Fourteen years after Walter Becker’s solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack, he returned with this sophomore release. Ever since the end of Steely Dan’s first run in 1980, we’ve often had to wait years (sometimes decades) for new music to appear by Becker & Fagen,either together or apart. In the beginning the results were exceptional (as on Fagen’s Kamakiriad or Steely Dan’s first comeback Two Against Nature). But recently, we’ve seen an unfortunate side of this comeback. Steely Dan were consistently spun off one classic after another on the same album in their heyday.
Of course, some of the trademarks of Becker & Fagen’s sound were crackerjack musicianship, production, songwriting and incredible lyrics. After the success of their first comeback the result were albums like Everything Must Go or Fagen’s recent solo date Morph the Cat-both of which relied on sound and musicianship but lacked in incredible songwriting;I just have to be objective because I LOVE Steely Dan but…..you know. This album isn’t exactly an exception from that in that the album relies more on sound then anything.
Becker had one great idea and that was to up the reggae/dub strains in his music. Most of the songs on this album will, believe it or not, make you feel more like walking with a skank then being jazzy and funky. But it doesn’t mean those elements aren’t present. “Door Number Two” and “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore” of two great songs that are very successful:the former jazzier, the latter more reggae. Hardcore fans of the classic Steely Dan sound may be surprised (I would never say put off) by the reggae rhythms permeating much of the music here.
The result (as is typical of much of that genre) is the songs have the illusion of sounding somewhat alike;they really don’t at all but come off that way. Becker rises to the occasion though in a big way by closing the album with “Three Picture Deal”,nearing a complete restoration of everything that makes Steely Dan’s sound so special and unique. Some might want to know why he didn’t begin with that sound and take it from there. But at least by adding the Jamaican rhythms Becker is going for something new in his sound. And it makes you wonder what the next Steely Dan release is going to pull out of it’s hat.
Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunick decided to change things up in 2013. A long standing member of the flexible lineup oriented acid jazz/funk group Incognito, he began a solo career. Bluey’s sound has by now joined many of the jazz/funk greats such as Donald Fagen and the late Joe Sample in aging to near perfection much like fine vintage wine. Of course a lot of changes have come thick and fast during the years 2012 through 2015. His solo music had enormous potential to showcase the many bright shades of the musical rainbow.
Bluey has elected to expand his musical vision into something that represents the very core of what funk (as a thematic concept) can truly accomplish in terms of speaking directly to people’s souls. “Dance To My Drums” opens with applause,funky drums, popping slap bass and rhythmic backup singing right upfront. The title song has a bass and dripping rhythm guitar based uptempo post disco/boogie funk sunshine to it.”Hold On” keeps that same instrumental vibe-only stripping it down to emphasize the hand clap powered rhythm.
“Saints And Sinners” is a very stripped down electric piano led neo soul/acid jazz style rhythm while “Trippin’ On The Feelin'” features a melodic synthesized symphony in a thickly percussive Brazilian jazz rhythm. “I’ve Got A Weakness For Love” extends the spare instrumentation into a more rhythm guitar led mid tempo groove. “Tomorrow Never Lies” is a stomping Brazilian tinged jazz funk melody while “Columbus Avenue” has a swinging rhythm accompanied by big heavy piano chords for an acoustic vocal jazz oriented number.
“Caught Up In The Grey” has a sleek contemporary jazz flavor based on the piano. “Been There Before” has a melodically bright groove about its thick rhythm. “More Than Getting By” and “The Poetry Of Life” are both stripped down acid jazz mid tempo numbers while ‘Sunships On The Shores Of Mars” takes on an acoustic bossa with cosmic lyrical poetry concluding the album. On every level, this astounding album is a fluid journey that references jazz/funk’s past,present and future as one expansive musical continuum. Very happily? Bluey accomplishes that beautifully with this album.
Bobby Broom’s musical career has always, in some way, been tied into musical education. Born in Harlem in 1961, he went onto study jazz guitar with local player Jimmy Carter. He then went onto gigs with musicians such as Charlie Parker alumni Al Haig. After his university education at Berkeley, he began a stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, probably the ultimate training ground there was in jazz at that time. As well as maintaining a recording career, the now 57 year old Broom is also Director of African American Music at Studies at the University Of Hartford, Connecticut.
One of Broom’s childhood heroes was George Benson. Both physically and stylistically, that’s how he presented himself on his 1981 GRP/Arista debut Clean Sweep. In a career that would find him playing with both Sonny Rollins in the 80’s and even guesting on R.Kelly’s 12 Play album in the 90’s, Broom’s solo debut found his music in a jazz/funk plus a one jazz standard format similar to Bernard Wright’s ‘Nard album of the same vintage. Having listened to it, the album has no weak songs. And is generally instrumental. One of my favorite funk numbers on the album is called “Saturday Night”.
Marcus Miller walks right up to Buddy Williams’ funkified drums on the intro-settling into a seven note bass run as percussionist Crusher Bennett joins in on the congas. Broom’s very Benson like melodic guitar solos-both on the refrains and choral sequences, are accented by Terry Burrus Fender Rhodes textures and acoustic piano walks. The backup vocals of Lori-Ann Velez, Omar Hakim, Cliff Branch and Poogie Bell provide a party atmosphere in the back round of the entire song. After the drums kick up a notch for Broom’s extended solo on the bridge, the song fades out on an extended chorus.
“Saturday Night” is one of the finest electric guitar centered jazz funk grooves of the early 80’s that I’ve heard. Probably coming in right in the same league as George Benson’s “Off Broadway”. Marcus Miller both played and arranged the tune. And the conversational vocals and chants of Broom and the backup singers involved really evoke the atmosphere of a hip dance party of that period. As my friend Henrique pointed out, its also probably of the last generation of jazz funk that was not synthesizer based. And that makes “Saturday Night” the type of groove that spans an evolution within jazz/funk.
From the late 70’s onward, Lee Ritenour had focused primarily on developing his music in somewhat more of a jazz-rock fusion context. While it seemed that music was starting to fade into a much softer sound, Rit managed to reflect that with a light instrumental touch that somehow managed to embrace great rhythmic and melodic strength to it. He became very in demand as a session guitar player too. Nearly a decade following his Rio album, Lee Ritenour makes a return to the music world playing solely the acoustic guitar.
And of course, this took him right back to the Brazilian music he never lost his affinity for. This album is home to two urban funk numbers in the opener “Night Rhythms” and “Rio Soul”. Neither blast you over the head with a hard groove,but present themselves as “fine wine” type jazz-funk grooves of the era. It’s Marcus Miller, Omar Hakim and Anthony Jackson from NYC that bring these to life as well. The Brazilian musicians have a chance to really catch fire on the rich samba of “Latin Lovers” which, much like the deeply rhythmic “Odile, Odila” features Brazilian scat singer Joao Bosco.
On the Latin soul of “Linda”,another vocalist Caetano Veloso sings the lead in Portuguese. “Humana”,”New York/Brazil” and the closer “The Inner Look” all focus in on the melodic end of Rit’s acoustic playing. I’ve heard it said in reference to Earth Wind & Fire that their music is sweet as funk can be. Lee Ritenour’s music reflects a similar impulse as he too has been heavily influenced throughout his career by the Brazilian musical bug. And again,he’s been able to zero in on that crucial spot in his musicianship where he can play softly and melodically while at the same time reflecting a hard driving rhythmic groove.
This same musical ethic applies to the instrumental powers of the other musicians playing with him. Also by playing also as accompaniment to different types of vocalists-both from New York, Brazil and LA he was at least able to bring the sometimes divergent musical interests of northern,western and southern America together by virtue of the musical kinsman ship of the personal involved. And the end result is a resounding success.
Donald Fagen is turning 70 today. It has only been a short while since his partner in Steely Dan, one Mister Walter Becker, passed away. And it just occurred to me what a revival Fagen/Steely Dan’s music began to have during 1988. After five or six years of semi retirement, and only occasionally writing/producing for other acts, Fagen re-emerged with the song “Century’s End”-made for the Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. Last summer, I developed a love for the songs B-side entitled “Shanghai Confidential”.
This song is actually one of the very few instrumentals that Fagen ever recorded. And after the cassingle of “Century’s End” being in the family household so long? Am honestly surprised I’m hearing this song just now. Did want to credit music writer S. Victor Aaron’s article about the song for more musical information about the song. And even that was difficult for me to come by. Being that its largely the musicality of Donald Fagen that endears his music to me, this particular song really speaks to that end of his creative personality. So just what is the musical anatomy of “Shanghai Confidential”?
A clapping drum machine starts out the song-playing a sleek urban funk beat with Manolo Badrena’s percussion ringing along with a bell-like rhythm. The bass/guitar interaction of Steve Khan and Marcus miller take over with Fagen’s flute like synth part playing a very Asian style melody. The main melody is a cooperative affair-with a classic Fagen jazzy walk down with the lead synth, Fender Rhodes and the bass/guitar riffs playing off the other. Khan and Miller even get a substantial soloing space for a minute long bridge before the song fades out-again with the flute like synth leading the way.
“Shanghai Confidential” has a musically conceptual theme that Steely Dan had been playing with since Aja. One that flows back to Duke Ellington’s idea from his Afro Eurasian Eclipse that the entire world was taking on an Asiatic atmosphere. The drum machine, which I’d never heard used in anything Steely Dan related before this, as well as the bass and guitar are based slick jazzy funk sound. Yet the melody and mode of the song seem based heavily in the pentatonic scale. This makes for a song that provides a possible (and under explored) new direction for Donald Fagen’s music.
Kool & The Gang had been present for every single crucial development in funk music-right along with James Brown. . That being the case,the quality of their output during the funk era was very high in relation to their commercial success. By the time the 70’s entered it’s second half, the music was changing. Kool & The Gang for their part responded very well with their previous release Open Sesame‘. And also added more female singers as well and slicker arrangements. By the time they put out this follow up that hadn’t changed for them. Except their commercial fortunes.
“A Place In Space”, “Slick Superchick”, “Just Be True” and the title song represent what amounts to five in your face K&TG style funk numbers very much in their early/mid 70’s style period-very high on that quotient on their classic funk sound . On songs like “Mighty Mighty High” and “Oasis”, there’s something of a new element beginning to take root in their sound that can also be heard on “Life’s A Song”. The collective style funk vocals are still a huge part of their sound. They have come to better refine the mellower, melodically crafted elements into their hard funk sound.
And why not anyway? K&TG came from a jazz back round and more than knew their way around a wonderful melody. That shows up pretty much on Khalis Bayyan’s flowering solo on the closer “Free”. This album made it clear they’d more than be able to function outside just cranking out popular funk jams. That there was possibilities for something mildly more popularly engaging.
The best part of The Force is the message in their music is not only intact, but grown in strength and conviction through the musical changes they were beginning to go through. Still as with the album to come, this would be considered something of a load barring album for the band. An album that was part of a two prong connective thread that served as transitional music between two very different periods of their musical output.
One good way for a musician, group or duo to avoid the problem of a sophomore slump album is to avoid the common mistake of xeroxing the style of their debut set for the follow up. I’ve seen it happen with all sorts of music,many of us have. Some people for some reason just opt to play it safe. But the Johnson’s were working with Quincy Jones and neither one of them were content with being safe.
As with their debut Louis and George were looking to do keep a grounded groove and keep the melody out front but all the same they elected to make a change. On Look Out for #1 they were based in hardcore Sly Stone styled funk this found them associated more with the latter 70’s sophistifunk style. Meaning creamier production,somewhat more of a pop-jazz base to everything and overall not as much of a musical attack to the sound. Now the real kicker is how they approached this (minor) change in their musical style.
Actually this album contains only two songs that could qualify as hardcore uptempo funk and that’s the title song and the instrumental “Brother Man”. They’re similar to the funk from their debut but even here the sound is a lot glossier and the playing is much tighter then before. Most of this album takes it’s cue from “Runnin’ From Your Lovin'” which begins the album in a similar tone to before but the approach again is gentler,with the synthesizers and reverb laid on much thicker.
Of course on the instrumental “Q” it starts out sounding almost like a Lee Ritenour style riff . And then it goes into more of a crunching funk breakdown-not a bad combo really. The same thing more or less happens on the vocal “Never Leave You Lonely”-that combination of pop jazz and hard funk”Free Yourself,Be Yourself” has what I’d describe as a very aggressively comforting pop melody-not as hard driving as Sly but not heavily harmonized like the Philly sound but actually something of a cross between the two.
Their famous hit version of Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter#23” is quite a bit more abstract than the original,with a very striking almost art rock style jazz guitar riff from George and again reverb and echo effects up the wazoo. The album ends with the folksy soul of “Love Is”,which has a lot of commonalities with the type of music Bill Withers and to an extent The Isley Brothers were making in the early to mid 70’s- only with the latter in the decade production sheen.
Generally speaking, this is somewhat of a smoother ride than they started out with-even when the rhythms kick up they hit just a little bit softer in a similar turn of phrase to how Miles Davis described his own musical approach. It’s also an important lesson in never making the same album twice. Even though the musicians and musical sound are similar there’s a clear difference in approach. And it seemed to have paid off because this album succeeded creatively,musically and commercially to the level of their debut set in every way.
Herb Alpert really never stopped recording in the years between his Tijuana Brass and his late 70’s comeback album Rise. And he never stopped recording between that album and this either. Yes both of albums have two important things in common. They both bridged different areas of his career. They also allowed him to reinvent his music for different generations. The Herb Alpert that made this album was not the relatively new record label mogul developing very individual artists like Gino Vannelli and recording albums with people like Hugh Masekela.
THIS Herb Alpert is a well oiled record mogul pressed into service to developing careers of videogenic megastars such as Janet Jackson. So he didn’t have to go far to find the right producer for this project. Jam/Lewis,even though really only four years into their career as producers were at this point already establishing what 80’s funk would sound like with Janet’s Control. So it was no surprise what so ever that their rhythmic but highly stylized dance/funk style would have the effect it did on Alpert as well. So here we have it: Herb Alpert’s Jam & Lewis album!
Starting off with the title cut,we’re instantly dealing with a bassy,deeply funky number where the sound of Alpert’s horn is used more as a percussive effect than anything,pushing out the melody in spurts rather than extended notes. “Diamonds” and “Making Love In The Rain”,the two Janet Jackson songs here were seen as the real draw on this album and really have more of Janet’s sound with Alpert more as a guest musician. And they are strong numbers for sure.
But there’s much more here than that. “Hot Shot” and “Traffic Jam” are two more heavy instrumental funk grooves where “Cat Man Do”,”Our Song”,”Rocket To The Moon” and especially the closing “Stranger On The Shore” really bring Alpert back as the star of the show as the primary instrumental soloist. And his distinctive,hyper melodic,vibrato heavy “bull fighting” trumpet style hasn’t changed one iota for this occasion either. On “Pillow” Herb takes over on vocals himself with Lani Hall so,in any spot where he may be vocally weak she can take over a little bit more. This dual lead harmony effect also serves to bring out the moody melodicism of the composition.
I’ve only really listen to this album once but I can already say from listen to it that this is the sort album that you will tend to get more out of each time you listen to it. It owes as much to the artist as it does to the producers. They both know how to keep the songs musically and melodically filled with just enough surprises to keep the music fresh and interesting with each listen. Again as with most things from this era a lot of people are bound to give this album some less than stellar commentary simply because it’s based in the production of the late 80’s.
And that’s not an era seen as very potent in pop music. All the same there was still enough of the kind of arrangement and melodicism that made music of the previous couple decades what it was. And in the era before the beat heavy hip-hop beats took over both R&B and jazz-pop even as the dominant rhythmic pattern that’s,along with Herb Alpert’s musical potency is part of what helps this to be a stand out album all the way.
Somehow it hit me listening to this…just how much of my adult musical understanding comes out of the artistry of the late George Duke. Painted his portrait several times. Made a friend because of him,who had me speak to Duke himself on a radio show and later taught me how to play chords on the keyboard to the man’s song “Capricorn”. Obviously this is not the first time I’ve heard this particular album.
It was the first record by him I ever heard of. And the first of his I ever saw sitting in the record store CD racks. It was a major album for the man career wise. So many jazz/funk lovers and fellow musicians have aurally eaten this album whole over the decades. So hear is what I hear when listening to it.
Opening up with the cinematic bass synthesizer of “The Beginning”,the album goes right into the powerful guitar/bass interaction based jazz/rock fusion of “Lemme At It”. Opening with a fanfare on the electric piano,”Hot Fire” deals with some heavy duty Afro Cuban rhythms and melodies. The title track of course finds the classic half rapped/half sung slow bass synth funk stomp holding down what amounts to a “P-Jazzfunk” masterpiece.
“Just For You” is a melodically complex pop/soul ballad with an electronically symphonic instrumental chorus. “Omi (Fresh Water)” and “Diamonds” are both kinetic,uptempo Brazilian fusion jams while “Searchin’ My Mind” is an EWF like uptempo pop/funk number sung by singers Dee Henrichs,Deborah and Sybil Thomas.
“Watch Out Baby!” is a grinding hard funk stomp with the bass/guitar rhythmic chunkiness of Stanley Clarke and Michael Sembello leading the way. “The End” concludes the album similarly to how it began,while the additional unreleased bonus selection “Bring It On Home” deals with a down home bluesy soul instrumental. What George Duke and his extremely talented band of players does here is really quite amazing. For the last several years before this?
He’d musically sought to locate and lock down the unifying rhythmic/melodic threads between jazz, soul, rock, blues and the music of Brazil. The unifying factor he discovered was a strong sense of musical Afrocentrism. And that’s the quality that this album,across it’s oozing mix of musical genres,possesses in abundance. Exciting, joyous and adventurous jazz/funk that I feel is among the most essential of it’s particular spectrum