Tag Archives: harmonica

Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ by Van Morrison

Van Morrison followed his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher  with one of his best albums of the decade. And perhaps one of the grandest achievements of his career. This album found Van reaching back into the flavors that has made his music such a treasure and creating a musical tapestry that will stick right to your soul. In fact there are elements of this album that do recall his breakthrough twenty years before this with the genre defying/defining Astral Weeks. The music is a mix of mid,down and uptempo songs with a strong jazz and classic pop flavor.

This man is not only someone mindful of blues/R&B. But on this album,  he is clearly bringing the breezy orchestral pop/jazz flavors of Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach before him. Van plays piano,sax,harmonica and guitar throughout this album and on the back of the CD you’ll find little pictures of Van playing these instruments. That is kind of appropriate for this album as it starts of with a lushly orchestrated jazzy sax instrumental “Spanish Skies”,perfect for an evening at a really elegant cafe or night spot or just a stroll on a warm moonlit evening with a loved one perhaps.

The like minded instrumental “Celtic Excavation” showcases the same flavor and both tunes are significant highlights of this album. There are of course plenty of his classic mid tempo Celtic soul type tunes in “The Mystery”, “Queen Of The Slipstream”, “I Forgot That Love Existed”, “Give Me The Rapture” and “Allow Me”. These songs all have more of a jazz/nightclub type groove than anything on the more folk influenced arrangements on the previous album. And are very much a production update of Van’s classic sound he made so distinctive for himself during the 70’s.

His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is  a  beautiful expression of the joy and pain of personal isolation. And the arrangement here carries the song right along from start to finish. “Alan Watts Blues” is one of the more rhythmic songs here that actually has a light jazz-pop-funk flavor to it. In some ways, it recalls some similarly styled music on his 1980 album Common One. One song that stuck out strongly to me was “Did You Get Healed?”. As soon as I heard the upbeat soul/gospel rhythm and the melodic female backup vocals I realized this is a song  before.

Had heard “Did You Get Healed?”  many times as young man, in fact. Played around the house by my father. It struck me as a hummable tune I’d enjoyed. And had  now found it’s way back into my life. . In terms of his output of this decade this album is one of his musically most  strong and rich. All of the songs on this album will likely take you into a musical experience-with their fluid sound and depth of soul. And along with the many great icons of soul, I cannot think of many artists I’ve listened to over the years who’ve been able to produce the same accomplishment seemingly at a whim.

 

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STEVIEWONDERLAND!: Celebrating An Icon In Three Decades-“Never In Your Sun” by Stevie Wonder (1985)

Stevie Wonder has an interesting quality in his reactions to personal relationships that’s personally relatable. While generally viewing his lack of physical sight as a gift,this view gets complicated when he is i emotional turmoil. When his first and only marriage to Syreeta Wright broke up in the early 70’s, Wonder put out two albums dealing in part with his breakup-Music Of My Mind and Talking Book. On these records,Wonder’s heartbreak seemed linked to his own vulnerability-even removing his trademark shades on the second of those albums to showcase he was blind. And at the time,even a bit in the dark.

While not blind,I too live with a very different type of disability that makes my life quite different than many around me. And when personal relationships in my life become troubled,there’s a personal tendency to feel very…disabled. Now not knowing Stevie Wonder personally,some of this is only speculation based on his lyrics and my own romantic experiences. Still when Wonder sang “things you cherish most in your life can be taken if they’re left neglected” on 1972’s “Looking For Another Pure Love”? It resonated on a number of different personal levels along with jazzy soundscape of the music.

By the time the 1980’s came along,Stevie Wonder was facing vulnerability of a different kind. Ever the musical perfectionist,Wonder found the boogie/synth funk of musicians such as Kashif and Prince were picking up where he’d left off in terms of the instrumental sounds he’d created with electronics. So rather than being a pioneer,he found himself somewhat running with the pack at the time. These factors might’ve been part of why he held onto releasing his second album of the 80’s In Square Circle for half a decade. One song from it expressed vulnerability in a very soulful way. It was called “Never In Your Sun”.

Wonder starts out the the song playing a heavily spaced two beat drum pattern-spiced with heavy Brazilian style percussion. After that,a fairly low lead synthesizer comes in playing a gentle major key melody-backed up by a deep synth bass thundering in the back-round. The takes the key of the song a bit higher-with a hollow,low horn like synth line. That sound resonates through the second refrain-where Wonder takes one of his renowned harmonica solos. After another vocal refrain,the chorus returns for a few more rounds-raising in key yet again before the song fades out.

Instrumentally,this song finds Wonder exploring his harmonically rich,jazzy style of music and songwriting in a new way. Perhaps in keeping with the innovations of the Minneapolis sound,Wonder strips the song down to a drum/percussive track and layers of synthesizers playing lead,horn and string type parts. Lyrically it’s quite a lonely song in a way-about a woman whose the opposite of a fair weather friend in comforting Wonder only in the harder times. Musically it’s assured naked funky soul for the mid 80’s. In lyrical terms,the questions it poses seem more significant than the answers.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1985, Boogie Funk, disability, drums, electro funk, harmonica, Minneapolis Sound, Motown, naked funk, percussion, relationships, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizer

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Our Road (Now That It Feels Good So Tell Everybody)” by Lee Oskar

Lee Oskar had been a major part of the band War (now known as the Lowrider Band) during their entire run. Aside from Stevie Wonder,he was one of a few funk based artists who emphasized melodic harmonica as a key part of that bands diverse musical repertoire. During 1976,Oskar took a break from War to release a self titled solo album. He had a hit from this record called “BLT”,and it was all successful enough to garner him a solo career of his own coinciding with War’s ongoing career in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Today he’s a renowned player in musicians circles. And he has parlayed his musicianship into other creatively minded ventures over the years.

Two things I didn’t know about him until recently represent these ventures. Henrique Hopkins informed me about Oskar’s line of custom harmonica’s for sale. Starting in 1983,Lee Oskar Harmonica (the company name) has been manufacturing harmonica’s suited for different Western and pan ethnic musical genres. In a manner similar to Joni Mitchell,Oskar is a fine painter with a vivid and colorful way with the paint brush from what I’ve seen. His rich,melodic and soulful approach to his craft came to light on a song from his 1981 solo record entitled My Road,Our Road. It was an extended number that was part of the album title itself entitled “Our Road”.

A sweeping string orchestration begins and ends the song-as a hot horn chart blasts into the main groove. This main groove has War member Harold Brown’s slow,deep in the clave drumming-with Lonnie Jordan’s timbales and Abraham Laboriel’s phat slap bass. At first Oskar duets with the synthesizer of Barnaby Finch. On the second refrain,Gary Grant and Pat Rizzo blows out  loud (and somewhat discordant) jazz trumpet and sax solos. On the third chorus,hand claps and backup singers all join in for the title chorus. Everything quiets down midway-as the final half of the song focuses on Oskar’s solo upfront-with the ringing,bell like percussion of Airto Moreira and the vocals of his wife Flora Purim.

Produced by The Family Stone’s drummer Greg Errico,featured on percussion on this song as well,something about this song is very otherworldly. With a handful of it’s members aboard,this is still for all intents and purposes a War song. It has the bands signature bluesy Latin funk throughout it all. For the first half,it drives really hard. On the second,it becomes a more ethereal experience-with Airto and Flora’s Afro-Latin percussion and shamanistic vocal chanting providing a meaningful spiritual vibe. With the slap bass,the Brazilian percussive flavor as well as the blending of dreaminess and reality,this is some of the deepest instrumental funk of the early 80’s.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, Abraham Laboriel, Airto Moreira, Barnaby Finch, Brazilian Jazz, clave, drums, Flora Purim, Gary grant, Greg Errico, harmonica, Harold Brown, horns, jazz funk, Lee Oskar, Lonnie Jordan, Pat Rizzo, percussion, Saxophone, slap bass, strings, synthesizer, trumpet, Uncategorized, War