard up to that point. There is a wide, empty void in the middle of the songs rhythm-extremely subtle percussion with only a stronger little heartbeat on the choruses. With its atmospheric,ethereal keyboards and sustaining melody it very much encompasses the feeling of a humid, sensuous encounter. Maybe even a mildly distant one at that.

Of course the rhythm is entirely absent from “I Never Thought I’d See The Day”,which flows right along with its moody melody as far as it can take it. “Paradise”,”Nothing Can Come Between Us”,”Keep Looking” and the closing instrumental “Siempre Hay Esperanza” all embody this grooving, heavily stripped down funk sound that has since become most strongly associated with Sade. They are filled with heavy percussion and some of the fattest and locked down bass lines Paul S. Denman has ever thrown down. And he’s thrown down many.

“Turn My Back On You” is a particular favorite of mine-built on a strong,subtle variation of the James Brown-like bass/guitar interaction following each vocal and instrumental chorus. “Haunt Me” is a pretty Flamenco flavored Spanish guitar ballad while “Clean Heart” takes a jazzier pop mid tempo ballad cue-a bit like a more stripped bare variation of some of the music on their debut. When I first heard this album? I didn’t really understand it. Though relatively intelligent by the age of 8, this album contains more adult oriented outlooks on romance. And melodies that were somewhat harder to hum.

During my earliest years of adulthood, I rediscovered this album By that time of course having absorbed a lot of Prince, Crusaders, Miles Davis and an entire myriad of jazz/Afro/Funk hybrids. So one day I found this album on CD,with my father having had the cassette for years and listened to it-as some point near or around the summer of 2003. All of a sudden this album leaped out at me in a way that it never had before. While present this album doesn’t focus in on the horns and piano as much as the first two Sade albums.

The entire album is very much oriented around a very spare type of funk. It was a groove which emphasized Sade’s singing as well as bringing the bass/guitar accents more out front. What I didn’t realize at the time was this Sade were laying the groundwork for all the music they’ve since created on this particular. And for the most part? That hasn’t been a bad thing at all. So in the context of where this took Sade rather than in comparison to what came before,this album is a resounding,romantic and hard grooving success.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Saturday Night” by Bobby Broom

Bobby Broom’s musical career has always, in some way, been tied into musical education. Born in Harlem in 1961, he went onto study jazz guitar with local player Jimmy Carter. He then went onto gigs with musicians such as Charlie Parker alumni Al Haig. After his university education at Berkeley, he began a stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, probably the ultimate training ground there was in jazz at that time. As well as maintaining a recording career, the now 57 year old Broom is also Director of African American Music at Studies at the University Of Hartford, Connecticut.

One of Broom’s childhood heroes was George Benson. Both physically and stylistically, that’s how he presented himself on his 1981 GRP/Arista debut Clean Sweep. In a career that would find him playing with both Sonny Rollins in the 80’s and even guesting on R.Kelly’s 12 Play album in the 90’s, Broom’s solo debut found his music in a jazz/funk plus a one jazz standard format similar to Bernard Wright’s ‘Nard album of the same vintage. Having listened to it, the album has no weak songs. And is generally instrumental. One of my favorite funk numbers on the album is called “Saturday Night”.

Marcus Miller walks right up to Buddy Williams’ funkified drums on the intro-settling into a seven note bass run as percussionist Crusher Bennett joins in on the congas. Broom’s very Benson like melodic guitar solos-both on the refrains and choral sequences, are accented by Terry Burrus Fender Rhodes textures and acoustic piano walks. The backup vocals of Lori-Ann Velez, Omar Hakim, Cliff Branch and Poogie Bell provide a party atmosphere in the back round of the entire song. After the drums kick up a notch for Broom’s extended solo on the bridge, the song fades out on an extended chorus.

“Saturday Night” is one of the finest electric guitar centered jazz funk grooves of the early 80’s that I’ve heard. Probably coming in right in the same league as George Benson’s “Off Broadway”. Marcus Miller both played and arranged the tune. And the conversational vocals and chants of Broom and the backup singers involved really evoke the atmosphere of a hip dance party of that period. As my friend Henrique pointed out, its also probably of the last generation of jazz funk that was not synthesizer based. And that makes “Saturday Night” the type of groove that spans an evolution within jazz/funk.

 

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‘Kick’ At 30: INXS Get A New Sensation

Image result for Inxs Kick

INXS had an amazing period of growth in the 1980’s. In the first couple of years of the decade, the Australian band were a hard touring post punk/new wave outfit. By 1984’s The Swing, the sound of songs such as the hit “Original Sin” got the heavy funk treatment from the production of Nile Rodgers. From that point on, INXS would be a funk/rock powerhouse. Their songs punctuated by an equal combination of big guitars, grooving horns and bass lines and the versatile, soulful voice of its late lead singer Michael Hutchence. This all came to a head 30 years ago today with the release of Kick.

Kick was part of a massive revival of funk/soul sounds in pop music. Whereas more straight ahead guitar rock had been the dominating force during the earlier part of the decade. In fact, the first time I heard of INXS was the video for the song “Need You Tonight”, whose visuals abstract on the cover art for the album itself.  Their grooving sound and extroverted visual presence made this quite an experience for me. Now I’ve heard the entire Kick album for the first time all the way through. And am going to share with you my observations of it-largely from a funk and soul based perspective.

“Guns In The Sky” starts off the album with pounding, spare drums and brittle lead rock guitar of the Farriss brothers Jon, Andrew and Tim. This is matched with lyrics that lashes out against  people’s obsessions with fire arms.  “New Sensation” is a rhythm guitar fueled fusion of funk and rock-especially its horn fueled chorus. As my boyfriend Scott originally pointed out, there is a banjo (or a very banjo like guitar sound) playing just under the rhythm guitar lick.  “Devil Inside” starts out with a round percussion based sound-with mild rhythm guitar and bass accents of Garry Gary Beers

“Devil Inside” also gradually mutates heavier guitars kick in for a slinky rocker-the hardest edged rock piece on the album. And also the longest song on the album.  “Need You Tonight” is built around stripped down “naked funk” as well as call and response vocals of course. That segues without a break into the hip-hop style drum based number-with jazzy phrased synth pads in the back round while Hutchence’s vocal arrangement is structurally similar to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. On this song however, the lyrics focus squarely on the racially unjust South African apartheid system.

“Tiny Daggers” is a very Stonsey slower 12 bar blues number, with a rocky twist. Also a soul-pop melody on the chorus. In terms of totally melding a rock soloing attitude with a funk rhythm section, “Wild Life” and “Calling On Nations” pull off the fusion without a hitch- in a similar manner to “New Sensation” from earlier in the album. The shuffling “Mystify” and the title track both have mid 60’s “rock ‘n soul” flavors to them-with the sax of Kirk Pengilly’s honking solos. “Never Tear Us Apart”, the albums lone ballad, is an update of the 6/8 time 60’s soul ballad-featuring string and another Pengilly sax solo.

“Tiny Daggers” has the driving drums,melodic piano and jangling rhythm guitar of a Springsteen style heartland area rocker. Its resemblance to another hit from this era, Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” brings out an idea I have about the album. With its dead center funk/rock fusion, which Andrew Farriss declared was always part of INXS’ sound, Kick’s dead center funk/rock fusion sound-along with its lyrical themes combining hedonism and social awareness, is something of  an integrated band equivalent to what Prince was doing with his Sign O The Times album in 1987.

Kick is an album that, having heard it all the way through, is a bit of a time capsule of that re-focusing of pop/rock music towards funk and soul was going by 87. Some of the songs are more stronger funk based, others are more straight rockers, and others totally combine them together.  It also went right along with the momentum INXS themselves were on with funk/soul based pop hits like “What You Need” and the aforementioned “Original Sin”.  INXS’s own stylistic trajectory matching up with the times goes with has made Kick so enduring and iconic for late 80’s funk and pop/rock.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Red Top” by Steve Miller

Steve Miller, a Milwaukee native, had very strong connections to jazz growing up. His mother Bertha sang in a very jazz oriented manner. And his father George, called Sonny, did some record engineering in his spare time off his job as a pathologist. While attending the University Of Madison, Miller and his longtime friend Boz Scaggs formed The Ardells-eventually joined by keyboard player Ben Sidran. This began the circle of musicians who’d eventually become The Steve Miller Band. Their psychedelic blues sound evolved into a more pop friendly sound during the early 70’s.

By the early 70’s, The Steve Miller Band had a series of eclectic hits from the rock of “The Joker” to the synth pop/new wave of “Abracadabra”. After the band took a hiatus in the mid 80’s, Miller began recorded a series of blues and jazz oriented solo albums. One of them was 1988’s Born 2 Be Blue. It reunited him with Ben Sidran, who acted as a producer and keyboard player on the album. My father had the cassette of the album in the late 80’s. And there was one Lionel Hampton song Miller recorded at the end of the album that became an ear worm for both of us at the time. It was called “Red Top”.

Gordy Knudtson’s drum kickoff starts off the song-with the late sax great Phil Woods blowing away the melody before a break for Miller vocally introducing the chorus. Knudtson’s drum takes on a more New Orleans type flavor. Sidran’s synthesized organ plays a strong foundational role in this as well-along with Miller’s bluesy guitar riffs accenting it all. Billy Peterson’s bass line bounces right along with the drums. On the bridge, the rhythm all swings for Woods to take a full sax solo. After this the song has an extended chorus before coming to a stop on a reprise of the intro.

“Red Top” has been recorded by a lot of people since Hampton composed the song. There’s something about Steve Miller’s version that really brings it to a new generation. The song of course as a straight up 12 bar blues structure. But between Ben Sidran’s keys and Gordy Knudtson drumming, there’s a strong Crescent city jazz/funk flavor to this song that takes the actual melodic structure of it to another level. Miller himself seems right at home in this particular musical setting. And its actually among my personal favorite things I’ve heard Steve Miller record.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Little Things” by India.Arie

India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.

India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.

The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.

“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of  its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.

 

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