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.
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.
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.
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.
Jamiroquai were probably the most commercially successful funk revivalists to come out of the UK acid jazz scene-right behind Incognito and Brand New Heavies in terms of influence. The core rhythm section of the band consisted of lead singer Jason Kay,keyboardist Toby Smith and bassist Stuart Zender. Their sound was defined by the presence of the aboriginal Australian instrument the didgeridoo,played by Wallace Buchanan in the band. Visually,they were (and still are) known for Mr.Kay’s huge feathered hats. This gave them a distinctive look and approach to their jazz-funk sound.
My own experience with Jamiroquai is hard to condense,but important to the musical focus of this entire blog. During 1996,I was at Strawberries Records when a young,friendly employee named Jeb started discussing funk and jazz music with me. At the time,it was not a conversation I was expecting. He enthusiastically mentioned a band named Jamiroquai. They had a huge record out at the time called “Virtual Insanity”. The album he recommended was their then newest called Travelling Without Moving. My mom and I in particular were very enthusiastic about the band. With me even encouraging her to seek out their previous two albums. It was one of a few times our musical interests interlinked.
Over the next few years,my relationship with Jamiroquai was complicated by the musical zeitgeist of the late 90’s. With the written music press being the only way for most people to learn about music at the time,it was all too easy to be too informed by someone else’s subjective opinion. Jamiroquai were heavily criticized for two things. One was about Jay Kay as a white English man seemingly appropriating black American funk/disco styles.. Another was that the sociopolitical/environmentally based lyrics to Jamiroquai’s songs were seen as hypocritical due to Kay’s seemingly materialistic and drug obsessed attitude.
This was very confusing for me personally. Jamiroquai were the only new band I heard at the time who had the hopeful messages and strong Afro jazz/funk instrumental ethics in their music at the time. Most other newer music at the time were based in some variety of hip-hop or alternative/grunge rock. And where messages were present,they were often presented in what came across as a nihilistic and downbeat. That sense of musical starvation I personally experienced then motivated me to delve deep into Jamiroquai songs such as the opening track to their debut album “When You Gonna Learn?”
A hi hat heavy swinging drum opens the song with a droning didgeridoo solo over it. That solo soon gives way to a violin solo before the percussion and snaky bass line of the main song comes in in with a blasting horn chart. The violin,horn charts and percussive rhythm interact throughout the refrain-all before coming to a jaunty,horn fueled gallop on the refrain,accented itself by a descending flute solo. Wallace Buchanan’s didgeridoo takes a solo over the isolated drum/percussion rhythm before Stuart Zender’s bass line brings in another refrain/choral exchange for the song to fade out on.
The title of the Jamiroquai album this comes from is Emergency On Planet Earth. This opening song both musically and lyrically speaks to the potential for environmental destruction if we don’t learn to “play it nature’s way” as Jay Kay warns. It still amazes me to hear the multi ethnic fusions of Afrocentric percussion,jazzy styling’s and sunny melodic funk elements coming out of any nation on Earth during a time when most popular music seemed to be at its darkest and dreariest. Its songs such as this that really allowed Jamiroquai to become strong life support for me in a time when meaningfully funky music seemed to all be part of the past.
Eddie Kendricks was the one member of the classic Temptations lineup who had a consistently successful solo career. He had many hits,many of them strutting uptempo numbers such as “Keep On Truckin'”,”Boogie Down” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind”. Many of these songs were produced by Leonard Caston Jr. After mixed results with two 1976 albums recorded with Norman Harris,Kendricks turned back to Caston to fully produce his final Motown solo album in 1977 entitled Slick. One song from the album actually found its way into my musical rotation very heavily this past year.
During this past summer of 2016,I actually took the time to do more bicycle riding. Unlike previous years,decided to take advantage of my phone’s MP3 player to listen to music while on these bike rides. Most of these songs were endowed with an appropriate sense of motion. And all of them were from within the soul/funk/jazz/Latin spectrum of music. During the course of the summer,I brought different songs in and out of this rotation in order to keep things fresh. And one of them was an Eddie Kendricks song that originally concluded his final Motown album. Its called “California Woman”.
A pulsing bass and drum pulse starts the song out-accompanied only by low rumble of strings. Shortly after,a loud vocal chorus scales up into Kendrick’s refrain. Here,the bass the and stomping shuffle of the drums are accompanied by lightly harmonic strings and horns-along with the vocal chorus serving the same function. On the chorus the horns and backup vocalists melodically descend with Kendricks. After a reprise of the intro on the bridge,the chorus of the song repeats for a couple more bars before the song abruptly ends on an outro of a very similar nature to its beginning.
In some ways,this song has some of the hallmarks of Leonard Caston Jr’s productions with Eddie Kendricks from before. The difference here is there isn’t as much focus on the bass/guitar interaction as there is the orchestration. Its basically just the kind of “sound with a good melody” as Kendricks himself preferred-with much care put into the production to make sure the groove was funky and the sweeteners on top had plenty of life to them. The lyrical tale of a “down home lady” becoming a movie star goes beautifully with the music’s strutting “OG” style of cinematic funky soul.
Filed under 1970's, backup singers, California, cinematic soul, drums, Eddie Kendricks, Funk Bass, funky soul, horns, Leonard Caston Jr., Motown, strings
Sheila E has been written about so well by blogger on here Zach Hoskins,in his segment about Prince’s female protege’s. Her back story is so well known,and that pulled it all together. It was my mom who gleefully encouraged me to pick up Sheila’s debut The Glamorous Life on CD on a 1997 visit to Rochester,New York. She has never been someone too emphatic about recommending music. But on this one,she was very insistent. Hearing the song had me interesting in hearing as much Sheila E as existed at the time. And luckily within the next 6-7 years,I had all her output up to that point.
In the immediate post Purple Rain period,Prince began pursuing a far jazzier style of music. He began augmenting the Revolution with horns-starting with sax player Eric Leeds. And the music he was producing for (and with) his proteges was really starting to reflect this. The songs continued to stretch out in length too. One such song was one Prince had recorded in August 1985. And it was actually done in very close collaboration with Sheila as well. It was the final track on the first side to her 1985 LP Romance 1600. It was called “A Love Bizarre”.
Prince’s classin LINN LM-1 with the flanger filter effect starts out as the main rhythm for the entire song. Than his round,popping synth bass comes in just before Sheila’s percussion. Eric Leeds’ presence on the song takes two forms. First there’s him playing the main vocal chorus of the song pretty much by rote. Than he continues with a jazzy improvisation throughout the rest of the song. Matt Bliston joins him of a very Sly & The Family Stone pitch dip on some of the rhythmic accents of the song. Prince provides a West Montgomery like guitar solo as the song finally fades out.
The central rhythm to “A Love Bizarre” is very basically funky. But its the many instrumental touches that add the bite to this driving groove. There are musical ideas from all across the spectrum of classic funk in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s the jazzy soloing on the final half of the 12+ minute opus. Also Prince’s guitar solo starts playing the melody for “Frere Jacques” on the bridge of the song. That rounds out to this being a strong collaborative effort between Sheila E.,Prince and his growing band. At the same time,its got that Minneapolis funk touch that just never quits.
Jerry Butler,known as the “Iceman” from Philadelphia DJ George Woods,is someone I consider to be one of the prime architects of the soul ballad. He co wrote the song “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions. And as Rolling Stone magazine once put it,it embodied that marriage of gospel and doo-wop pop music that became the essence of soul music. Shortly after this 1958 crossover hit,Butler went solo. Many of his early hits such as the calypso flavored”He Will Break Your Heart ” were written by the late,great Curtis Mayfield. He currently serves as County Commissioner for Cooks County,Illinois.
The first time I heard Jerry Butler was from a very unusual source. It was via one of many free vinyl albums from a 1994 WMEB radio giveaway at the University of Maine in Orono that I often reference. The album was a 1976 Motown release entitled Love’s On The Menu. Didn’t yet know anything about Butler’s importance to the history of soul. The song that first stuck out to me was the “Motownphilly” style opener “I Don’t Want Nobody To Know”. Looking into the album today,another stand out song was its only R&B hit in the song “The Devil In Mrs. Jones”.
A cymbal heavy drum swing opens the album,with a thick Moog bass rising into a clucking wah wah guitar. That gives way to the slow crawl of a drum shuffle that’s the rhythm foundation of the song. The thick,ultra funky bass line is uppermost in the song-filling in the empty spaces between the Moog and drums. Female backup vocals and horns color the bluesy melody that leads directly into the chorus of the song. All the instrumental elements of the song come most prominently into play during the choruses. And its on that chorus that the song repeats on as it fades out.
Somehow when I first heard this album,this song got ignored. Today,it emerges as the heaviest funk I’ve yet heard Jerry Butler record. And of course,the vast majority of Butler’s recorded catalog isn’t something I’m particularly familiar. Known for his deep,smokey baritone on melodic pop soul numbers,”The Devil In Mrs. Jones” not only gives up the funk,but does so with the heaviest possible stomp. Its got the walking wah wah guitar,snaky bass,ticklish Moog synthesizer and slow shuffle that really defined mid 70’s “united funk”. Right along with Butler’s growling vocal turns as well.