Joni Mitchell did something very special in the mid to late 1970’s. Something that impacted on me personally roughly 25 years later. She began to combine folk oriented singer/songwriter instrumentation with jazz chords and harmonies. Her approach at this evolved from working with Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder to fretless bass icon Jaco Pastorius-all between 1974 and 1974. In particularly on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Mitchell’s music was her own unique hybrid. Neither jazz or folk. This all came to a tremendous head with her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
It was an album where the cover art (as was typical done by Mitchell herself) drew me into its musical world. It depicts three images of herself. One seems to be a herself as a teenager. The other is a character she portrayed at a Halloween party named Art Nouveau. This was based on a black man she met who complimented her at that time. Mitchell describes her soul as “not being that of a white woman”. And that she often writes from a black perspective. Embracing the jazz aestetic, from be bop style poetics to the music itself, all became a part of what made this 1977 double LP what it was.
The song “Cotton Avenue” starts the album with an overture, one where Mitchell is playing six differently tuned guitar tracks simultaneously. The song itself is a swinging number-heavily textured by Jaco’s atmospheric bass lines. The faster “Talk To Me” and the slower “Jericho” both explore the approach of Mitchell’s guitar with Jaco’s bass-playing in an almost Salsa like rhythm on the former, and back to the jazzy swing on the latter. “Paprika Pains” is a 16+ minute cinematic number, showcasing Mitchell’s improvised piano with full jazz orchestration.
“Paprika Plains”‘s music also serves as the soundtrack to a first person description of a late night bar gathering of Canadian First Nations tribe’s people-poetically touching on matters of alcoholism and despair. “Otis & Marlena” is a fairly conventional country tinged folk number. Its based in the acoustic guitar. Its a character sketch of two people vacationing in Miami while “Muslims are sticking up Washington”. “The Tenth Worlds” is primarily the work of Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, one which focuses only on his fluid Afro-Latin percussion and improvised vocal chants.
Weather Report member Alex Acuna joins in for “Dreamland”, my personal favorite number on this album.”Dreamland” merges an even broader (and somewhat slower) Salsa percussion sound with the highly hummable, Caribbean folk style melody of Mitchell’s. Chaka Khan provides a very tribal sounding back up vocalese right along with Mitchell’s on the song. The title song is somewhat similar to “Talk To Me” from earlier in the album-as well as “Coyote” from her previous album Heijra. The more rocky “Off Night Backstreet” and the folk oriented “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” close out the album.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter represents the official birth of what could best be described as a Joni Mitchell sound. Its true that jazz always accommodated other musical styles into it. Mitchell wasn’t new at doing that. But she did manage to expand on the possibilities of jazz fusion at the same time as she did the same for her own songwriting style. That coalition of personal and overall creative intent would is likely a lot rarer a thing than it might seem. And just for creating a welcoming and enticing entry point into Joni Mitchell’s musical hybridizing makes this album one of her most iconic ones.
One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.
As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.
Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.
Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.
Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.
Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.
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.
Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.
As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.
Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.
“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.
The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
Redbone came to my attention through my friend Ben Minnotte over at YouTube’s ‘Oddity Archive’. The context was regarding backwards masking of songs. Ben described them as a Native American rock band. That got me seeking out their albums on vinyl. Especially, as with so many, I knew them mainly for their 1973 hit “Come And Get Your Love”. The band was started by the brothers Patrick and Candido Vasquez, known by Pat and Lolly Vegas, in Coalinga, California. The group actually came together from mere cents in their pockets after Pat won the first ever Coca Cola singing context.
The name Redbone apparently derives from a Cajun term of people of a mixed race heritage. Pat and Lolly, both of Native and Mexican descent, went from playing surf music in the mid 60’s (which resulted in their name change at the suggestion of their label) and session playing for people such as Tina Turner,Elvis Presley and James Brown. The brothers were inspired by the part Cherokee heritage of Jimi Hendrix to form Redbone to began with. And it was in the late 60’s that the members of the band began to come together to shape their sound.
The original lineup of the band aside from Pat and Lolly were drummer Peter DePoe and rhythm guitarist Robert Anthony Avilla-known as Tony Bellamy. Bellamy passed away in 2009-a year before Lolly Vegas passed. Bellamy’s birthday would’ve been today. And it reminded me of listening to Redbone’s albums and finding that amazing musical mix of rock,Cajun (with frequent lyrical references to New Orleans),jazz and funk. Definitely out of the diverse 60’s era pop music landscape, I wanted to focus on one of their songs today. The one chosen was this 1974 Redbone tune entitled “Physical Attraction”.
Butch Rilera’s drum roll starts off the groove with a bang-before the horn charts start playing a strong melody with Lolly Vegas’s trademarked Leslie rotating speaker effected guitar (sounding something like an electric sitar). This represents the instrumental element of the chorus. The refrain consists of a fast paced Clavinet groove with accents from Bellamy’s ringing rhythm guitar. The songs concludes on what what starts out as an extended chorus. Then it all goes into a sustained horn crescendo that serves to fade out the song.
“Physical Attraction” has a sound that reminds me something of what would happen if Sly & The Family Stone collaborated with the Edgar Winter group. The rhythmic precision and horn fueled melodies of funk is combined with the heavy drumming of horn rock. By the early/mid 70’s, it would seem that Redbone were embracing the heavier soul/funk aspect of their sound. Which was evident from the outset anyway. This particular song has the vibe of an unsung hit if I ever heard one. And a great testament to this first Native American rock band.
Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho had its rough patches in terms of productions. Started only months after the release of their Aja album in 1977, there were some major issues that hampered the sessions. Two revolved around the now late Walter Becker. One had to do with his increasing drug problem. The other had to do with a traffic accident that sent Becker to the hospital. And into six months of recovery. Donald Fagen collaborated with him via phone during that time. The album finally came out just a little over three years after its predecessor-in November of 1980.
Even for all that and a number of legal battles over the album title from Keith Jarrett, Gaucho continued Steely Dan’s peak of musical excellent. It would be their final studio album for twenty years. And that was just fine for most people. It was one of the few newer albums my parents had in their record collection during my own early years. Most of my life, the song from it I was most familiar with was “Hey Nineteen”. By the time its followup Two Against Nature came out, I began to explore Gaucho even deeper. And that’s how I discovered what’s likely my favorite song on it called “Glamour Profession”.
Steve Gadd’s straight up dance beat sets the pace right away. Its accompanied by Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano and Anthony Jackson’s counter melodic bass hump. Before the refrain comes in, Tom Scott’s Lyricon and Michael Brecker’s sax play a nighttime friendly horn chart. During the refrains and chorus, Steve Khan plays some bluesy jazz guitar riffs. He also gets time for a solo just before the vocal bridge of the song-where the song changes key for a bar or so. The song fades out on an extended instrumental refrain with Khan’s soloing taking precedence.
“Glamour Profession” is likely the coolest song (and only one as I recall) about a fading basketball player’s involvement in an elaborate drug deal I’ve ever heard. Donald Fagen’s lyrics are as poetically cryptic as usual. Its also an amazing “dazz” song-its disco jazz flavor enhanced by the jazzy chords of the guitar,bass and processed Rhodes part that define the song. The production and melody are the sonic equivilent of clear glossy lacquer. The sound is slick and slippery. Yet is also full of weight and texture. And surely one of Steely Dan’s many fine musical moments of their original run.
John Abercrombie picked up his first guitar at age 14 in his native Port Chester,New York. He attended the Berklee School Of Music in the early to mid 60’s. He played with a group of fellow students at Paul Mall’s Jazz Workshop, a local my father often talked about seeing some acts at during his 70’s trips to Boston. This resulted in him being discovered by organist Johnny Hammond,who had him join his group for a time. After a brief time attending Northern Texas State University, Abercrombie returned to New York to become one of the most renowned jazz session guitarists in the city.
Abercrombie went on to recording as a leader on the German ECM label. This is one of those jazz labels that actually has its own particular sound. Primarily a jazz label, the artists on ECM didn’t want to focus too much on any other musical genre they adopted into their music. But more on their playing ability and their own sound. Abercrombie made his debut album for the label in 1974. It featured him in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and fusion pianist/organist/synthesizer pioneer Jan Hammer. The album was called Timeless. And the title track is one of those songs that speaks a thousands words.
Hammer starts off the song with a sustained,deep synth bass tone. Than his organ comes in with its own kind of sunny sustain. Into this mix comes DeJohnette’s drums, which come through with some ascending hi hat and cymbal brushes creating a dreamy rhythmic atmosphere. Abercrombie’s guitar, playing a number of bluesy and faster gypsy jazz style licks, is complimented by Hammer’s synth bass changing harmonically to accommodate it. Around the bridge of the song, the drums gain a heavier power with Hammer’s synths rocking more. Then the song fades into its original theme as it fades.
“Timeless” is a nearly 12 minute song that’s based heavily around Abercrombie’s soloing. His style was light and understated-very much in the Miles Davis/Ahmad Jamal school. Yet he takes some very fast and elaborate runs too. Jack DeJohnette’s serves the soloing amazingly. While Jan Hammer provides that critical extra texture on his organ and synth. Its big,small,progressive and ambient all at once. Its also the first time hearing this song-after the passing the album over many times. John Abercrombie has sadly passed away this week at the age of 72. And this is a beautiful way to remember his music.
Nesbert “Stix” Hooper is the last surviving member of the band who originally called themselves The Jazz Crusaders. The Houston native spent most of his youth studying music even before any of this occurred. While enrolled at Texas Southern University, Hooper , he got a musical education that most would envy. Everyone from members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra to a number of local professional players. By the time of his peak with the Crusaders, Hooper’s musical excellent touched on everyone from The Rolling Stones,B.B. King and onto London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
What Hooper brought to his drum and percussion work was the in the pocket funk rhythm. And basically helped to shape the sound of what became the jazz-funk subgenre from the outset. As a Crusader,the man was and remains a musical icon. His solo career, consisting of two albums released in 1979 and 1982, didn’t seem to receive the recognition they deserved. Especially having heard them both. The first I got was the 1982 album called Touch The Feeling. My dad pointed it out in a discount vinyl crate to me some years ago. My own favorite cut on it is its final one called “Gimme Some Space”.
Todd Cochran’s huge synthesizer riser fades into the song before the intro comes in. Its a powerful one for sure-with Hooper’s drum hits announcing the horn charts coming at within 3-4 seconds of time between each other. That’s when the entire song kicks in. This consists of Hooper’s huge funky beat, Neil Stubenhaus’s thick slap bass and Larry Carlton wah wah toned bluesy guitar along with Cochran’s synth and the horn section. On the next part, the synths take on a distinctly spacey late 70’s P-Funk air. Everything comes together after that-from the calculated pauses and solos until it actually fades out.
“Gimme Some Space” is one of those funk jams that gives you exactly what the title implies. A good portion of the song relies on adding musical drama with long and calculated silences. That makes it very much in line with the James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield/Jabo Starks type of funk from the late 60’s. That being said, its basic instrumental character comes out of the late 70’s/early 80’s jazz/funk George Duke style take on the P-Funk sound. Its a powerful and strong blend of acoustic and electronic funk ideas that shows how powerful a musical figure Stix Hooper truly is.