Tag Archives: Jeff Porcoro

1978 On The Longplay: Larry Carlton’s Self Titled Warner Bros. Debut From Room 335!

Larry Carlton spent the mid 70’s as an active member of The Crusaders. They were, during that time, a significant training group for musicians playing in the jazz/funk/ fusion genre. Musicians such as Wayne Henderson, Joe Sample and Carlton himself were part of the LA scene of session players who helped augment the sound of everyone from Sammy Davis Jr, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and of course Steely Dan. So by the time 1978 rolled around, Carlton had access to musicians such as then Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and percussion icon Paulinho Da Costa. So his solo career was off and running.

Porcaro and keyboardist Greg Mathison shine on the opener “Room 335”-named for the recording studio the album was recorded in. The main theme of the song has a very similar melody to Steely Dan’s hit song “Peg”. This is augmented by string arrangements and serves as a forum for Carlton’s precise yet emotionally stratospheric playing style. “Where Did You Come From” is a soulful samba where Da Costa really shines percussion wise. Carlton sings lead vocal on the song-in a smooth,romantic. voice reminiscent of a higher toned version of how Herb Alpert sounds when he’s singing.

“Night Crawler” is of course a redone song that Carlton contributed to the Crusaders Free As The Wind album a year earlier. This version is very similar, though just a slight bit more polished in execution. “Point It Up” goes for a straight ahead jazz/rock shuffle-with Carlton and bassist Abraham Laboriel really taking off-especially with Laboriel’s slap bass riffing. “Rio Samba” brings Da Costa’s percussion, Mathison’s Rhodes and organ along with Carlton’s guitar for an melodically uptempo Brazilian fusion number. One where Carlton even finds a moment or two to rock out on its refrains.

“I Apologize” is a personal favorite of mine on this album. Its a heavily bluesy jazz/funk number-again with Carlton taking the lead vocal. This time, the vibe on that level is more Michael Franks. Enhanced by Laboriel’s slap bass again and the backing vocals from William “Smitty”Smith. With Carlton even taking off to solo on the bridge before the song changes pitch on the final few bars. “Don’t Give Up” brings in that clean, rocking R&B shuffle that sounds like an instrumental written for a Boz Scaggs. Again, Carlton really takes off on both ultra melodic and bluesy style solos throughout the song.

“(It Was) Only Yesterday” ends the album on its lone ballad-again with the string orchestra coming in behind Carlton. And at the same time as enhancement to the sustained cry of his guitar. One thing the Larry Carlton album clarifies, actually being his third proper solo album, is how much of an amazing vocal tone Carlton’s guitar has. Its actually close in technique to Carlos Santana at times. Yet is based more heavily around arpeggiated runs and pitch bending than consistently sustaining notes. But Carlton’s guitar sings. And on this album, many more times than he actually does with his voice.

Because the sound blends both late 70’s studio polish with heavy duty jazz/funk grooves and soloing, again many of these songs sound as if they were recorded for specific popular singers of that day. That makes this album an excellent album of how much late 70’s jazz/funk session musicians had an impact on the big West Coast pop albums of that era, especially. So Larry Carlton offers a great deal to the listener. Its got the blues, its got the Brazilian jazz, its got the funk and it rocks. Its also hummable and musical at the same time. And all those are excellent qualities for any instrumentally based album.

 

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Thriller At 35: The Michael Jackson Album That Started Something- The Roots Of An Iconoclastic Album

Thriller remains one of those generational milestones in my life. Its an album that millions upon millions of people around the world from the 60’s and 70’s generation can agree upon. Even people such as myself who experienced new while in the crib. And a day after its 35th anniversary, which my boyfriend reminded me of, still have a lot of questions to ask. Was its success based on its record breaking sales and marketing? And was it truly music that was so universal, everyone could love it? Now approaching its early middle years, Thriller probably stands somewhere in the middle of both questions.

One thing to understand was that Thriller came at a major crossroads of black music in America. There had of course been the post disco backlash/radio freeze out. And that also went along with a recession. Into that mix came MTV in 1981. With what turned out to be an anti black “just rock n’ roll” dog whistle policy to boot. Just over a month after Thriller  came out, the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s career changed. And it took MTV right with it due to the insistence of Jackson’s record label. What’s most important is that as disco “died”, Michael Jackson himself faced a prospect that impacted Thriller deeply.

Michael Jackson was always encouraged to aim high career wise. And he pushed himself to do the same-eventually at the cost of his own life. His Epic label solo debut Off The Wall was a massive success in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, it was caught up in the segregated music chart system America still deals with. Jackson even boycotted the 1980 Grammy Awards due to the racialist pigeon holing. He was used to near instant crossover. And he wanted to make measures to have that happen. The story of Thriller  therefore becomes the story of a songwriter and a band: Rod Temperton and Toto.

Toto were a band that epitomized the west coast AOR sound in the late 70’s/early 80’s. And after the release of their hugely successful Toto V (also in 1982), many of its members came into great demand as session musicians. Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcoro, his drumming brother Jeff and its guitarist Steve Lukather were part of the Thriller sessions. In fact, Lukather played the lead melodic guitar on “Beat It”- itself an AOR number that became the first rock song on a Michael Jackson album. Of course, the song is best known for its solo from Eddie Van Halen on the bridge.

The most important element to Thriller’s sound was the late composer Rod Temperton. He was a member and creative mastermind of the disco era funk band Heatwave.  His compositions were contemporary. And generally utilized musicians who worked with Thriller’s producer Quincy Jones. People such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa and Jerry Hey. At the same time, Temperton compositions always included jazz/big band style melodic licks within the disco/funk/soul rhythmic settings of his sound. This gave Temperton’s sound a multi generational appeal.

Between Quincy Jones’s production acumen and the musicianship of the members of Toto and Rod Temperton’s crew, the stage for Thriller’s musicality was set. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” opens the album on a theatrically rhythmic note-with its round bass hook, hand claps and Manu Di Bango-like Ebonic chant on the bridge. Baby Be Mine” has similar instrumentation. And is a classic, shiny Rod Temperton poppy funk number. It mixes swinging bass and guitar lick with both orchestral and grooving synthesizer riffs. And its one of my personal favorites on the album.

“The Girl Is Mine” is a slow swinging contemporary pop number. Its a duet with Paul McCartney-with him and Michael playfully vying for the attentions of one woman. The title song of the album originated as “Starlight Sun”. The lyrics to this song are a big ambiguous. But from what I came to understand, it had to do with an interracial romance. The lyrics were alter to focus more on a horror film performance send up. Musically, its actually a more polished variation on the sound of a jazzy funk Heatwave song called “The Big Guns” from the bands Current album, also from 1982.

“Billie Jean” is another strong performance send up, probably Jackson’s most iconic. And funky. The keyboards, the guitar and of course Louis Johnson’s iconic bass line all revolve around the beat of the song. My friend Henrique and I have had discussions about this song being so strong identified with MJ on the club scene, many dancers default to Michael Jackson dance moves when this song plays on the dance floor. The fact that the songs originally long intro almost hampered Thriller’s overall sound quality showcases to just what degree Jackson was in love with the song.

“Human Nature” is another of my favorites on the album. The rhythm is unusually hollow and reverbed. And the instrumentation is more electronic than what’s on most of Thriller. Best way to describe it would be a slightly jazzy boogie/electro ballad. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” started life as a beautiful Stevie Wonder like demo. Complete with completely different lyrics, melodies and another whole rhythmic approach. The released version is a lean boogie funk style number with a solid rhythm section, squiggly synth riffs and a hard rocking guitar from Steve Lukather on the bridge.

“The Lady In My Life” closes the album with one of two numbers on here that didn’t chart commercially. But it remains a Michael Jackson standard. Its the slowest ballad on the album. And everything from the Fender Rhodes piano, lead synth and bass line emphasize the melody. Its a showcase for Michael Jackson the singer. He’s doing call and response backups to himself here-with comes into play on the outro where he’s echoing  his lead with his bass voice. The song truly showcases what as elastic vocal range MJ had. Its melody even inspired jazz musician Stanley Jordan to cover it several years later.

The writer Rickey Vincent described albums like Thriller as modern day pop standards. To a number of musicians and dance music/hip-hop DJ’s today, these songs have the same type of resonance that the music of Lerner & Lowe, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin did on past generations of musical artists. Thriller lives on both in physical media and in the online world. Its streamed and downloaded across every major internet platform available today. And the music of the album has gone beyond massive sales success to became part of late 20th/early 21st century Americana.

Through looking back on Thriller now, I think there’s an answer to at least one of my earlier questions about it. And again Henrique already helped verbalize it. None of the songs on Thriller were totally new musically-coming right out of the blue. What it did do was bring together the different strains of black American music (even the racially co-opted rock style) from pop, jazz, soul and pop together in one album. And do so with the best musicians, producers, engineers and an amazing performer at the mic. And in the end, that’s probably why Thriller continues to be an iconic musical work of art.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Waiting For Your Love” by Toto

Toto had a major part to play in the most significant music of the 80’s. In a soul/funk context,key band members in guitarist Steve Lukather and drummer Jeff Porcoro played major roles on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album Thriller. Earlier that same year,Toto release their fourth album-itself given only a roman numeral title. The band consisted of top LA session players who had already become famous for backing up artists such as Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. Even though their debut was successful with it’s combination of West Coast pop/soul and radio friendly rock,their next two albums didn’t do quite so well.

Their lead singer Bobby Kimball was the last to be brought into the group. His rangy voice,which could move its middle range to a quavering falsetto croon, went right with the bands musically eclectic range-from playing simple arena friendly rock riffs to more complex soul,funk and jazzy styles. Kimball was also apparently known as something of an inside cook for the band-especially when it came to sandwiches. That 1982 album IV was the final album Kimball a full participant in. And although its actually an album track,one of my favorite moments of his on it is a tune called “Waiting For Your Love”.

Jeff Porcoro holds down the rhythm with a percussion heavy,percussive beat. Brother Steve Porcoro provides a very jazzy three note melody-followed with the bubbly flamboyance of David Hungate’s phat bass line while Steve Lukather of course assists with an appropriately bouncy,liquid funk rhythm guitar.That represents the refrain and main choruses of the song-only done in different keys. There’s a transitional melodic change between those parts which features a scaling up keyboard part-than a synth brass flourish. Porcoro does an excellent improvised synth solo on the bridge before the choral/refrain part fades out the song.

Toto just happened to debut during a period when rock writers began to dismiss studio based groups made up of strong session musicians as “unauthentic”. Ironically,that may be way Toto’s music has withstood the test of time so well. “Waiting For Your Love” is a superb West Coast jazz/funk/pop number that’s right in the pocket of the groove. And this was coming from people who,together as a band or as session players,were one of the last rock era bands who could play all kinds of music as if it was their sole genre. Toto were both an arena rock and a West Coast jazz funk band all at once. And this song really epitomized that spirit.

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