George Benson could likely call the 1970’s the salad days of his musical career. He began the decade with an instrumental interpretation of the entire Beatles album Abbey Road. And ended it with a double that included a hit version of L.T.D’s “Love Ballad”-redone as an uptempo song. Benson’s musical virtuosity and style of scat singing in accompaniment to his playing made him a contemporary jazz guitar icon of the decade. Especially combined with his strong, soulful singing voice. Still there is one particular George Benson album from this period I’ve had yet to explore all the way through.
Benson’s second live album Weekend In L.A. was recovered over three days in autumn of 1977 at the West Hollywood Roxy Theater. And released in 1978. Its probably his most famous and popular live album too. Its been a fixture in my family’s record collection since I’ve been alive. But still know it primarily for songs such as “On Broadway” and “The Greatest Love Of All”. Decided that, in lieu of having not yet explored the album as its about to turn 40, decided that it would make some sense to take an in depth look at the albums instrumental title song.
Benson’s introductory solo begins the song-with Harvey Mason and Ralph McDonald’s drum/percussion rhythm laying the groundwork for the Nick DeCaro’s string synthesizer providing some beautiful harmony. Stanley Banks’ round, popping bass line joins in on the sunny, major key chorus of the song. The first solo comes from the electric piano of Jorge Dalto-with the harmonic counterpoint coming from Stevie Wonder’s keyboardist Ronnie Foster on synthesizer. Benson takes an extended refrain/choral solo during the center of the song-with everything in the song being built around it until the very end.
“Weekend In L.A.” is, as a song, representative of George Benson’s Breezin’ era late 70’s commercial and instrumental peak.This album showcases his guitar talents. In its 7+ minutes, it gives Benson every opportunity to explore his melodically singable guitar solos. Musicians like Mason, McDonald and Foster understand as Benson how to keep the song jazzy, soulful, funky and poppy all at once. Benson even takes a moment to quote Gershwin’s standard “I’ve Got Rhythm” on guitar near the end of the song. Making it one of his strongest live musical moments.
Midnight Star are a band who represent something that this blog was founded on: showcasing unexplored directions in artists/bands music. One of the things about a lot of the early to mid 80’s electro/boogie funk bands is that many of the bands who helped developed it didn’t begin their careers doing that. Midnight Star are a prime example of this. The band formed in 1976 at Kentucky State University by the horn player Calloway brothers Vincent (who celebrates a birthday today) and his brother Reggie-along with singer Belinda Lipscomb.
When the band released their first album The Beginning Solar in 1980,they had a completely different sound than the more electronic grooves they’d start to develop by their next album in 1981’s Standing Together. Their sound on this debut was based around the horns in mid/late 70’s funk style-showcasing a very live instrumental sound with strong songwriting and brightness.With the exception of one song produced by Leon Sylvers,the rest of the album was handled by Harvey Mason. Including my favorite song on it in the closing track entitled “Two In Love”.
A high stepping Afro Latin march of a drum beat opens the album. The Calloway’s horn blasts segue into a pulsing synthesizer,an exploratory bass line and occasional muted trumpet accents from Reggie Calloway. This represents the chorus of the refrain. The refrain has a more conventional post disco dance beat-along with the bass/rhythm guitar interaction along with the strings. The bands brightly melodic vocal harmonies along with Lipscomb’s lead segue into each chorus. The bridge consists of a vocal improvisation where the chorus builds back into itself as the song fades out.
“Two In Love” represents one of my favorite types of funk. Its got just about everything in that respect. The climactic Afro Brazilian jazz/funk beat on the chorus,the textural mix of horns and synthesizers and a bright,gospel inspired melody. The sheer passion in this song goes right along with its epic instrumental groove. Its not likely that too many will associate Midnight Star with this particular side of their sound in the future. It not only surprised me to hear it for the first time. But was also surprised to find one of my favorite Midnight Star songs on their lesser known (and not particularly defining) debut album.
Donald Byrd is one of my favorite musicians during the 70’s Blue Note era especially. The Detroit native replaced the late,great Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers after a stint in the US Air Force. After launching his career as a band leader in the late 50’s,Byrd’s became Blue Notes equivalent of Miles Davis in terms of transitioning from acoustic bop jazz to fusion. Along the way,he also helped launch one of jazz-funk’s seminal bands in The Blackbyrds. His mid 70’s collaborations with the Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce are actually in a class by themselves too.
Around 12 years ago,I began to listen heavy to both the Blackbyrds and Donald Byrd’s mid 70’s jazz-funk recordings. This came from my dad playing the music of Madlib for me. Now this is a DJ/musician/producer/rapper who loved 70’s Blue Note. And focused a lot on Byrd’s music from that period. It was through DJ/musician Nigel Hall and his radio show at WMEB in Orono,Maine that I learned where to find one of my favorite pieces Madlib had used,since I wasn’t accustomed to first hearing classic funk songs via samples. Turning out that the song in question was the 1974 album title track “Stepping Into Tomorrow”.
A thunder-like sound opens into the song. The main groove is established right away. This is a slow,percussive drum from Harvey Mason,a melody setting bass line from Chuck Rainey,Larry Mizell’s ARP strings and Byrd’s trumpet. As the vocals of Byrd and a trio of female backup singers harmonize on the choruses,a minor chord intro then extends into a series of solos. First Byrd on trumpet,then Gary Bartz’s sax and finally Jerry Peters’ organ. The main chorus/intro/refrain parts repeat to,with a number of psychedelic,synthesized sonics until the song fades out.
“Stepping Into Tomorrow” is one of those truly democratic jazz/funk numbers. Instrumentally,it was a dream team of the finest of jazz/funk players in that area. And each one is performing at some of their finest on this groove. Its a strong enough groove to stand on its own. Yet it can be sampled all on its own in a way that doesn’t destroy its special musical qualities. Its the songs elasticity that represents its strongest quality. While I personally feel original funk songs should be searched for on their own rather than via samples,whatever method one uses to get to this funk will be its own reward.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, ARP string ensemble, Chuck Rainey, Donald Byrd, drums, Fonce Mizell, Funk Bass, Gary Bartz, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, organ, Saxophone, trumpet
Eumir Deodato de Almeida, generally referred to as merely Deodato,is probably the finest jazz/funk keyboardists to emerge from the Brazilian scene in the 1970’s. This Rio native was a natural prodigy-almost mastering the piano,Accordion and even arrangement skills before he began recording bossa nova based albums starting at age 17. Far as I was concerned,Deodato was the producer who helped popularize Kool & The Gang’s 80’s funk sound on songs such as “Big Fun” and “Get Down On It”. As my own adolescence continued,it became more and more clear just how amazing Deodato was as his own artist.
There was a period about 12-15 years ago where it seemed like Deodato albums were turning up everywhere I went. And somehow I wound up buying them every time too. My first exposure to him came with my father playing me Deodato’s version of “Also Sparch Zarathustra”,the theme from one of my favorite sci fi films 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wasn’t long before I picked up an inexpensive copy of his 1972 album Deodato 2 from one of my mom’s co-workers at the time who also distributed CD’s to record stores-and was selling the leftovers at a discount price.
Deodato himself recorded on a number of different labels during the height of his career. This had a lot to do with the fact he often switched between his original style of bossa nova/Brazilian jazz onto jazz-funk approach that showcased his arrangement talents and electric piano playing. Between then and the late 80’s,Deodato moved from CTI,MCA and finally to Warner Brothers-where he remained up to 1989. His Warner Bros. debut was 1978’s Love Island. Picked up the now hard to find Wounded Bird CD up while traveling with my ex over a decade ago. It blew me away right off with it’s opener “Area Code 808”.
A very theatrical Moog bass sustain starts out the album before a growling,rocking rhythm guitar crunch comes in. Gradually a marching funky shuffle rhythm,cascading strings and Deodato’s bluesy Fender Rhodes solo comes in. On the opening chorus,Deodato duets with himself playing two synth horn lines-accenting one another very much like a trumpet and saxophone. Pops Popwell plays a counterpoint bass line,even a slap bass one accenting every horn-like chord of Deodato’s. Ray Gomez plays a blistering bluesy rock guitar solo in front of some ultra funky chicken scratch rhythm guitar on the second refrain.
The most amazing thing about this song is what happens during the second refrain,which sustains itself for the remainder of the song. The string play the melody that leads directly from Gomez’s guitar solo into Deodato accenting the two rhythm guitar licks and bass line with his Fender Rhodes piano. After this both the strings and woodwinds play a theme that leads back to Deodato playing a stomping riff on the acoustic piano. The arrangement then takes the rhythm guitar into playing another,more elaborate riff before the woodwinds and hi hats take over just as the song begins to fade.
Deodato has made some of the strongest jazz/funk of his era-not doubting that. There is just something about “Area Code 808” that strikes out from the Love Island album as being especially grooving. Harvey Mason delivering a drum part that’s in a similar family to James Brown’s “Funky President” helps out a lot. Deodato’s synth horn and Rhodes soloing really add something spicier to the live string and horn arrangements. In that way,it has a foot in the past,present and future for cinematic jazz funk of it’s day. The groove is ultra funkified. And a major musical triumph for Deodato.
Filed under 1970's, Brazilian Jazz, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Eumir Deodato, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Harvey Mason, horns, jazz funk, Moog bass, Pops Popwell, Ray Gomez, rhythm guitar, strings, synthesizers, Uncategorized
Bob James is actually an artist whom I discovered within the last decade and a half. A Missouri native whose music was informed by (and on) the city of New York,his sound drew a great deal of inspiration of theatrical Broadway musicals and film scores. This goes into James’ talents as a pianist,composer and arranger. His jazz bass and embrace of the 70’s funk sound led him to being one of the progenitors of the production style referred to as smooth jazz. His solo career has carried on for over four decades. And he was also a founding member of the smooth jazz group Fourplay.
It was actually due to another conversation with my parents that got me into first hearing Bob James music. The question posed to them was that,as a choreographer,had my mother ever done a piece based on a popular song. While the exact information was somewhat vague,she did remember that sometime in 1976 she had heard the Bob James song “Westchester Lady”. And something about it’s progression made it sound like it would be a good song for all the members of her troupe to choreograph as a group piece. So today,I’m going to endeavor to overview this song on a musical level.
Harvey Mason’s hi hat drum swing hugs Will Lee’s upscaling 7 note bass line on the intro,as Hugh McCracken’s mutron filtered electric guitar rhythmically plucks away. This is the entire rhythmic base of the entire song. The main melody of the song finds James’ electric piano playing a very riff filled with blue notes. That’s when the strings come in-at first playing along with the bass line. On the choruses,a huge horn ensemble comes in playing a very cinematic melody-accompanied by ringing bell like percussion along with the sweeping strings that grow in intensity.
The second refrain of the song features a bluesy sax solo from Grover Washington Jr. as the main instrumental part. The second chorus of string actually extends for a much longer time-adding more fluttering violins on the second turn of it. On the final refrain of the song,James’ electric piano and Eric Gale’s guitar play some bluesy call and response solos duets with the darting horn charts. As this bridge continues,their playing grows more intense and dramatic. Then the song simply goes back into the quiet groove of the first refrain as it proceeds to fade out entirely.
Considering the emergence of Isaac Hayes and Barry White during the first half of the 1970’s,it was no surprise that Bob James and the productions he did at CTI and on his forthcoming solo career would become part of the evolving jazz/funk fusion genre. The nature of this groove,with funkiness being the supporting element and the orchestration accenting it,indeed makes it ideal for a contemporary modern dance piece of it’s day for an ensemble of dancers. Each musician brings something important to this song’s funky dramatics. And that’s what brings this instrumentally danceable funk to life.
Filed under 1970's, Bob James, choreography, cinematic soul, drums, electric piano, Eric Gale, Funk Bass, Grover Washington Jr., Harvey Mason, horns, Hugh McCracken, jazz funk, New York, rhythm guitar, strings, Uncategorized, Will Lee
Bobbie Humphrey stands along with Mary Lou Williams,Melba Liston and Patrice Rushen as one of the rare female instrumentalists in the jazz world. This Texas native was creature during the same time as Patrice. Main different was she was a flutist,so melodic soloing was her priority. She recorded her first album on Blue Note in 1971. Two years later she released her third album Blacks and Blues. This is as of now the only the Bobbie Humprey CD I personally own. It began her musical relationship with producer Larry Mizell. He and his brother Fonce were major creative forces at Blue Note at the time. They were than working with Donald Byrd after several years of recordings hits for Motown’s Jackson 5.
Humphrey was one of those artists who seems to have successfully adapted to changes in the music world. From jazz-funk,the disco era and even the new jack swing sound of the late 1980’s. Much as guitarist Bobby Broom played for R.Kelly in the early 90’s,Humphrey played on Gwen Guthrie’s 1988 song “Send Me Somebody” in a similar manner. Of course most famously she joined Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove for his 1976 song “Another Star” from his blockbuster Songs In The Key Of Life. While digging deeper into her music,I discovered an amazing musical reboot of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s standard “Satin Doll”,also the title song for her fourth album.
Wah Wah Watson’s multiple shades of guitar come in and out of the swelling Brazilian style snare drum heavy rhythms of Harvey Mason on the intro-along with Chuck Rainey’s one,two,three punch on bass. Larry Mizell’s synth introduces the main melody of the song. Jerry Peters’ piano than kicks into the mix-just before Humphrey’s flute begins playing the main melody-accompanied call and response style with Mizell’s synth and Peters’ piano. Her high, ethereal singing voice matches the huge arrangement-even as Peters’ solos find him coming down almost as hard on the piano keys as Duke might’ve himself before the song fades out with a male backup chorus singing the main melody.
Bobbie Humphrey and the entire 70’s Blue Note crew really do Ellington’s musical vision proud on this album. Humphrey tended to follow Duke’s concept of adapting her playing to changing styles of music. This takes the by this time late composer’s into the mid 70’s cinematic soul era. The highlight of this groove along with Humprhey was Melvin Ragin. He delivers three shades of his wah wah guitar in the first minute of the song alone-from a sharp stinging tone to a melodic ring. The classic mixture of futuristic melodic ideas and chase scene paced rhythms makes this a Duke Ellington interpretation to remember.
Filed under 1974, 70's Blue Note, Billy Strayhorn, Bobbie Humphrey, Brazilian Jazz, Chuck Rainey, cinematic soul, drums, Duke Ellington, flute, Funk Bass, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jerry Peters, Larry Mizell, piano, Satin Doll, synthesizer, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar, Wah Wah Waston
George Benson’s vocal style always reminded me a great deal of a higher pitched Donny Hathaway,with just a touch of Stevie Wonder’s melisma for good measure. His vocal tone had such a general strumming quality,his technique of scatting with his guitar became a signature technique. So it was no surprise for me to find out that Benson was in fact someone who knew personally. And they had a musical connection with Phil Upchurch as Benson later covered Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”. Also important is that Benson had always sang AND played throughout his career-long before his 70’s commercial peak. So he is very accessible to appreciate on a purely vocal level as well as instrumental.
In 1976 Benson had a humongous bit of luck with his album Breezin’-produced by Tommy Lipuma and featuring the Bobby Womack penned title hit and his iconic cover of the Leon Russell ballad “This Masquerade”. Also being his debut for Warner Bros. records,Benson was now firmly positioned as a singer/musician who’d have a strong ear as an interpreter. Especially with his back round as a viruosic jazz guitar improviser. His second Warner Bros. release came out in 1977 and was called In Flight. It featured the same lineup of musicians as it predecessor. My personal favorite song from this album is a version of the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy”.
Cinematic strings sweep through the beginning of the song. These strings literally segue into Harvey Mason’s drums clipping along at roughly 96 bpm along with Stanley Banks’s two note popping bass,while Jorge Dalto’s Clavinet drives right in the groove along with it. Ralph McDonald’s percussion takes that rhythmic stroll along the way as Ronnie Foster’s electric piano plays along with bell like beauty. This basic groove is the musical atmosphere of the entire song-with the strings moving to the forefront for every other chorus. Benson’s lead vocal carries the first half of the song. On the final minute or two, the melodic focus is on Benson’s guitar/scatting hybrid technique he is so well known for.
When I first heard this,I had no idea Nat Cole wrote it. Benson sings the original melody very faithfully. At the same time,his timing along with the slow crawling, percussive romantic funk called to mind Marvin Gaye’s musical sound of the same period. Gaye had already done a version of this song in 1965. His interpretation was very close to the original. What Benson bought to the song vocally was not only a more modern gospel/soul flavor,but also that more contemporary Brazilian style jazz/funk instrumental atmosphere. It did an excellent job showcasing the evolution of black American music and to me represents an important milestone for George Benson the singer.
Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, drums, electric piano, George Benson, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jorge Dalto, Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, percussion, Phil Upchurch, Ralph McDonald, rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster, Stanley Banks, strings, Tommy Lipuma, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.
David Fathead Newman is a name that I’ve been aware of for a long time. In fact it was hearing the name spoken by my father that introduced me to the music of Ray Charles-rather than the other way around as one might expect. A native Texan who, Newman came right out the jump blues R&B school to be one of the key musical figures to evolve the saxophone during the formation of soul music in the 1975’s. As part of Ray Charles band,he was iconic. During his years after leaving Ray,Newman did session work for people such as Aretha Franklin and BB King. Not to mentioning carrying on a successful solo career as a bandleader.
Recording for a series of different labels during the decade,Newman eventually landed at Prestige at the end of the disco era. With a musical pallet that painting it’s brushstrokes from soul to jazz,Newman had developed a strong funkiness that allowed him to find a way to put his horn into the key of the hottest dance music of the late 70’s. He bought in members of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters in Harvey Mason and Bill Summers. Stuff’s Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree-strong session musicians in their own right also came in for the 1979 album Scratch My Back-Newman’s one album for the label. The song that caught my ear most hear was “Rock Me,Baby (Like My Back Ain’t Got No Bone)”.
Summer’s percussion get’s the groove started out,while Mason comes in with a phat 4/4 beat shortly after. Newman’s sax plays a popping tone along with the thick slap bass line. The deeply voiced strings dart over the main rhythm like musical shooting stars. Vocalist Flame Braithwaite comes in and sings several different choruses of the songs title-with party sounds from Newman and the other musicians moving right along with the rhythm of the song itself. On the refrains of this mostly chorus based song, the bass line begins popping up and down in the classic disco bass style as the melody follows suit. The main chorus of the song maintains itself until the song fades out.
My friend and inspiration Henrique has referenced this song on a couple of occasions as an example of “funk functioning as disco”. And in every way,it’s a hot jam for sure. With Harvey Mason playing away at around 110BPM,this is relatively slow in tempo compared to the majority of disco records from the late 70’s. This fives the song an extra funkiness. Not to mention the thick slap bass thumping of Wilbur Bascomb,Jr. Newman’s sax takes on the same rhythmic character of the bass on this song too-popping along percussively rather than playing the melody. So this wonderful reworking of the BB King classic takes the blues straight into the disco funk territory wonderfully.
Filed under 1970's, BB King, Bill Summers, blues funk, David Fathead Newman, disco funk, drums, Eric Gale, Harvey Mason, percussion, Saxophone, slap bass, strings, Stuff, Uncategorized
Harvey Mason’s drum sound is one of the key elements in mid 70’s jazz-funk. Next to the Crusaders’ Stix Hooper,it was Harvey’s approach that really calcified the rhythm beat of that particular musical hybrid. Pretty much any band doing live instrumental based jazz-funk of the past decade and a half-including Lettuce,Greyboy and Snarky Puppy are all rhythmically built around what Harvey did on drums. Even for me, it’s very likely that Harvey Mason was the very first drummer I ever heard. With Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” being a very early musical memory. He is also important for another reason outside of those things.
Also similar to Stix Hooper, Harvey was a powerful session drummer too. Especially when it came to jazz and pop artists in the 70’s looking to make their sounds funkier. I’ve tended to notice when a musician does a great deal of session playing,they accumulate a good deal of musical allies. Many of Harvey’s were iconic soloists/session players in their own right such as Lee Ritenour,Ernie Watts,Chuck Rainey,Dave Grusin and Randy Crawford. All of these artists played a huge part on Harvey’s 1975 solo debut album Marching In The Street. And it was an album that really started right off with a bang with it’s monster title song.
Harvey starts out the song playing a steady,unaccompanied march which gradually adds funkier snare accents before Rainey’s bass chimes in along with Grusin’s electric piano. Ernie Watts,George Bohannon,Bobby Bryant and Oscar Brashear provide the accenting horn charts. By this point,Harvey’s playing both a double time drum solo-one very funky and a straight march along with a whistle. Watts adds a melodic Piccolo flute while the collective lead vocals (including Crawford) sing the repeated choruses and chants and along a round,muted trumpet solo. As the song progresses,the marching rhythm becomes more prominent before the song fades out with it being unaccompanied again.
Since Harvey Mason’s debut is so thick with heavy funk numbers, it was a bit of a challenge selecting just one. The reason the title song of the album stands out for me is how strongly linked it is with jazz history. From the days of Buddy Bolden’s “gutbucket” music of late 19th century New Orleans,the musical term funk was born at the core of the big four jazz rhythm. These earliest jazz bands were formed in many ways based on dis-guarded horns and drums left over from the Civil War,as well as local marching bands. So the idea of Mason returning this rhythmic concept to his 70’s sounds was sounding the call for the new revolutionary march of funk.
Filed under 1975, bass guitar, Dave Grusin, drums, Ernie Watts, Harvey Mason, horns, Jazz-Funk, Lee Ritenour, Randy Crawford, Uncategorized