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
Gary Bartz is a Baltimore native. He was a Julliard graduate who played with musicians like McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. He formed the Ntu group as a leader-combining a number of different afrocentric forms of music that complemented each other. My friend Henrique had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Bartz one time. He discussed with me Bartz place as a “post Coltrane soprano sax player”-someone who was able to cut through the music of the electric jazz era with his sound. He now teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory Of Music in Ohio, when he’s not on the road.
Bartz generally toured with his own group. But he also seemed to have loved playing with funk musicians too. That came into play during the mid 70’s-when that particular groove became a bigger part of his sound. By his 1980 album Bartz, he was prettying much acting as an adjunct of the band Mtume. With James Mtume and Reggie Lucas writing, producing and using their band as Bartz’ backup musicians. Since its the only Gary Bartz album I presently have, it was easy to discover one particular song from this collaboration that stuck out for me. Its called “One-Eyed Jack”.
A passionate “OOOOOOH!!!” and a five beat drum intro gets the song right into gear. From there on its a slow, dragging drum beat. The bass is slapping hard on the one. A rhythm guitar, one with a wah wah sound and an acoustic piano are all speaking in similar musical phrases with the horns bouncing right along with them-led by Bartz’s sax. Mtume’s Tawatha sings the vocal hook throughout the majority of the song-accentuated by additional space funk synths. There are two refrains-which have the rhythm guitar/bass playing a smoother and more melodic jazz/funk phrase.
Even before the extended chorus fades out this song, “One-Eyed Jack” will likely call to mind mid 70’s P-Funk. In the spirit of Mothership Connection and “Undisco Kidd”. Bartz taking part in another band rather than totally leading it also showcases his versatility here. Henrique also mentioned Bartz’s favorite TV show was the documentary series Unsung. His only hope for it was that it would showcase more unsung jazz musicians than merely soul,funk and hip-hop ones. Considering these kids of jazz soloist and funk band crossovers? Bartz’s comment is more than apropos in this case.
Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
Michael Franks has a somewhat unusual back round for a jazz artist. He primarily studied art and got a bachelors degree in comparative literature. While his Southern California family always played jazz around him, none of them were musicians. And Frank’s actual musical experience came from buying a guitar at 14 that came with six private lessons. While at UCLA, he began playing in folk rock and writing songs-inspired by his favorite (and known for his rhythmic writing style) Theodore Roethke. His main talents became as a composer after his college years.
I first discovered Frank’s music in…a pretty undignified way. It was a cassette copy of Frank’s 1987 album The Camera Never Lies given to my dad by a janitor who said he pulled it out of the dumpster outside the TV station my father worked master control at. This got me interested in seeking out more albums by him. And finding out he wrote many songs for artists I later got into-from the Manhattan Transfer to The Carpenters. In a funk context, one of my favorite songs of Franks opened up his 1985 album Skin Dive, the first album he co produced. The song was called “Read My Lips”.
Chris Parker’s drums kick off the intro-with the slap bass of Marcus Miller and bluesy guitar licks of Hiram Bullock accompanying Frank’s vocal hooks. Rob Mounsey’s synthesizers come into play in different ways throughout the song. On the refrains, they assist Frank’s vocal melodies. On the choruses, they act as a synth horn type orchestral element. Bullock’s guitar and Miller’s bass become fuller elements on the b-section as well. On the bridge refrain of the song, the key of the song changes to a higher one before an extended chorus serves to fade out the song.
“Read My Lips” is a superb way for a gentle vocals, with so much subtlety of expression, as Michael Franks to create funky music. For one, he has exactly the right people for 80’s jazz/funk fusion in his bass/guitar lineup-with the iconic Marcus Miller and the late Hiram Bullock. The arrangement is relatively spare and very Minneapolis in terms of the keyboards. But the bass and guitar provide very heavy, funky meat along with Chris Parker’s pocket groove. Michael Frank’s music went from more mellowness to heavier funkiness in the mid to late 80’s. And this is one song that reflects that strongly.
Amy Winhouse is quite possibly THE popularly successful jazz oriented female vocalist during my adult years who wasn’t strictly a balladeer. Born to a English Jewish family, her exposure to jazz came early in life. Her mother was a singer for a time who dated UK jazz sax player Ronnie Scott. And her father sang her Frank Sinatra songs as a child. She began playing guitar and writing songs at age 14. At 20, she released her debut album Frank, a rather neo soul oriented album produced by Salaam Remi. In 2006, she took the world by storm with her Back In Black album, recorded with the Dap Kings.
Winehouse’s career was marked by a dysfunctional family and love life. And a lot of resulted drug abuse and eating disorders. Sadly, she joined the 27 club in 2011 from a culmination of her self destruction. My friend Henrique and I have talked to some level about the significance of her musical legacy-especially in regard to her breakout album Back In Black. Upon hearing her debut album however, it became clear to me just how vital her jazz/funk/soul sound was even at the start of her career. And one number that illustrates this well is called “Mr Magic”.
Winehouse starts out the song with steady jazz guitar strumming-with Remi’s drums playing an in the pocket beat right along with her strumming. Winhouse’s vocals are accompanied by Vincent Henry’s punchy sax solos. John Adam’s Fender Rhodes also provides a solo that plays the exact counterpoint to Winhouse’s main guitar rhythm. The chords on the chorus have a brighter tone to them. The bridge of the song showcases an instrumental section featuring an extended sax solo from Henry and one from Adams on Rhodes before all the horn charts fade out the song following an extended chorus.
“Mr Magic” is a great example of a song that has was written on guitar. While the instrumentation has a neo soul spareness and doesn’t feature a discernible bass line, everything is on the rhythm with this song. From Winehouse’s vocal solos to her harmonies on the chorus, she is every bit part of the instrumentation vocally as Billie Holiday was before her. The horn and Rhodes based jazz/funk sound of the song also provided a template on how she’d expand this sound later-when working with the Dap Kings several years later.
Michael “Mick” Talbot could be described as the man who, even prior to James Taylor, pioneered the revival of Hammond organ based soul/funk on the British musical scene. In the late 70’s, Talbot played in a trio of mod revivalist bands. The best known of them in the end would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Mick of course found his voice with Paul Weller as The Style Council. They embraced an often jazz laced blend of contemporary funk,soul and dance music’s. All inspired by Weller and Talbot’s mutual goal to musically shatter the myths and culture of the rock music world.
The band released their debut EP in 1983 in several countries except for the UK, interestingly enough. The following year they released their be bop and hip-hop laced full length debut Cafe Bleu. On both these releases, a precedence was set for including Talbot composed Hammond organ based instrumentals into different sections of the albums. One of my favorites was originally featured as the B-side to the 1984 single version of the song “My Ever Changing Moods”. The name of this particular instrumental had a cute wordplay about it: “Mick’s Company”.
Talbot starts off the song playing an ultra funky riff-doubling up what sounds like a Clavinet setting on a DX-7 synthesizer-all before Hammond organ swirl breaks into the drum roll right into the song. The main theme is this Clavinet effect played with a round synth bass pumping heavy behind it. And Talbot’s bluesy organ playing a counter solo to the introductory synth riff. There are two B sections of the songs where it changes chords. And the organ solo becomes more elaborate. Talbot improvises more and more on the organ as the song processes towards its fade out.
“Mick’s Company”, perhaps the most of Mick Talbot’s organ based instrumentals with the Style Council, really epitomize a somewhat under explored instrumental funk direction for the 1980’s. It combines the bluesy song structure and organ improvising of hard bop/soul jazz, the guitar like Clavinet based sound of the 70’s and mixes both together with a mid 80’s digitized synthesizer/bass oriented approach. It really encapsulates the previous three decades of instrumental soul/funk in under 3 minutes. In the end, it helped give the Style Council their distinctive spin on funk and soul for the 80’s.
Steely Dan disbanded after the release of their 1980 album Gaucho. Walter Becker retired with his family to Maui. Donald Fagen released a very successful solo album in 1982 called The Nightfly, basically semi-autobiographic nostalgia that served as a musical followup to Gaucho to a degree. Becker did occasional production work,in particular with the British group China Crisis in 1985. After some aborted sessions after working together with singer/model Rosie Vela in the late 80’s, the pair came together with Becker producing Fagen’s sophomore solo album Kamikiriad in 1993.
With that album being a positive experience, the two launched on their first live tour in roughly 20 years in 1995- for both Becker’s solo album 11 Tracks Of Wack and a box set containing remasters of all their studio albums Citizen Steely Dan. This prompted their first live album Alive In America. A couple of years later, Becker and Fagen were recording Steely Dan’s official follow up to Gaucho. In 2000, the album came out as Two Against Nature. Much to my surprise, it won album of the year at the 2001 Grammy awards. The opening song that got my instant attention is called “Gaslighting Abbie”.
Ricky Lawson’s hi hat heavy drums start off the groove with Fagen’s Fender Rhodes/ Clavinet and Becker’s high rhythm guitar playing a brittle call and response. Lawson’s drumming gets into that slow,funky beat-with Becker and Fagen’s Rhodes/rhythm guitar continuing for the refrains of the song. The B section and choruses takes the song across several chord progressions. On the second refrains, the horn charts quietly enter the mix. On the bridge, Dave Tofani plays an electrified sax solo before Becker takes a guitar solo. An extended refrain plays out with a sustain horn chart fading out the song.
“Gaslighting Abbie” basically picks up where the musical approach of Gaucho left off. Rhythmically its structured as a strongly funk based composition. In terms of the notes,chords,harmonies and instrumentation however, the vibe of the song is highly jazzy. It establishes Steely Dan as perhaps being their own particular sub-genre of music as opposed to a group embracing many genres. Becker, Fagen the the players they work with fully understand the composition their dealing with here. And it made it a fresh and very familiar start to the first album of their early aughts comeback.