Tag Archives: Michael Brecker

‘Blam!!’: Ride-O-Rocket With The Brothers Johnson!

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Louis and George Johnson were pretty deeply involved with the LA session scene when they released their third duo outing in 1978. Its actually a superb example how even larger groups from that era were often augmented by sometimes over a dozen other session players. On the Blam!! album it was some fine, funky company in that regard. With the likes of Larry Carlton, Steve Khan, Richard Tee, Jerry Hey, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Michael Brecker and David Foster (among others) as the musicians featured on this albums eight tracks.

Blam!! itself is musically one of the finest albums the Johnson’s made with Quincy Jones. And certainly among the most thoroughly funky. “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” has that infectious hook-with Louis Johnson’s slap bass right up in your face. Not to even mention the call and response lead vocals that define both the chorus and refrains of it. The liquid instrumentation of the title song and on “Mista Cool” are tailor made for more hard and heavy funk-especially the delicious is the intro to the latter tune, where the keyboard fades in and out of the left and right channels of the speaker as the chords change.

“Ride O Rocket” puts Ashford & Simpson’s songwriting/production stamp on the bands sound. So its a funky uptempo soul tune where the refrain has that disco friendly piano walk down that Nick & Val always achieved so well in their 70’s heyday .As for the closing instrumental “Streetwave”? Well its  probably the finest instrumental these guys had done. It builds to a fevered intensity and works superbly as jazz, funk, R&B and even pop. With the bass and Rhodes providing a wonderfully cinematic intro.  Along with Jones’ big band style, muted horn fueled refrains.

The only element on this album that really contrasts with it’s harder edged core are the inclusion of two ballads. “It’s You Girl” is another instrumentally liquid number-with some beautiful processed guitar and Rhodes-along with Alex Weir singing lead and with an uptempo chorus. is a nice enough quiet storm kind of song but,sometimes a change of pace isn’t necessary if the rest of the music smokes.”So Won’t You Stay” is a more traditional slow jam-with George Johnson doing a pretty sweet vocal lead. Again it has a somewhat faster chorus-though a bit smoother in this particular case.

Blam!represents The Brothers Johnson’s final album released of the 70’s. Coming into recording on their on mid decade, Louis Johnson would soon get the gig of the lifetime. That was, of course playing on the first two Quincy Jones produced Michael Jackson albums, both of which became the biggest selling recordings of all time. The album also showcases the most sonically even blend of hard funk and sleek pop jazz in the late 70’s. And in all fairness, if I was asked to recommend one stand alone Brothers Johnson album that brought in all of their musical flavors in one place, Blam!! would likely it.

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Yoko Ono-‘Feeling The Space’: A 1973 Jazz/Funk/Rock Journey Of Female Liberation

Yoko Ono’s had her career in conceptual art during the early 60’s-including her association with the avant garde art movement Fluxus. Her musical involvement came through working with John Cage and through her second husband-film producer and apparent jazz musician Tony Cox. She became infamous through her marriage to John Lennon. It was with him that she finally pursued her own recording career. Her first two album was direct companion piece to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band-released in 1970. After this, Ono’s music career gradually expanded outward in another way.

With Ono finding herself increasingly withdrawn romantically from her all too close marriage to Lennon,  it would seem to me that the pair were finding themselves still peripherally involved in the others life. All the while remaining on very different life paths. To hear Yoko tell it? Her musical/art career began to regain serious power during the mid 1970’s,while John’s lifelong emotional insecurities got the best of him during his self named “lost weekend”. Yoko found herself as an empowered woman on a serious mission.

With access to an all star band of musicians such as David Spinozza and Michael Brecker? She was able to continue realizing her vision. Songs such as the flute powered “Growing Pain”, “Run Run Run” and “Angry Young Woman” are soulful, electric piano led ballads while “Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)” and “Man Man Man” both have stomping, swinging cabaret jazzy blues rhythmic flavors about them. “Coffin Car” has a grinding blues/rock vibe that is repeated on the cooler “She Hits Back” while “If Only” is a harmonica led country/blues type ballad.

“A Thousand Times Yes” is a rhythmically clean jazz-funk number not too far from something the Crusaders might’ve done at this time while “Straight Talk” updates the rock ‘n soul shuffle of “Instant Karma” from her viewpoint. “Woman Power” is a stomping, percussive funk rocker with a rapped vocal from Yoko. “I Learn To Stutter” is a live spoken intro to a version of “Coffin Car” where Yoko talks of how the press attack that accompanied her marriage to Lennon deeply effected her emotionally. “Mildred” is a swinging, nightclub friendly piano ballad.

This album finds Yoko having made up her mind about her musical conceptualization for that time period.  She positioned herself as a jazzy soul/funk oriented artist. One with a lot of blues and pop song structure. As for her take on feminism?  She was now totally confident that women (both in and out of her own position in life) should allow their voices to make a difference. In a way? This is something of the graduation from the school of being Yoko Ono. Her marriage to John Lennon was on hiatus. Yet her art surely wasn’t suffering for it. One of Yoko’s most powerful and musically adept releases.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Glamour Profession” by Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho had its rough patches in terms of productions. Started only months after the release of their Aja album in 1977, there were some major issues that hampered the sessions. Two revolved around the now late Walter Becker. One had to do with his increasing drug problem. The other had to do with a traffic accident that sent Becker to the hospital. And into six months of recovery. Donald Fagen collaborated with him via phone during that time. The album finally came out just a little over three years after its predecessor-in November of 1980.

Even for all that and a number of legal battles over the album title from Keith Jarrett, Gaucho continued Steely Dan’s peak of musical excellent. It would be their final studio album for twenty years. And that was just fine for most people. It was one of the few newer albums my parents had in their record collection during my own early years. Most of my life, the song from it I was most familiar with was “Hey Nineteen”. By the time its followup Two Against Nature came out, I began to explore Gaucho even deeper. And that’s how I discovered what’s likely my favorite song on it called “Glamour Profession”.

Steve Gadd’s straight up dance beat sets the pace right away. Its accompanied by Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano and Anthony Jackson’s counter melodic bass hump. Before the refrain comes in, Tom Scott’s Lyricon and Michael Brecker’s sax play a nighttime friendly horn chart. During the refrains and chorus, Steve Khan plays some bluesy jazz guitar riffs. He also gets time for a solo just before the vocal bridge of the song-where the song changes key for a bar or so. The song fades out on an extended instrumental refrain with Khan’s soloing taking precedence.

“Glamour Profession” is likely the coolest song (and only one as I recall) about a fading basketball player’s involvement in an elaborate drug deal I’ve ever heard. Donald Fagen’s lyrics are as poetically cryptic as usual. Its also an amazing “dazz” song-its disco jazz flavor enhanced by the jazzy chords of the guitar,bass and processed Rhodes part that define the song. The production and melody are the sonic equivilent of clear glossy lacquer. The sound is slick and slippery. Yet is also full of weight and texture. And surely one of Steely Dan’s many fine musical moments of their original run.

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “So Good” by The J.Geils Band

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.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Red Beans” by Jimmy McGriff

Jimmy McGriff was a major soul jazz era pioneer of the Hammond B-3 organ. The Pennsylvania native studied a number of instruments growing up-taking up a day job as a cop in Philly for a short time. He later attended Julliard-also studying privately with the major Hammond organist (and childhood friend) before him Jimmy Smith-among others. He led a series of jazz combos during the 60’s,some of which included later jazz organ icon (then sax player) Charles Earland before he began moving into a funk direction during the late 60’s and early 70’s.

By the early 70’s,McGriff would’ve been apparently content to have began a semi retirement on his Connecticut horse farm. Due the rapid rate of issues his new record label were doing for his music,he began  recording and touring again mid decade. One of his records during this period was 1976’s Red Beans. Only reason I know about the album and McGriff at all would be DJ/musician Nigel Hall. He played a number of tracks from his vinyl copy of the album on his radio show in the early/mid 2000’s. One of them was the albums opening title song.

A fast paced,almost Clyde Stubblefield like drum joins in with this flamboyant bass/rhythm guitar interaction before McGriff comes in-riffing right in rhythm on Clavinet.  After that,the horn section comes in and alternate with McGriff in playing the rhythmic changes of the groove. On the choruses of the song,there’s a rocking fuzz guitar that takes over with the horns. On a couple of the refrains,Michael Brecker (I believe) takes a spirited sax solo that extends over a number of bars. This instrumental back and forth alternates until the song concludes.

“Red Beans” is one of the more instrumentally energetic,perhaps even punishing jazz/funk jams of the mid 80’s. It adds a strong improvisational flair to a groove that,with its fast tempo and spirited melodies, has a similar musical vibe to something Larry Graham & Graham Central Station might’ve done during this period. The bright,high recording quality of the song also adds to its strength. It also showcases McGriff finding an instrumental place for himself in funk with him playing Clavinet as opposed to organ. And in essence it signaled the beginning of a musical rebirth for him at that time.

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‘Word Up’@30: Cameo Tell Us What’s The Word!

Word Up!

Cameo and “Word Up” (as a song) in general have been a consistent point of discussion between myself and Henrique Hopkins over the years. At this point,my primary outlet for writing about music was through Amazon.com’s customer reviews. For a number of reasons,my forum or music based writing became based more around my WordPress blogs such as Andresmusictalk. So much of my opinion went into my currently unpublished Amazon.com review of the Word Up album itself. So over three months after its 30th anniversary,here’s my personal take on Cameo’s major funk crossover album from 1986.


Truth be told? This album probably represented the very first funk by a contemporary artist I ever heard. Keep in mind it was when it came out. And at the time I had no idea what a musical genre (let alone funk) even was. The music of Cameo has always had a strong attraction to me ever since-likely due to that core musical memory. Historically for Cameo,this was an interesting time. Starting with 1984’s She’s Strange,Cameo pared down to a trio of three members in bandleader/founder Larry Blackmon on lead vocals and bass with Nathan Leftenant and Tomi Jenkins as vocalists.

Charlie Singleton left the band functionally to start a solo career. Yet the deepest thing about that was that Charlie,along with other members of the band,didn’t leave completely. He,along with session musicians such as the Brecker brothers remained behind on this album which,as it were wound up being their iconic breakthrough album commercially-at least as far as pop char success was concerned.

The title song and “Candy” are of course the signature mid 80’s Cameo sound-stripped down funk sound,slap bass the texture of thick liquid. Another element that makes them stand out is the strong percussion breaks and Michael Brecker’s sax solo on “Candy”-making for one of the strongest rhythmic patterns of mid 80’s hard funk. “Back And Forth” is a straighter dance/funk groove that’s highly catchy and melodic. It seems like a naked funk number,but the arrangement is filled with layers of dreamy synthesizers as well.

It was a full sound creeping up from behind rather than immediately out front. “She’s Mind” is the one slow jam here-really more mid tempo boogie with an appropriately jazzy pop sense of song craft showcasing what terrific songwriters Cameo were. “She’s Mine”,a drum beat oriented hip-hop/funk hybrid as well as the furious live band oriented funk of “Fast,Fierce & Funny” and “You Can Have The World” are all brightly composed and heavily rhythmic grooves-all focusing on the theme of materialistically demanding women that was a mainstay for Cameo throughout the years.

Many “jam fans” who have an intense dislike for the music of the first half of the 1980’s refer to the period in which this album came out as a rebirth of the funk. As soon as James Brown hit the airwaves with “Living In America”,music that was strongly linked with classic funk began to be innovated on. That also found itself spreading into the next generation of hip-hop as well-especially as the functional original funk bands who didn’t have the commercial success of Cameo abandoned the idea of radio play and musical commerce.

So the “nu funk” as it were,and the generation of hip-hop that both inspired it and was inspired by it was all part of the culture from which this album came. It would seem looking back that no one was particularly self conscious about this burst of funk creativity. It seemed to be a degree of life breathed into the “number one funk” aestetic of the 60’s and 70’s-where music that celebrated advanced rhythmic ideas and lyrical wit in a contemporary context could flourish. This album is one of the many that really captures that spirit. And reminds any cynic who thinks that funk is dead that,when it seems to begone,it can survive and (in cases such as this) be enormously successful as well.


One of the ideas I had that sprang up from writing this review was about the type of funk that is becoming successful today. Songs such as “Uptown Funk” (the “Word Up” of 2014/2015 in terms of commercial success in many ways) are generally inspired by the synth based style of 80’s funk. Word Up,as both a song and an album,was a whole other thing though. The slap bass and the slow,hard hitting beats that are seldom heard in modern funk really define this album through and through. Still,it not only represents a major crossover triumph for Cameo but hard funk in the 1980’s in general.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1986, Amazon.com, Cameo, Charlie Singleton, classic albums, Larry Blackmon, Michael Brecker, Music Reviewing, Nathan Leftenant, Randy Brecker, Saxophone, slap bass, synth funk, Tomi Jenkins, trumpet, Word Up

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Crosswind” by Billy Cobham

William Emanuel “Billy” Cobham shared the same Panamanian heritage with members of the 70’s Latin-funk band Mandrill. After his family moved to New York and playing drums throughout childhood,Cobham attended the New York High School For Music And Art-after which he had a brief time in the army where he played in their band. Upon discharge, he played in Horace Silver’s band-in addition to doing sessions with Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott and George Benson. He was part of the original lineup of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970’s before branching out into a solo career.

His solo debut Spectrum was released in 1973 while he was still in the Mahavishnu Orchestra-with band mate Jan Hammer helping out on keyboards. This album is considered a fusion classic. Though it’s funkiness comes mainly as bridges amidst elongated,speedy hard rock rhythms with elaborate improvisations. His sophomore album Crosswinds got far deeper inside the groove-especially with folks like George Duke and the Brecker brothers aboard. And it’s the closing title song that makes that point best.

Cobham set’s the groove up with a slow,funky drum with Lee Pastora providing some thick percussion accents. George Duke lays down a strong bluesy groove of his own with a loud,fuzzed out Fender Rhodes while John Williams brings in an excellent foundational bass line. The Brecker’s and trombonist Garnett Brown provide some accenting,melodic horn charts. John Abercrombie,who worked with Cobham for years,provides some brittle,scintillating hard rock guitar solos until the rhythm section and the horn section brings the entire groove to an abrupt halt.

This song is a fantastic rocking funk-played by some talented jazz players who KNEW how to play funk and do some heavy rock soloing. Though the instrumentation is quite a lot more sleek and tight on this song,the shuffling drum/percussion part and slow,bluesy melody has a similar flavor to Funkadelic’s song “Nappy Dugout” from the same general time period. It really showcases how high the then fairly new funk sound was effecting the most technically inclined of jazz/rock fusion players at the same time that genre was beginning to enter it’s own peak period of musical excellence.

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Filed under 1974, Billy Cobham, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Garnett Brown, George Duke, horns, jazz funk, jazz fusion, John Abercrombie, John Williams, Lee Pastora, Michael Brecker, percussion, Randy Brecker, rock guitar, Saxophone, trombone, trumpet

Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “East River” by The Brecker Brothers

The late saxophonist Michael Brecker and his older,trumpet playing brother Randy were major session fixtures in the mid/late 1970’s. They would go on to have a 30 year long career both together and apart,with Michael often being touted as the most influential jazz sax player since John Coltrane.It was through George Clinton’s P-Funk that the Brecker’s  entered the Library Of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2011. That’s because Parliament’s 1975 album Mothership Connection was added to that registry. Funk officially became notarized in the capital in Chocolate City itself that day. And even so,the Brecker’s contributions didn’t end there.

Between 1975 and 1977,the Brecker’s released three studio albums as a duo. These albums were very heavy with funk. Not to even mention the horn blowing pair maintained their session work with P-Funk. They played with the JB’s own Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker on two albums by the Horny Horns. And through them they participated in albums by Bootsy’s Rubber Band as well. In 1978 they released a live album entitled Heavy Metal Be-Bop. The album showcased the brothers usage of Eddie Harris inspired electric sax and trumpet. It also contained a brand new studio track with additional personal that was entitled “East River”.

A thundering drum solo and discordant horn fanfare opens the song. A thudding,slow tempo funky drummer and a round,popping drum-like bass from Neil Jason.Barry Finnerty adds a thick layer of amp’d up rock guitar to the vocal changing and Michael’s bop style sax solos. The song breaks right down to an ultra funky mix of clanging percussion,hand claps,Dyno-My-Piano Fender Rhodes,rhythm guitar,horns and Jason’s lead vocals. This stomping refrain returns after an additional repeat of the chorus. That main chorus of the song basically repeats itself throughout the rest of the song-allowing Michael Brecker to take a solo bridge along with the lead guitar before fading out.

In addition to being a strongly P-Funk inspired jam,this song is a sonically impressive example of hard rocking funk at it’s most fiery. Barry Finnerty’s guitar solo rocks hard indeed. But as with the rest of the music here,it’s a total rhythmic element. It’s the horns,both as a collective and solo element,that are truly the instrumental voice of this groove out front. The high recording quality,with everything about the rhythm popping out with amazing clarity,has a punchy live sound. It showcases just how far P-Funk’s instrumental reach was by 1978. And how much musicians like Michael Brecker played in the evolution of the uncut groove itself.

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