Tag Archives: Earth Wind & Fire
Kalimba helps keep Earth Wind & Fire’s music alive
The result was Earth, Wind & Fire, who began as the Salty Peppers for Capitol, and evolved into one of the ’70s and ’80s landmark bands. They would sell almost 20 million albums, enjoy multiple Grammy wins, and eventually be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Equally important in White’s vision was a desire to include upbeat, positive and inspirational lyrical themes alongside love and funk tunes. It’s that inclusive musical model that Kalimba follows in their shows and recordings. Among the tunes they highlight are such gems as “Shining Star,” “Devotion,” “Sing A Song,” “That’s The Way of the World,” and many others.
Ramsey Lewis always kept close connection with Earth Wind & Fire during the mid/late 70’s. The band were technically his musical child-being formed by his former drummer Maurice White. Ramsey’s 1975 album Don’t It Feel Good and it’s 1976 follow up Salongo had both been produced by Charles Stepney,who shared production credits with Ramsey and EWF over the years. Of course Stepney died later that same year. Ramsey compensated by giving EWF keyboard player Larry Dunn a try at the production side of a few cuts on his second album of 1977 entitled Tequila Mockingbird.
Personally I was first made aware of the song “Tequila Mockingbird” itself due to it’s appearance on the CD compilation set called The Electric Connection about a decade ago,after picking it up at a record store in Burlington Vermont. A couple years later,my personal fixation on mid/late 70’s Ramsey Lewis and it’s funky sounds led me to seek out the album itself. One of the songs on it instantly got my attention and featured most of the EWF musicians as it’s rhythm section-similar to the Sun Goddess from a few years earlier. The name of the song was called “Skippin”.
A drum kick from Fred White and a revved up guitar from Al McKay open up the song. The the drums are joined by Philip Bailey’s conga drums for an uptempo Brazilian rhythm Ramsey plays a horn chart like melody on his mini Moog-accompanied by Eddie Del Barrio’s arranged flute call and responses. McKay’s guitar and Verdine White’s bass provide potent accompanied. On the refrains,the settles settles down into an EWF style groove with Ramsey’s orchestral synthesizers. Del Barrio’s orchestration leads out into the next chorus of the song.
The bridge of the song comes after this second chorus. It starts with a Ramsey up-scaling on the Fender Rhodes-with Verdine playing the changes on slap bass. A high pitched tone on the Yamaha electric piano ushers in a third chorus. This time Ramsey’s plays one of his Chicago hard bop/soul jazz piano solos. He tickles the ivories into another who refrain. This one is defined by Ramsey orchestrating synthesizers around Del Barrio’s call and response woodwinds and Bailey’s percussion. The song goes back to the original chorus that started out the song as it fades out.
“Skippin” is a wonderful example of melodically simple,yet instrumentally complex Brazilian jazz/funk. The charts normally played by EWF’s Phenix Horns come by way of breezier woodwind instruments. Most important though is Ramsey’s use of chorally arranged synthesizers-which seemed to be the way to orchestrate in the late 70’s with Euro-disco and emerging new artists such as Prince. Larry Dunn exhibits a clear understanding of the qualities that Charles Stepney. He bought in Stepney’s sense of melodic ease with a funky rhythm section for “funk sweet as funk can be” for sure!
The reason this song got my attention was realizing I’d heard it before-in a very peculiar place. On Bangor Maine’s local NBC affiliate WLBZ,local TV personality Eddie Driscoll had utilized “Skippin” as the theme for his program The Grover Swale Show. Portrayed by Driscoll himself,Swale was a buck toothed flannel shirt wearing Maine salt type character. It really goes to show how a song with such a string singable melody can easily become a TV theme for somebody,somewhere. Upon hearing the song in it’s native context however,”Skippin'” really epitomizes Ramsey Lewis’s late 70’s jazz/funk approach.
Somewhere between the final two EWF albums of the early 80’s Powerlight and Electric Universe this album came out during the same year in 1983. Gradually during the first three years of the 80’s the entire Earth Wind & Fire camp was starting to falter from various pressures and creative differences. A lot of this moved in tandem with the same sort of situation occurring within the R&B/soul/funk world during that anti disco freeze out. Since this would be the first real formalized solo album by any member of that band Philip didn’t have to look hard to find a way to carve out his own musical niche.
He went to musician/producer George Duke,whose jazz/funk/pop musical style was very close at this point to EWF and whose falsetto vocals were deeply influenced by Bailey’s,to produce and play on this album. Seldom has there ever been a more appropriate marriage of talents in recent years. The result is a short,crisp album that respects musical quality to such as degree I have to say I’ll personally claim it as my favorite of Bailey’s solo albums.
Consisting of eight tracks,six of which are uptempo and very heavily steeped in the funk idiom there’s a great degree of variety and strength to everything to be heard here. The album opens on a very strong note with “I Know”,a number reflecting how much 70’s funk and 80’s new wave had in common and there the two styles could intermix into 80’s urban funk. It also has this great slow driving bass groove as well. “I’m Waitin’ For Your Love” and the closer “You Boyfriend’s Back” also bring in the rockier new wave influence,soon to be a primary element in Bailey’s solo music.
In these cases Duke’s Seawind Horns take the place of EWF’s Phenix Horns so…may be a somewhat new song and dance but definitely the same old tune. Because of it’s hybrid of classic funk styles with electronic arrangements the newer sub-genre of boogie funk found a place here on the potent “Desire”,with it’s popping synth bass and Bailey mostly in his lower vocal register and and the more deeply funky boogie variant of “The Good Guy’s Supposed To Get The Girl”. “Vaya (Go With Love)”,with it’s cleaner urban funk/pop/jazz fusion sounds more like a straight up George Duke number but seems in a way one of those hit type songs that got away.
On the strong “Trapped” and “It’s Our Time” with Deniece Williams Bailey is essentially still in his old fashioned EWF ballad style with the sweeping arrangements mixed with the idea of rhythm. Overall this album has nothing on it that might lower it’s quality. Also it contains more than a fair share of strong,melodic pop/funk styled grooves. So why did it go so unnoticed in it’s day?And why did people such as myself have to learn of it’s existence over a decade after it came out? Honestly after listening to this album not only on vinyl for years but on this wonderfully remastered CD….I really have no idea.
Bailey was huge at the time due to associations with EWF,the album was contemporary with not an embarrassing moment to be heard and Bailey’s voice was in prime shape. Sometimes when a great album goes unnoticed…it just does so for no rhyme or reason. Anyway what matters to me is that Bailey didn’t wind up becoming a full on pop crooner or an adult contemporary solo artist. Even outside EWF he managed to continue innovating and experimenting within the funk genre.
The results could be very surprising. But Philip Bailey had the potential as a huge creative talent. He also had the potential with his melodic,pop friendly approach to be coerced by others into becoming a big time sellout. Luckily the years have shown him to be someone who tends to follow the creative drummer rather than the more obviously commercial one. And as pop friendly as this is,no matter how little success it had commercially at it’s time it may be one of his most significant releases from a purely creative standpoint.
Originally posted on September 22nd,2011
Don Myrick,the tenor saxophonist for Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns from 1975 to 1982,passed away over twelve years ago. Today would’ve been his birthday. He played solos on key songs such as Phillip Bailey’s vocal showcase on the live rendition of “Reasons” on the bands Gratitude album,as well their 1979 hit “After The Love Has Gone”. The mans way with jazzy harmonics was by no means limited to ballads. Myrick first met Maurice White as members of the Chicago band The Pharaohs-which also included future Phenix Horns trombonist Louis Satterfield. And it all came together for White and Myrick through the man that got Maurice’s career going to start with: Ramsey Lewis.
It was actually on EWF’s Gratitude album that I first heard the song “Sun Goddess”. It was a live version where Maurice announced that they were going to perform a song they’d done with Ramsey Lewis. I knew of this windy city soul jazz piano master from my father playing his Don’t It Feel Good album on vinyl for me around the same time. Just before I wrote this,Henrique Hopkins informed me that the studio version of “Sun Goddess” was basically an afterthought jam. And he and EWF felt the song off the album of that same title would be “Hot Dawgit”. But in the end this song ended up redefining Ramsey Lewis as a major player on the 70’s jazz funk scene.
Johnny Graham just strums away on a thick,rhythmic guitar on two chords-going up and down note wise. Verdine White supplies the thick yet metronome like bass.. Maurice himself kicks in the song on bass drum before Phillip Bailey’s conga’s kick in. Charles Stepney himself adds both the ARP string countering the rhythm guitar while adding a Fender Rhodes solo right along with it. On the choruses,Maurice and Phillip sing a beautifully melodic Brazilian style vocalese. On the second refrain of the song Don Myrick comes in with a sometimes squonking free-bop jazz style tenor sax solo. On the third,Ramsey comes in for his own Rhodes solo which closes out the song.
For all intents and purposes, this is an Earth Wind & Fire song instrumentally. Ramsey himself acted as an arranger and producer for it. As well as a soloist. It’s a musical showcase for the sonically beautiful tonality that funk rhythms and jazz harmonies can create when combined together by great musical talents. The sound of this jam creates such a visual impression in the mind. The guitar and keyboard orchestrations Stepney provided bring to mind the rising sun on a clear and hot summer morning,at least to me anyway. And with this combination of two talent’s (Ramsey’s and EWF’s) whom I’ve always respected,this is a reminder why funk is my main and favorite basis for music.
One of the things that struck me most about the 2005 (in my neck of the woods anyway) release of Earth Wind & Fire’s Illumination album is how much the social circumstances surrounding it were similar to how they’d been while EWF were in their peak period during the mid 70’s. There was an economic crisis,a resulting oil shortage and a good deal of cynicism about an unpopular war. To my thought and emotions? It was the perfect time for some serious funk to come in,move and than remove some of this negativity and hopelessness. And the release of this album,EWF’s final one with the participation of Maurice White was just what the doctor ordered.
Illumination was a very uptempo and funk oriented album. As with most records of it’s time,it featured a number of guest appearances. In this case from the Black Eyed Peas Will I.Am,Outkast’s Big Boi,Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland,the British hip hop duo Floetry as well as Kenny G. It was very much a return to form in many ways for the band. My friend and fellow blogging inspiration Henrique already covered this albums wonderful opening number “Happy People” on Andresmusictalk. So this is dedicated as much to him as the late Maurice White-both huge inspirations in terms of this blog. One song on this album truly made the hair on my back stand up-an instrumental entitled “Liberation”.
The seaside sounds of the ocean and birds begin the song-followed by flowing wind chimes and it’s main melody on a high pitched synthesizer. This all bleeds into thick percussion punctuated by Verdine’s equally high pitched bass line. The thick rhythm guitar and piano come in as rhythmic elements. That piano and Fender Rhodes come in along with the bass line and now phase filtered percussion-providing a musical magic carpet for Philip Bailey’s transcendent vocalese. The third chorus of the song expands out into a massive chorus with everything all the elements coming together in a massive harmonic revelry. The percussion and rhythm guitar dovetails into Bailey’s Afrocentric chanting on the outro.
It’s difficult to count how many times people in the last decade and a half cynically claim music has no power whatever to change the world. For me,this song is a constant reminder that music not only does change but is crucial to the world. The Afrocentric percussion of this song reminds me of everything from sound of a walk to the motion of a road trip down the highway. It is right in line with EWF instrumental jams such as “Africano” from 30 years before it. Not only that but it succeeds as a totally melodically hummable instrumental where even veteran soul/funk artists were no longer making them. In many ways,it’s one of EWF’s finest songs ever.
Earth Wind & Fire had one of the most telling experiences with the post disco radio freeze out of the early 1980’s. Their inaugural album of the decade entitled Faces an alternately Afrocentric and idiosyncratic double album that was not as popular with audience as it’s sale figures indicated. Philip Bailey often mentioned he felt that when record label pressures began being put upon EWF to began courting their own classic sound, it actually began the downfall of that sound. Their subsequent album Raise! is actually among my favorites of theirs and got them a huge hit in “Let’s Groove”. The band indicate they felt that song signified them chasing success. Still this was a creative fertile period for EWF.
From their very first days at Columbia,EWF had always reserved some of their more experimental musical elements to linking interludes between songs. They were generally under a minute long. And the more pop oriented their sound became,the more anachronistic these interludes seemed to become. Still it was an excellent chance to showcase that they were still musicians. On vinyl the second side of the Raise! album began with such an interlude entitled “Kalimba Tree”. On the album it was under 30 seconds long. As featured in the 1982 EWF concert filmed in Oakland California,it was a lot longer. The new Funkytowngrooves reissue of the album features this longer version.
A round,space funk synthesizer wash opens up the groove. The percussion rings away as Verdine White’s bass line provides the most potent rhythmic element. As the higher key choral element comes in,brother Maurice’s Kalimba comes as Verdine’s bass scales down more. All along with one of Philip Bailey’s classic ebonic chants-later repeated on a second vocal course by Maurice. Roland Bautista plays a glassy guitar solo along with Don Myrick’s jazzy sax solo. On the final refrain,hand claps come deep into play with a more rocking solo from Bautista as the same space funk synth wash that opened the song closes it out.
Sometimes when I hear a song,the mind begins to wander in terms of what might’ve been. Earth Wind & Fire would only have two more albums out of their original Columbia run after 1981. Hearing what I only understood to be a brief interlude extended out in this fashion got me to think just how long numbers such as “Departure”,”Brazilian Rhyme” or even 1983’s “Mizar” might’ve actually been as originally recorded. In any case,this showcases that the mixture of Afro-Brazilian rhythm,funk and jazz that were at the core of EWF’s sound were still alive and well amid the technological changes during the 1980’s. And that the band were still thinking on that same level as well.
Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Serpentine Fire” by Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith helped redefine the vocabulary of jazz organ during the hard bop/soul jazz era. With his heavily blues and gospel based approach,his use of the Leslie speaker on his Hammond B-3 organ became defined by distinct clicking tones between each key stroke. This idea of instrumental technique combined with personal finger touch has made Smith’s sound extremely influential among jazz style organists for the remainder of the 20th century. And with bands such as England’s James Taylor Quartet utilizing this approach on the Hammond organ, Smith is along with Roy Ayers one of the main instrumental pioneers of the 1990’s acid jazz sound.
As of today,it’s been five days since Earth Wind & Fire bandleader Maurice White passed away. When I think about it,Maurice and Jimmy Smith were both members of America’s Silent Generation-only on earlier and later ends of it. During the mid 1970’s,Smith’s musical style made yet another transition. This one towards a hard funk oriented sound. Because of his blues roots and love of placing his organ soloing in the context of heavy rhythm,the funk genre was an ideal for Smith to deal with during the late 70’s. Recording both bop and funk for the Mercury label at the time,Smith and Maurice White’s music dovetailed beautifully in 1978 when Smith interpreted the EWF number “Serpentine Fire”.
The lightly fan faring intro of percussionist Stephanie Spruill introduces this groove,over which Smith plays a smooth version of the songs initial melody on his B-3. John Phillips tenor sax and and Nolan Smith’s trumpet play the role of a stripped back Phenix Horns going into Abraham Laboriel’s bass line-itself similar to the bluesy melodic line of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”. On the central refrains,Smith plays the chords of the melody very much in classic bop style-with later variations showcasing call and response dialog with the two horns. On the choral links with the scaled up horns,Smith accompanies his own organ with a beautiful round Moog synthesizer bass tone.
Of course EWF had a strong jazz basis at the very core of their sound. When jazz soloists began covering their huge hits during the 70’s,that element really came out a lot more. Jimmy Smith’s take on “Serpentine Fire” from his 1978 album Unfinished Business is a superb example. Not only is he rounding heavily on his bop approach of playing chords, but on many of his solos he’s hammering on the organ in a very aggressively rhythmic sustain. The rhythmic sound of the song is a bit smaller,more live oriented than studiocentric. Of course that allows for Smith’s soloing to take center stage. It also allows for his to be a fantastically funky re-imagining of an Earth Wind & Fire classic.