Tag Archives: Funk

Jesse Johnson’s ‘Every Shade Of Love’ Turns 30: Jesse’s Third Solo Album & The Changing Face Of Funk In The 80’s

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Jesse Johnson really stood out among the musicians who came in and out of Prince’s purple circle during the early/mid 1980’s. As a matter of fact, he was the only musician on the Minneapolis scene who could be a full on rival to to Prince’s talent. Both were writers, singers,producers and multi instrumentalist performers of their own material. And both were amazing guitar players as well. Feeling quite subordinated in the Time,as if Prince were somehow hogging all the glory he left in 1984 to put together the Jesse Johnson Revue.

His debut album under that name the following year was very much patterned after Prince’s own sound. However his followup in 1986 Shockadelica showcased a harder, more consistently funk oriented sound with horns and a guest appearance from Sly Stone. Again a couple years later,Johnson continued to develop his strong musical talent on this his third solo release. “Love Struck,”So Misunderstood”-with its JB like “good god” chants”,”I’m The One”-the only song featuring another musician in keyboardist Jeff Lorber and “Color Shock” represents half an album of non stop funk of the highest order.

The grooves are thick and strong,the rhythms kick right along and the guitar playing, which commands the listener to be moving to these songs with their romantically desirous yet thought provoking lyrics. The title song is a percussive new jack/hip-hop jam that again deals with interracial romance, which The Time had already covered on their Ice Cream Castles. “I’m Just Wanting You” is a dynamic ballad that otherwise has a more urban contemporary twist- while “Stop-Look-Listen” has new wave era variation of the gospel/funk sound of Graham Central Station with some clever lyrical wordplay.

Ever since I first heard about this album, it was often touted as one of Jesse Johnson’s best albums. And I cannot disagree with that viewpoint. However it was always presented to me as a hard rock album. So of course it was a bit surprising to hear that this album is probably the hardest full on funk release he ever made during the 80’s. The rock element I hear is primarily in some of the Hendrix like,amplified blues guitar solos on some of these songs-a technique Jesse shares with Prince. Difference is Jesse is perfectly willing at all times to cite his guitar influences.

And you can hear them loud and clear on these songs. Overall this is one of the finest examples of strong and live oriented funk being produced during the late 80’s. There is more of a live drum and bass/guitar interaction here. And the synthesizers play more of a harmonic than a leading role instrumentally. That’s pretty amazing for a multi instrumentalist in this era. Though they were sometimes at odds, Jesse and Prince were often following different paths on the same basic road. Every Shade Of Love is a powerful  80’s funk album from an artist who contributed a lot to the grooves of that era.

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‘Showdown’ At 40: The Isley’s 3+3 Era Band Taking It To The Next Phase!

Showdown was recorded in 1978 as the follow up to the Isley’s Go for Your Guns, which followed through with the fast paced funk style of the three previous 3+3 era Isley Brothers’ releases. On the Showdown album, everything had begun to change for this family band . In focusing more on slowing the funk down to this smoldering hot crawl of a groove,even the uptempo stuff  has a sleeker (and less brittle) approach in their instrumentation. This resulted in a certain lushness that mildly  hinted at the disco/dance sound in some of its rhythmic pattern.

The title track is about as great an example of this sound as one could ask. And the Isley’s of course work the groove straight into the subconscious, whilst talking full advantage of the slower tempo.  In the end, that makes the bass/guitar interaction all the funkier. “Groove With You” is another case where the Isley’s do their best type of bedroom groove,setting up the most romantic imagery and of course the music just melts like caramel. “Ain’t Givin’ Up No Love” is type of funk jam that’s like a fist slamming down slow and hard onto a table and leaving an enormous crack.

The simple fact that Chris Jasper seriously throws down with his bass synth on this one right along with Marvin’s bass guitar just throws out all kinds of extra punches. “Rockin’ With Fire” and “Love Fever” are all two part Ernie Isley funk/rockers that all showcase his guitar work and the power of this rhythm section. All are taken at the faster pace of this album. “Take Me To The Next Phase” is just about the most glorious funk jam the Isley’s ever did. In the funk tradition of James Brown,  “Next Phase” is a studio recording overdubbed with applause and band banter to sound like a live stadium performance.

“Take Me To The Next Phase” ends up capturing the flavor of both their own sound along with a bit of Stevie Wonder style funk chords (not surprising since they both utilized the electronic sounds of TONTO at the time) and despite it’s lengths leaves you hoping for more. ‘Coolin’ Me Out” is a more pop crafted variation of the same sound and still turns out to be an incredible jam-probably one of the most unsung on this album. “Fun And Games” harnesses a bit of a West Coast jazz-pop influence in the melody along with the peppy groove.

Showdown is an album that I felt for years was a bit of a letdown compared to its predecessors. In terms of funk, what has been revealed over many listening’s is that its actually an album with one great, iconic song (“Take Me To The Next Phase”) and seven other good to very good songs with…good to very good grooves. That is somewhat what happened upon listening to Funkadelic’s final two 70’s releases with me as well. At four decades old now, this album remains as another potent reminder of how unique the 3+3 era Isley Brother’s were with their take on the funk/rock hybrid.

 

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Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings & Food As It Approaches 40

Physically speaking, More Songs About Buildings And Food was made by the same band that had thrown down Talking Heads: 77. Yet in terms of the music the flavor, style and attitude bare only the slightest resemblance. Of course, this is the beginning of the bands highly fruitful partnership with Brain Eno, a person even David Byrne (unique as he was) could never fully comprehend mentally. Along with Eno’s love of…well the best word would be painting abstract sound art the band themselves were fully indulging themselves in an all out rhythmic assault here.

The entire album is not percussive, but the whole concept is different; whereas the debut found a mildly quirky band really more or less exploring it’s “pop legs” this one is the birth of the Talking Heads classic sound in full form-top heavy, polyrhythmic,funky and as a result very spare underneath the clutter. The first six tunes on the album pretty much don’t let up-you have classics building a melody within the rhythm attack on “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”, “Warning Sign” and my favorite “Found A Job”.

There are plenty of just out and out jamming on the one happening on “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls”,”With Our Love” and “The Good Thing”. Rick James may not have coined the phrase “punk-funk” yet but the world of…well funky rhythm rock would never be the same after this stuff! Once you get into tunes such as “Artists Only”,”I’m Not In Love” and “Stay Hungry” your in for music finding the Heads trying to make sense,if they truly ever can of all the rhythms around them to come up with some jerky new-wavish tunes-like the rest of it they’re not structured  “pop” per se but are  very singable.

Technically speaking, “Take Me To The River” is the slower tune here..it creeps up on you like a soulful monster but never attacks,just keeps creeping away until the end and it’s a nice little change.”The Big Country”….well if I read it right I can sort of relate; when I moved where we live now I found myself thinking some of the things Byrne speaks about in the lyrics. And even now I often think “you couldn’t pay me to live here”. I LOVE the blunt, freaky humor without any of the cynicism.

In terms of writing and melodicism, More Songs About Buildings And Food isn’t quite as strong as the debut. And that really isn’t the point. The songs here are built from the rhythms & beats Eno and the Heads create here. And they add up to a lot when all’s said and done. But again the remaster/re-recording really brings this music a whole new life! This will not be everyone’s favorite Heads album but considering how well they started, the masterpieces to come and the historical place this holds in their career, this is just what the doctor ordered.

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Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Once In My Life’ Turns 50


Stevie Wonder turned 18 in 1968. This was a year when months made a  difference in daily life. And for music too. Wonder was still deeply involved in Motown’s assembly line musical approach. But his albums were starting to reflect more of his creative input and vision by the late 60’s. And on this album, he made major leaps forward musically. The title track  is a strong example-a funky uptown soul stomp that was originally a Broadway show tune from Man Of La Mancha. Wonder kept the melodramatic vibe of the song intact on this title song too. And it was the radio breakout here obviously.

Yet its on the slower tempo, deeply grooving funk of “Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day” and the powerfully composed faster funk of “You Met Your Match” and “I Wanna Make You Love Me”-as well as the slower,brooding “Don’t Know Why” where Wonder hauls forth his Clavinet electric piano. Herein begins his mapping out the basic pattern for what would be his 70’s breakthroughs-still within the fairly traditional Motown context. Some songs showcase that  sound of the time with an emphasis on Wonder’s burgeoning songwriting.

“I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)” is a superb example on the uptempo end of that. “I’d Be A Fool Right Now” is actually one of my favorites here with its creamy orchestrations and strong song craft-easily could’ve been a Top 5 pop single in that regard. “Ain’t No Lovin'” and the breezy “Do I Love Her” have the same effect. Two covers-in the rather Dusty Springfield style take on “Sunny” and the big band arrangement of “God Bless The Child” round out this album album with it’s strongly funky closer “The House On The Hill”.

For Once In My Life musically spoke more to Stevie Wonder’s future than his past. Eight of its twelve songs were either written or co-written by him. And in many ways, it caps off what my friend Henrique and I call his “childhood career”. Funk had arrived during 1967 with James Brown and Sly Stone. And that was the basis of Wonder’s music here-especially with the Clavinet. Its also an important realizing that the funk genre itself was a process. And in terms of Motown and Stevie Wonder’s own artistry, For Once In My Life marked his ongoing journey into the funk genre of music.

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Taking Heads Naked- The Bands Grand Finale At 30

Talking Heads spent a good deal of the 1980’s concentrating on different aspects of what was basically guitar oriented pop. It was done in a purposefully simplistic manner. By the time the decade approached, it was apparent Talking Heads would soon be no more. David Byrne’s musical fascination had always remained in African type polyrhythms and funk. And in basic terms that is the approach he returned to with this album. On the other hand it was a combination of changes in the pop music world in the late 80’s and the maturity of the band that made the big difference here.

Production was no longer considered the be all and end all of crafting a good pop record. This resulted in a surge of creative energy that lasted the final few years of the decade. And decamping to Paris to bring this sound to life, Talking Heads made much use of this. Boiling it down to basics this album is a loose follow up to Remain in Light. The difference is the sound isn’t so penetrating and aggressive. This album is defined by rather spare and very live musical productionalmost devoid of the electronic sounds of that 1980 release.

“Blind” is a perfect example. It’s a great opener and some of the best funk the band made. But it’s out of the horn based James Brown school- with some great bass/guitar interaction. On “Mr.Jones”, “Totally Nude” and “(Nothing But) Flowers” there is a strong taste of South African pop mixed with the Afro Brazilian sounds Paul Simon dealt with at this time. “Ruby Dear” is a potent reminder how deeply the Bo Diddly’s “hand jive” beat was from old African dances. “The Democratic Circus”, “Mommy Daddy You and I”, “Big Daddy” and “Bill” all add more depth to these musical textures and darker melodies.

“The Facts Of Life” and “Cool Water” are the only songs that use any electronic effects. And it’s uses sparingly and more texturally. Conceptually, Naked is lyrically rather delightful. It finds a livable and reasonable alternative to the faux middle American nightmare presented in that metaphorical way on Remain in Light. In this case,that alternative would seem to be the African based music and their very way of life.

It offered a type of wisdom and knowledge that could enhance, rather than detract from Western society. This is told here in different type stories which ask questions about everything from materialism to organized religion. And it’s all done up in that distinct ‘Talking Heads’ way. So if this is the way in which the David Byrne led lineup of the band would have to go out,there was nothing to disappoint.

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Keep Your Head To The Sky: A Tribute To Earth, Wind & Fire’s Fourth Album As Philip Bailey Turns 66

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Earth Wind & Fire are one of those groups who have a number of distinct musical periods. They’re all pretty hard to define by name and sometimes pass very quickly but,much as with James Brown and The Beatles before them they always had a way of getting people on board with them. One important thing this album did do was solidify the bands classic lineup more so than the highly transitional Columbia debut Last Days & Time had. At this phase of their career, EWF  hadn’t fully developed the distinction they had on albums such as That’s the Way of the World.

Still the musical flourishes of then newcomers in Maurice and Verdine’s brother Fred-along with main drummer Ralph Johnson, Johnny Graham and Al McKay really give a lot of body to this music.  This album was also the step off point from where Earth, Wind & Fire went from being a more raw dog soul/funk band into one that had a certain type of lushness in the production. The one important thing to note here is that Charles Stepney hadn’t yet become involved in the production of the band yet so we find Maurice and company having to find there own way around production slickness.

One thing to be noted about this album is that there is a very intense Latin-jazz flavor to most of the music on this album;one can here the influences of similarly flavored jazz-funk then being turned out by Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith during this period on songs such as “Evil”,”Clover”,featuring Phillip Bailey singing in his lowest voice possible and the en longed instrumental version of Sergio Mendes’s tune “Zanzibar. Not only do all of these songs feature a lot of spiritually pastoral lyrical metaphors. The cover art to this album reflects the mood of the music quite well in this particular regard.

But this is also music that likewise seems to grow in terms of chord progressions and musical inventiveness. This is one of the most thoroughly instrumentally based album EWF probably ever made and even Maurice White once pointed out how this music put the band into sync with the best instrumentalists of that era. Of course, heavily reverbed,breezy psychedelic soul type mid tempo ballads such as “Keep Your Head To The Sky”,an early EWF hit and “The World’s A Masquerade” add a good change of pace to the proceedings.

“Build Your Nest” is one of the best early examples of the type of slick yet heavy bottomed funk they band would make their trademark with shortly. The elements in the music that are still being worked out are the fact the band still have a quirkiness that’s actually very random. For example-at the end of the song “Clover” someone is making a very mournful sound which is rather pained. And it provides an eerie contrast to the beautiful grooves that predominate most of this album. Maybe it was a fluke or someone’s reminder of some of the darker elements of the early 70’s

Its that and other such aspects that sets keeps Head To The Sky  apart from what’s to come. And perhaps that is why it’s one of only a few 70’s EWF titles currently out of print domestically-because of it’s sense of floating between being musical creative and commercially viable. Its also the one EWF album of the 70’s where horn charts are not a heavy priority in the production. No matter how you cut it, Head To The Sky remains one of this bands most potently creative albums and for an example of the artistry of Earth Wind & Fire this might be an excellent place to go even as a starting point.

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Is It Still Good To Ya: A Tribute To Both The Late Nick Ashford & To The 40th Anniversary Of This Classic Ashford & Simpson album

 

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Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.

After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number

“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.

It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.

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James Brown-Live At The Apollo, Round Two On Record, At Nearly Half a Century

James Brown’s career had a major turning point during 1967-68. Musically speaking,h is songs were not only taking on a completely different character instrumentally. But in terms of format? He had gone from 3-4 minute doo-wop soul balladry to extended,horn based dance jams that were getting their rhythmic character from Latin boogaloo and African high life music. This, of course was known as funk. With the recent passing of John “Jabo” Starks, who played in tandem with the late Clyde Stubblefield during this period very heavily, it seemed a good time to discuss JB’s own funk process onstage.

The “funk process” was entering it’s peak for James Brown. As was his sociopolitical consciousness and activity. During the summer of love, and the emergence of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, many black American’s in the early/mid 30’s even at the time were still very much in love with the suited up, processed haired JB. One who was a dramatic, gospel fueled soul balladeer. While his persona was still in the same place, James Brown’s second live recording at the Apollo would have to serve to illustrate the change in perception of his artistry.

The album begins with an introduction that goes into a faster tempo’d,heavy grooving version of “Think”, where James duets with the sassy Marva Whitney. “I Want To Be Around” and “That’s Life” are both ballad standards making strong use of orchestration and his Famous Flames. “Kansas City” is done at a very fast tempo and in a different key than I usually hear this sometimes over covered song played in. It is through “Let Yourself Go”,”There Was A Time” and “I Feel Alright” are an elongated,bass/guitar driven funky process all it’s on that leads to…”Cold Sweat” of course-his big record at the time.

After an equally furious tempo on “It May Be The Last Time” and a brief intro of “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, JB goes into an elongated version of “Prisoner Of Love”-similar in approach to “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Lost Someone” later in the album. “Bring It Up” has another a very fast tempo similar to “Please Please Please”, which concludes the album. “”Try Me” meanwhile is done more traditionally.  I once heard this  album described as erratic it sounding- likely because it emphasized extended soul ballads rather than focusing on JB’s funk innovations of the late 60’s.
On the surface, there actually is some fact in that. Taking this album out of the literary context and back into the more human one? The fact these ballads are done in 7-10 minutes lengths is musically futurist for soul as well-anticipating the approach Barry White and Isaac Hayes would take several years later on conceptually thick studio albums with a similar style format. Likewise, the shorter uptempo numbers (which are often combined together here) anticipated the musical formats of the disco era medley’s that would show up within a decade from this albums release.
Also, this allowed more vocal oriented fans of James Brown to acclimate to the idea of extended runs. Also,when the funk is on fire here? It’s SERIOUSLY on fire-probably because it was performed as it was being innovated. Not to mention how these JB’s musical innovations were generally closely linked with his live performances. Combined with James’ grateful, appreciative and loving interaction with the audience? This is also JB’s key transitional moment as a performer-as he was further emphasizing the instrumental sound of the JB’s more then the vocal centered one of the Famous Flames.

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‘Raydio’: Ray Parker Jr’s Debut As A Band Leader

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Ray Parker Jr. was no stranger to music when this 1978 debut dropped. All those years that the Detroit native provided guitar accompaniment to Rufus, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock made clear this multi instrumentalist had an individual enough sound (and personal identity) to survive as an entity on his own. As a matter of fact, aside from actually being in the position of employing a several session musics of his own such as Wah Wah Watson and Sylvester Rivers on piano plus a trumpet and sax player Ray Parker played, wrote,produced and engineered most the music on this album.

Jerry Knight was the only member of Raydio to accompany Parker instrumentally-as the bassist. Knight also brought his vocal ability along with Vincent Bonham and most notably Arnell Carmichael to create the  vocal quartet of Raydio. Although showcasing by and large Ray’s distinctive layered mini-moog based sound hard funk jams such as “Is This A Love Thing”, “You Need This (To Satisfy That) and “Me” are all far more incredibly hard edged than the sort of of sophistifunk Ray/Raydio would become known for-with the horn and rhythmic voices having a more prominent live band flavor.

Adding some Smokey Robinson-like wordplay into the mix “Honey I’m Rich” is a more of Ray’s pop/funk sound. The breakout hit “Jack & Jill”, with its layers of mini Moog (both bass and otherwise) reverbed into some incredible melodic exchanges. It’s basically Ray’s signature musical sound and shows up again on excellent mid tempo funk grooves such as “Betcha Can’t Love Me Just Once” and “Let’s Go All The Way”. Much as Kashif and  Prince would innovate later, Ray was using synthesizers in place of horn parts here. It anticipated the future but also created a musical present for him as well.

The album concludes with “Get Down”,a chunky bass/guitar oriented melodic funk instrumental and one of the best in it’s kind from Ray. In just about every imaginable way a musically impressive and significant set of sophistifunk classics this album provides the missing links between the era of Stevie Wonder and Prince. A link wherein the concept of the sexual revolution (lyrically) and the orchestral use of electronics (musically) would be explored to their fullest in terms of the funk genre. And honestly I am not sure if Ray Parker gets a lot of the credit he deserves for doing that.

 

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Brothers Keeper: Reviewing The Neville’s 1990 Album In Tribute To Charlie Neville (1938-2018)

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The Neville Brothers were a semi regular presence in my musical life to such an extent? They almost worked their way into the aestetic back round of that life. That was until I started exploring their music 5-6 years ago. And found that, in terms of music that came out following the 1980’s, the Brother’s Keeper is quite different from what I could possibly have imagined. Known about this for a long time. Picked it up same day,same format and same price as I did the Neville’s Fiyo on the Bayou. Decided as I often do to listen to the two together.

I expected both albums to be excellent and interesting. And that they both are. But there’s something on this particular album that is somewhat hard to put into words. It’s a sort of flavor you get from that type of 1970’s funk that stretched conceptually out beyond merely the latest dance or whatever. In terms of cultural,moral and spiritual understanding this album makes no apologies in showcasing the Neville’s outlook on all of that both lyrically and musically all at once. It’s nothing like their late 70’s,early 80’s sound at all. They evolved into something quite different.

A  good deal of these songs (in fact)  have a strong blues/country-soul vibe to them from “Steer Me Right”, the Linda Ronstadt duet of “Fearless”, “Fallin’ Rain” and “Witness” actually have more a potent combination that is closer to a country/soul/blues fusion somewhere around the middle since there’s a lot of gospel overtones in their too. “Brother Jake” isn’t exactly a heartwarming tale but at the same time it’s one of my favorites here and showcases them modernizing their funk again. Only it’s very much late 80’s sounding.

“River Of Life” and “Mystery Train” are very funk oriented but delve into the blues end of it a bit further,again telling some captivating stories that I won’t spoil for anyone here. “Sons And Daughters” is goes right back to the West Indian style percussive rhythms of Congo Square- with Charlie Neville himself delivering a spoken word lyric to the effect of politics being used as a force to spiritually bankrupt human kind to the point where there’s only “free speech unless you say too much”. “Jah Love” again points to the Afro Caribbean spirituality of the New Orleans culture.

Lyrically and musically the title song is contemplates the idea of brotherhood (both literally and figuratively) over some major chorded Crescent City type funk. The album ends with Aaron’s “Bird On A Wire”,the most sleek and 1990’s style track on this album with it’s (then) fully contemporary album. Even though one might not think of it in precisely these terms,this is a funk album. Not generationally perhaps, or in terms of it’s relation to the funk era of the 70’s. But in terms of how it presents itself stylistically and rhythmically.

This quality is especially significant on the lightly percussive opener “Brother Blood”. It has a very diverse range of  grooves and messages here that somehow all coalesce into itself. Of course when one discuss New Orleans, funk of some sort or another is bound to come into the equation sooner or later. Far as I know? The musical term “funk” itself was born there during the earliest days of jazz. In a nutshell, I suppose that’s the most important thing this particular album reflects. And can add to that importance especially one song in particular here has on the legacy of the late Charlie Neville.

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