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.
After the very Minneapolis dance/funk influenced Sex And The Single Man Ray Parker Jr was very well aware of the changing tide in the R&B world during the latter half of the 80’s. The success of Anita Baker and Gregory Abbot was showcasing urban music’s move again back into the relm of a more adult jazz-pop frame of mind. At the same time this was mixed with some of the live/electronic rhythmic elements of boogie funk as well.
This late 80’s urban sound was great news for Ray Parker Jr. Sometimes thought of as the purveyor of almost novelty funk for teenagers,as a lyricist Ray did possess that Smokey Robinson sense of wordplay and a refreshingly witty plain spokenness. Not to mention the man was one serious guitar player. On this album,he delivered on one of his most significant and vital musical statements of a very successful decade for him.
“I Don’t Think That Man Should Sleep Alone” is a wonderful hit,an honest lyric on male vulnerability with some thickly layered keyboards playing some mood and complex jazzy chords that are also melodic. It’s definitely a highlight of Ray’s career. The ballads here “Over You” with Natalie Cole and “The Past” are unlike any of Ray’s earlier ballads;fully fleshed out and arranged numbers with very well done orchestrations. The uptempo numbers are some of the most funky and varied of his career.
“Lovin’ You” and “You Make My Nature Dance” are both thick grooves with a lot of bottom and some excellent electronic percussion effects. “Perfect Lovers” makes even better use of that as the groove kind of rolls right along with similar rhythmic patterns. “After Midnight”,harmonically similar to Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” is an instrumental with a beautiful soul jazz solo from Parker.
On “You Shoulda Kept A Spare” he lets his inner Anita Baker shine with powerful sax from Gerald Albright and another example of his wit and worldly lyrics. “I Love Your Daughter” is a somewhat more conversational number reference that..certain little hook that I noticed Ray has present on every album at least once since it first appeared on 1980’s “For Those Who Like To Groove”. The title track that concludes the album is a perfect summation of everything on here.
It’s got a hard funk groove,a mean mean bass/guitar line and great wordplay likening a hidden affair to mechanical repair work. Without any bias this is musically one of Ray Parker’s finest and most consistent solo album. Because it was released during the 1980,it might not be a bad full length album for anyone only aware of Ray Parker Jr’s singles. In terms of full lengths,this might actually be his very best release.
*This is take from my Amazon.com review of this album posted there on July 8th,2012
Vernon Burch is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.
This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk. In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up. On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.
A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.
“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.