Afrika Bambaataa,born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx to black activist Barbados immigrants,was at one point a lieutenant in the NYC borough’s most powerful gang-known as the Black Spades. Interestingly enough,he often used the idea of unity and brotherhood to promote recruitment into the gang. It was also a gang known for clearing the streets of drug dealers and assisting in community health care projects. When he won an essay contest and a trip to Africa,his life changed around. He left the Black Spades behind. And began to promote pro black unity through music.
That music was the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the mid/late 70’s. By 1982,he and the Soul Sonic Force,inspired by Bambaataa’s love of Kraftwerk,released their iconic song “Planet Rock”-a reworking of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans Europe Express” credited as the beginning of the electro funk sound. In 1984,Bambaataa helped revive the recording career of funk innovator and hip-hop icon James Brown. That 12″ inch single Unity has been a mainstay in my family’s vinyl collection since it first came out. And its first part alone is a wonderful cornerstone of funk onto early recorded hip-hop.
JB and Bambaataa begin the tune with a similar call and response acapella exchange as JB did on “Get Up,Get Into It And Get Involved” 13 years earlier. Keith LeBlanc comes in with the funky drum-with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald providing some classic spiraling bass/chicken scratch guitar interaction play along with some round synth bass washes. On the refrain of the song,that same bass and guitar do their business with the horn section known as Chops. After several exchanges between the chorus and refrain,the song outro’s to the next segment of the suite with the same drum rhythm.
“Unity Part 1” is a straight up JB style funk jam. Using then contemporary musicians, everyone involved really gets the flavor of what the classic JB’s lineup achieved as they built the genre of funk from the ground up. With Bambaatta acting as something of a new Bobby Byrd for JB on this record,the lyrics of the groove state that the solution to the self hate and violence within the black community during the 1980’s would be “peace,unity,love and having fun”. Its an amazingly funky collaboration between funk and hip-hop’s earliest icons. And musically bridges two generations of funk.
With the passing of J. Geils several days ago at the age of 71, have been thinking a lot about the J. Geils Band. Most of my life,they came across as New England’s answer to the Rolling Stones. They played a party hardy mix of soul,rhythm & blues and rock as a heavy touring group for most of the early to mid 70’s. Between native New Yorker John “J.Geils” Warren’s versatile guitar style along with Peter Wolf’s stage theatrics and powerful voice, the band expressed a strong sense of a rock band who knew how to stay in the groove rather than simply making songs that had grooves.
As with many 80’s children,I primarily know them for their hits “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame”-incidentally both on the same album from 1983. And those were actually two of their best songs,even aside from being big hits. Years later,I started to hear about a 1977 album they made that didn’t do too well commercially called Monkey Island. About a year ago,found a vinyl copy of it and upon the first listen,it became more than clear that this was one of the most soulful boogie rock bands at that point. One song that really stands out from the album for me is entitled “So Good”.
Stephen Bladd’s tambourine accented,clapping drums and Seth Justman’s piano provide the intro to the song. The Brecker brothers Michael and Randy soon join in as part of the horn section that plays the melodic changes throughout the song. On the refrains, J. Geils lays a funky high pitched rhythm guitar along with Danny Klein’s bopping bass line. On the choruses,the horns play a huge part in the melody. After J.Geil’s guitar is heavily flanger pedaled for the bridge,the bands harmonica player takes a spirited solo before a reprise of the chorus fades out the song.
“So Good” really hit me hard with its upbeat,bouncing funky soul flavor. Between the harmonica solo and Wolf’s slightly raggedy lead vocals,there was something about it that reminded me of what the band War were doing in the mid 70’s. At the same time,it had a more conventionally poppy focus with its accessible melody. The bands R&B attitude also gives this song a strong bite as well. There’s certainly a lot more J.Geils for me to explore in the future. All the same,this has to be the funkiest thing that I’ve heard from them up to this point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.