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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Silky Smooth” by Irene Cara featuring Hot Caramel

Irene Cara is a seminal figure in the history of women in music. This Bronx born singer/songwriter/actress began her career as a child beauty queen before recording her first album in 1968 at the age of 9. By 1980,she’d become primarily known as an actress. The film adaptation of Fame and her theme song for the film rocketed her to stardom. This essentially made her a queen of movie themes,with her theme song to the movie  Flashdance “What A Feeling” being something of a signature song for her. At the same time,this is my first time profiling Cara here.

While she cut three studio albums during the 1980’s,most of her musical output on those albums focused more on uptempo retro pop songs and cinematic ballads. After years of continued work in film and television,Cara entered back into the world of music in 1999 by forming an all female (and mostly African American) band called Hot Caramel. Today is actually my first day finding out about this. Cara’s first album with the band came out in 2011. From what I heard,it featured a strong about face in her musical focus. The song that stood out most for me is called “Silky Smooth”.

A thick electric piano riff provides the intro to the song. The song itself is anchored by a slow drum beat-accented by some brittle brush stroking. The electric piano continues to play the jazz main melody of the song. The rhythm guitar provides some bluesy accents while the heavy bass line plays an effective thud up with the beat of the song. The song has two bridges. One features a string synthesizer solo. On one of the last bars of the song,the drums take a flamboyant solo accented by horns. These horns and the synth strings remain with the song on its final bars before it fades out.

As enjoyable as Irene Cara’s music was in the 80’s,I never expected her to re-emerge with a new album in the 2010’s. And certainly not with an all female band of writers and instrumentalists playing hardcore funk. “Silky Smooth” is not just hard funk for this artist, but as its own reward too. The rhythm is slow and grinding and the instrumentation and melodies are slinky and jazzy. Cara’s voice has a lot more crunch and bite to it than it did interpreting more pop oriented material. So again,this is very surprising. But it showcases the breadth of Cara and her bands talent at producing a hefty funk groove.

 

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Anatomy of The Groove: “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.

The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album  Symphony Or Damn from 1991.  At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”

A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.

Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Roof Garden” by Al Jarreau

Al Jarreau’s artistry as a world class vocalist/singer has seldom been disputed. Though there was a time when it was said that,after the mid 70’s,Jarreau abandoned jazz for pop crossover. Its an age old argument. And honestly,it usually derives from ignorance. In Jarreau’s case,his musical and vocal approach always remained squarely rooted in jazz. From the vocalese/scat and tremolo effects of his musical heroes Jon Hendricks and Johnny Mathis to the arrangements of the music itself,Jarreau was one of a handful of jazz vocalists who could bring improvisation to a wider audience with a pop/funk musical twist.

Jarreau’s best known album was 1981’s Breakin Away. It was a Jay Graydon production. Graydon,like Rod Temperton,was a figure who really knows how to deliver soulful and funky music that has a strong jazz flavor to it. This style was extremely well suited for Jarreau’s jazz approach,since it was still required to make the whole thing work. And it was a massive (and in my opinion deserved) crossover triumph. And it spawned his best known hit with the mid tempo ballad “We’re In This Love Together”. While spawning two more big hits,a favorite of mine and many fans of Jarreau on this album is “Roof Garden”.

Its the trio of Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements,Steve Gadd’s impeccable funky shuffle and George Duke’s strutting Fender Rhodes that starts off this song with Jarreau’s spoken word/scat intro. Of course Abraham Laboriel’s stomping bass line is right along for the right. On the choruses,Jarreau is singing like a chocked,muted trumpet alongside Graydon’s liquid guitar. On the refrains,the horns and drums lock themselves into a dramatic big band swing style melodic arrangement. The bridge finds Jarreau scatting with Duke’s Rhodes until the big horn,choral and lead vocal part the fades out the song.

“Roof Garden” is one of my personal favorite Al Jarreau numbers. Its got so much high stepping,high strutting jazz/funk personality. Everything from the bass/guitar interaction to the horns is locked right into place. Jarreau was alternately comical and sassy on this song vocally. Especially singing lines at the beginning like “hang on,what ‘cha mama gonna say if she found you in a spot like this”. Jarreau delivered on every strength he had: improvising complex scales,scatting and vocalese of many sorts. While its still hard to believe he’s no longer with us,jazz funk like this will assure his sound will endure.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Who You Talkin’ To?” by Jeffrey Osborne

Jeffrey Osborne-a Providence,Rhode Island native was came from significant musical lineage. His father Clarence “Legs” Osborne,who played trumpet for the likes of Duke Ellington,Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. Osborne formed up with the group that would become LTD in 1970. By 1976,the band was off to a run of successful funk/soul ballad based albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s that included major successes such as the funk of “Back In Love Again” and “Holding On” as well as slow jams such as “Love Ballad” and “Shine”. Osborne’s robust,gospel drenched baritone voice was a major highlight too.

Osborne left LTD in 1980 to begin a solo career. His self titled solo debut came out on his bands label A&M in 1982. It was produced by the late jazz/funk luminary George Duke. It was through Duke that I first took interest in this first solo album when I discovered it on CD about 12 years or so ago. Because of where LTD’s music had seemed to be going in the early 80’s,had the impression this would be a Lionel Richie like album that strong emphasized ballads. And Osborne’s solo career seemed to have been marketed that way. Yet he also came through with songs like “Who You Talkin’ To” as well.

Jerry’s Hey’s horn arrangements begin the affair-with the refrain consisting of Terry Smith’s drumming,Paulinho Da Costa’s always spicy percussion,a high chunky rhythm guitar part and a hard slap bass line from Larry Graham himself. George Duke provides the sung song title through his Vocorder along with Osborne’s straight lead. The horns punctuate every bar of the song. They also play a low thundering chart on the lead up to the choruses. The bridge finds the drums,percussion,horns and Vocorder playing for a rocking guitar solo before another series of choruses closes out the song.

The early 80’s did seem to find a lot of baby boom age and/or aged black American recording artists emphasizing heavily arranged ballads. That seemed to be the emphasis of vocal based artists of that day. Jeffrey Osborne was always diverse in projecting epic soul ballads and hardcore funk. And his solo debut changed nothing. I cannot think of a black male American vocal album of its time with such a hardcore funk piece as “Who You Talkin’ To?” on it. And including slap bass innovator Larry Graham no less. So for the funk lover,this might be the highlight of Jeffrey Osborne’s solo debut.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Turn It Into Something Good” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire generally didn’t depend too much on outside songwriters and producers-unless of course their names were Skip Scarborough or Charles Stepney. They were more musical insiders who assisted the band just out from under foot. By the time of 1979’s I Am, Maurice White was producing most of album with David Foster. With the following years Faces, they were out to make a double album set of all new studio material. So outside songwriters on this album included Brenda Russell and Valerie Carter.

Carter passed away at the age of 64 yesterday,having apparently spent some years struggling with drug addiction. A prominent songwriter/backup singer who recorded a handful of solo albums in the 70’s,she worked primarily with other singer/songwriters. In particular James Taylor.  She also made two major contributions to the funk/soul genre. She composed a  now rare B-side for the Brothers Johnson in 1984 called “Deceiver”. Five years earlier,her contribution to the songwriting for EWF on their Faces album came in its second track entitled “Turn It Into Something Good”.

A medium tempo,conga clav laden Carbbean funk drum line lays the foundation for the rhythm of the entire song. Right from the start. In full interplay within this mix are the brittle,melodic guitar of Al McKay with Verdine White’s exploratory,rhythmic jazzy bass line. Playing call and response to this are Larry Dunn on the Rhodes piano and the Phenix Horns. This represents the intro,refrain and outro of the song. On the chorus of song,the chord goes up and so does the pitch of the Rhodes as Maurice and Phillip trade off their vocals in fine style. A bass/guitar/Kalimba rhythm segues out of this song onto the next.

As the late Maurice White was quoted as saying a decade ago now,he feels the Faces album was one where EWF were really in tune with their sound. His brother Verdine called it the type of album they really wanted to cut. Valerie Carter,Maurice White and James Howard Newton all came together to create one of the greatest triad’s of songs on an EWF album-with this one sandwiched between the heavy funkiness of the opener “Let Me Talk” and “Pride”. This song mixes the Caribbean/Calypso flavor with a poppy funkiness that goes with one of EWF’s classic empowering message songs for a decade of many challenges.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Believe In Humanity” by Carole King

Carole King is not only a key innovator (along with the late Laura Nyro) in the American female singer/songwriter movement. But her entire career mark puts her into the position of being an honorary queen of ivory soul. She began as a songwriter in NYC’s famous Brill Building-working with her than husband Gerry Goffin in writing such hits for black girl groups such as The Shirelles “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. King’s “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” also became famous by Aretha Franklin in 1967. After moving to Laurel canyon following her divorce,she became part of a new trio called The City.

This band introduced her to longtime guitarist Danny Kortchmar. After her solo debut Writer made little impact on the public,her sophomore set Tapestry not only broke her commercially,but became the blueprint for the female singer/writer of the early 70’s. It did so by employing heavy gospel/soul elements in uptempo songs like “I Feel The Earth Move” and the ballad “It’s Too Late”. Two albums later,she dived headlong into the soul/funk territory with her 1973 album Fantasy. One of its moderate hits was a song I am going to discuss today entitled “Believe In Humanity”.

King’s ultra bluesy piano stomp begins the song,along with a stomping bass line before the call and response drums of the refrain come in. These are somewhat reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” in approach. Before the similarly themed chorus,there’s a B-section with the horn section scaling up into that chorus. Kortchmar provides a high up on the neck guitar pluck on each piano/horn accent. The bridge takes takes the chords down a notch with King providing a jazzy piano lick before an extended instrumental chorus takes the song out on one elongated piano chord.

“Believe In Humanity” sets the stage for the socially conscious funky soul song cycle that is the Fantasy album. Its heavy,stomping horn funk all the way. With plenty of  bluesiness and jazziness-right down to Harvey Mason’s mean slogging drumming. Lyrically the music carries it well-especially with the first line of “if you read the papers you may see history in the making”. It urges people to “listen to the case” as James Brown put it-instead seeking to gain actual human experience with stories through the media that might carry personal bias. That makes it superb message oriented “people music” funk.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let’s Take A Ride” by Brian Culbertson

Brian Culbertson is one of the most uniquely important artists doing funk today. He was a musical prodigy who was born in  1973. He learned not only rhythm and melodic instruments but also trumpet,trombone and euphonium. Its relatively rare that multi instrumentalists also play horns as well. An Illinois native,Culbertson eventually attended DePaul university in Chicago. This was where he began working on his first CD. And eventually got a record deal. And shortly after began working with his wife Michelle on a number of jingle related projects before getting his recording/touring career fully started.

With a career that’s over 22 years old and 14 albums strong,only ever brought and listened to one Brian Culbertson album all the way through. It was 2003’s Come On Up. Even though it was several years old when I heard it,the album showcased how the stifling smooth jazz production was giving way to a return to hardcore jazz funk as far as Culbertson was concerned. A couple of his albums have been 100% funk based in concept as well as jazz. His newest one from 2016 is actually entitled Funk! There are many strong grooves here. The one that stands out for me most is called “Let’s Take A Ride”.

A hand clap powered groove with a Nile Rodgers/Prince inspired higher rhythm guitar. After that a high powered funky shuffle moves into the mix-adding dancing P-Funk synth bass along with some Sly Stone style pitch bent horn charts accenting the melody Culbertson sets up on his acoustic piano. After a few bars of choral/refrain variations on this musical theme an extended bridge comes in. That consists of Culbertson playing a dissonant piano improvisation as a variation of the intro (this time with the synth bass) rises into the final chorus of the song before it fades.

“Let’s Take A Ride” represents all of the different elements of funk Brian Culbertson listened to coming up in a single song. It has the hand claps and guitar sound of the Minneapolis sound. There’s also the electric synth bass of P-Funk and spin offs such as Zapp. There’s also the singing,rhythmic horns of James Brown and Sly. Yet at the same time,Culbertson’s melodic piano also finds a home in this hard groove mix. Really goes to show how funk is still a wonderful rhythmic blanket for jazz musicians to solo in. Especially when its in its most organic and vital forms.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Florida Room” by Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen was said to have had a case of writers block after his 1982 album The Nightfly. In fact,it wouldn’t be for another decade until he began writing for his follow up solo album entitled Kamaliriad in 1993. The album is for all intents and purposes a Steely Dan record-with Walter Becker featured on bass and lead guitar on most of the songs. The album lyrically picked up on its predecessors reflection on youth to showcase a more middle aged perception. Musically speaking,the album is instrumentally modern for the time but features a lot of songs based heavily in early/mid 70’s funk.

Conceptually the liner notes describe the album as having the loose concept of a man taking a road trip in a new car at the turn of the millennium called a Kamakiri,which is steam powered and actually has a GPS type device in it. So on the most basic level Kamakiriad is a lyrical travelogue-set in that always cryptic Donald Fagen lyrical approach. Its an album that I’d heard played by my family many many times after it came out.  Of course one song leaped out at me seventeen years later while celebrating my 30th birthday with my family in Tampa/Clearwater. The song is appropriately entitled “Florida Room”.

A grooving,percussion accented beat starts off the song with a fanfarring,melodic horn chart with the electric piano and bass playing the different changes for a two bar intro. Than Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano chimes in with a warm,bouncy roundness as the drums and rhythm guitar all take on a brightly melodic,funky shuffle. The female backup vocals on the chorus plays call and response with the horn charts-whereas Fagen’s vocal on the refrains are accompanied most heavily by the processed Rhodes. After a bridge where the horn charts solo,the chorus repeats as the song fades out.

“Florida Room” might be one of the most under sung songs in the Donald Fagen/Steely Dan cannon of music. The bouncing shuffle,melody and rather happy sounding romantic lyrics have a soulful funkiness reminiscent of what Joe Sample might’ve gotten on songs by the Crusaders. Yet with the bop jazz style chordal changes and Fagen’s trademarked processed Rhodes piano,that Steely Dan sound is the dominating one. Since both groups mentioned came from similar places musically,”Florida Room” is a reminder of how 70’s style jazz/funk could remain relevant to the early 90’s almost totally uncut.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Two In Love” by Midnight Star

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.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)” by Donna Summer

Donna Summer was an artist who could’ve suffered the worst face of the post disco demolition radio freeze out. Under the guidance of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer was responsible for developing different sub genres of disco. She also helped to conceptualize disco culture with a series of themed albums that established disco as an album based medium. At the end of the 70’s,she began to slowly change her style by singing in her amazing gospel belt of a lower voice. And releasing music with a more rock oriented flavor on 1979’s Bad Girls and even more so on the following years The Wanderer.

After one final (and sadly then unreleased album) in 1981 with Moroder and Bellotte called I Am A Rainbow,the owner of her new label David Geffen hooked her up with Quincy Jones for what turned out to be her self titled 1982 album. Her working relationship with Quincy was apparently difficult,as she didn’t feel she had as much creative input with him. At the same time,it produced some of her strongest music-accompanied by Quincy’s iconic early 80’s musicians. Among them was the hit single that opened up the album that was entitled “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)”.

Paulinho Da Costa’s fast past percussion and Michael Sembello’s rhythm guitar open the song on the intro,just before Summer’s voice chimes in. Greg Phillinganes’  bass synth and Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements open into the main chorus of the song-playing call and response with Summer’s falsetto. On the refrains,Summer’s lower voice takes hold with the music emphasizing Phillinganes Clavinet like synth. After a couple more chorus and refrain exchanges,the bridge revisits the intro-adding in a disco whistle to accent the rhythm. After this the chorus repeats to the fade of the song.

Some may not necessarily agree but for me personally,”Love Is In Control” is one of the finest examples of the Quincy Jones/Westlake studio crew collaboration this side of  Thriller. Being its another song penned by the late and great Rod Temperton,the song just kicks with energy and funk with its excited horns,percussion and synth bass lines. It has a pronounced Brazilian pop/funk flavor overall. And Summer absolutely aces it vocally with vocal backup of Howard Hewett along with James and Philip Ingram. And it rightfully got her the Top 10 chart hit the strong post disco funk groove deserved.

 

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