Brian Auger has been, much like Americans Art Blakey and Norman Connors, a great assembler and cultivator of talent during the 60’s and 70’s in his native England. His first band was The Steampacket in 1965,which included a young and then unknown Rod Stewart. As a session musician and famed player of the Hammond B-3 organ, Auger worked with everyone from Tony Williams to Jimi Hendrix. Formed in 1970, his Oblivion Express represented when Auger became such a talent cultivator. In particular with members of what became the Average White Band.
For the first six years of the 70’s, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express released on album every year. The last of this series of albums released prior to 1977 was the 1975 album Reinforcements. Seen it on vinyl once,never picked it up and have come to regret it. This album helped to cultivate the guitar/percussion/vocal talents of soon to be Santana band member Alex Ligertwood as well. Being a jazz-funk innovator, this would seem to be an album based upon online listening that delved very strongly into funkiness. And one of its finest examples is the opening song entitled “Brain Damage”.
Ligertwood’s rhythm guitar,and soon percussion provides the intro the song. Auger himself comes in on electric piano along with bassist Clive Chaman’s thundering,jazzy line. Dave Dowle’s drums come into the arrangement-along with the biting lead guitar of Jack Mills. The refrains A section is a thick funky grind with a heavy Moog synthesizer providing the melody,while the B section goes into a heavier electric piano part. As this pattern continues, the B sections often serve as forums for solos. First for Auger’s electric piano,than his organ and Mills’ guitar before fading out on the main melody.
“Brain Damage” is a hefty jazz funk jam of the finest sort-very solo based and full of instrumental excitement. Not to mention its confident strut. The A-section of the main melody has a bass/guitar/drum/percussion interaction that reminds me somewhat of mid/late 70’s P-Funk to some degree. At the same time, its the instrumental soloing (all of which is very clear and beautiful) that relates it to the jazz/funk fusion sound of that period so strongly. Brian Auger is someone I’ll personally have to be checking out more of in the future. Simply based on hearing music like this from him.
Ramsey Lewis always kept close connection with Earth Wind & Fire during the mid/late 70’s. The band were technically his musical child-being formed by his former drummer Maurice White. Ramsey’s 1975 album Don’t It Feel Good and it’s 1976 follow up Salongo had both been produced by Charles Stepney,who shared production credits with Ramsey and EWF over the years. Of course Stepney died later that same year. Ramsey compensated by giving EWF keyboard player Larry Dunn a try at the production side of a few cuts on his second album of 1977 entitled Tequila Mockingbird.
Personally I was first made aware of the song “Tequila Mockingbird” itself due to it’s appearance on the CD compilation set called The Electric Connection about a decade ago,after picking it up at a record store in Burlington Vermont. A couple years later,my personal fixation on mid/late 70’s Ramsey Lewis and it’s funky sounds led me to seek out the album itself. One of the songs on it instantly got my attention and featured most of the EWF musicians as it’s rhythm section-similar to the Sun Goddess from a few years earlier. The name of the song was called “Skippin”.
A drum kick from Fred White and a revved up guitar from Al McKay open up the song. The the drums are joined by Philip Bailey’s conga drums for an uptempo Brazilian rhythm Ramsey plays a horn chart like melody on his mini Moog-accompanied by Eddie Del Barrio’s arranged flute call and responses. McKay’s guitar and Verdine White’s bass provide potent accompanied. On the refrains,the settles settles down into an EWF style groove with Ramsey’s orchestral synthesizers. Del Barrio’s orchestration leads out into the next chorus of the song.
The bridge of the song comes after this second chorus. It starts with a Ramsey up-scaling on the Fender Rhodes-with Verdine playing the changes on slap bass. A high pitched tone on the Yamaha electric piano ushers in a third chorus. This time Ramsey’s plays one of his Chicago hard bop/soul jazz piano solos. He tickles the ivories into another who refrain. This one is defined by Ramsey orchestrating synthesizers around Del Barrio’s call and response woodwinds and Bailey’s percussion. The song goes back to the original chorus that started out the song as it fades out.
“Skippin” is a wonderful example of melodically simple,yet instrumentally complex Brazilian jazz/funk. The charts normally played by EWF’s Phenix Horns come by way of breezier woodwind instruments. Most important though is Ramsey’s use of chorally arranged synthesizers-which seemed to be the way to orchestrate in the late 70’s with Euro-disco and emerging new artists such as Prince. Larry Dunn exhibits a clear understanding of the qualities that Charles Stepney. He bought in Stepney’s sense of melodic ease with a funky rhythm section for “funk sweet as funk can be” for sure!
The reason this song got my attention was realizing I’d heard it before-in a very peculiar place. On Bangor Maine’s local NBC affiliate WLBZ,local TV personality Eddie Driscoll had utilized “Skippin” as the theme for his program The Grover Swale Show. Portrayed by Driscoll himself,Swale was a buck toothed flannel shirt wearing Maine salt type character. It really goes to show how a song with such a string singable melody can easily become a TV theme for somebody,somewhere. Upon hearing the song in it’s native context however,”Skippin'” really epitomizes Ramsey Lewis’s late 70’s jazz/funk approach.
Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Brazilian Jazz, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Eddie Del Barrio, Fender Rhodes, flute, Fred White, jazz funk, Larry Dunn, Maine, Moog, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, slap bass, synthesizers, Verdine White
Wanted to start this by giving thanks to two people who helped make today’s Anatomy of THE Groove occur. First is Brandon Ousley. It was through a Facebook post of his that I was made aware that today was the 40th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You. When I first heard this album,it was a literal love affair for me in terms of appreciating it musically. It was an equal source of heartbreak after reading David Ritz biography of Marvin entitled Divided Soul. That book overly personalized Marvin’s 70’s albums for me to the point where the lyrics became uncomfortably subjective. It was my friend Henrique who I wanted to thank most for helping me on that level.
This 1976 Marvin Gaye album featured two of it’s songs in instrumental reprises. Including one of my favorites “After The Dance”. In an effort to stop getting the singer confused with the song,focusing on Marvin as a musical figure is a good way to go. And the subtext Henrique provided for me courtesy of Michael Eric Dyson’s book on Marvin called Mercy Mercy Me. It would seem that while recording this instrumental with writer/producer Leon Ware,Marvin had intended flutist Ernie Watts to play the main melodic solo. But he noticed the horns and strings were out of tune in some spots where he Watts’ solo wasn’t quite enough to compensate.
One Motown engineer Marvin was working with at that time was named Calvin Harris. He had a Moog synthesizer. Apparently Marvin was fascinated by the range of sounds this electronic instrument was capable of if multi tracked in the same way he did his vocals on the sung version of the song. Initially he did this only in order to cover the out of tune orchestrations that weren’t settling well with him. Then he realized he could use it to create his own musical world where Ernie’s solo’s just hadn’t worked for him. In the end,this was a totally different way of re-imagining the song on both the harmonic and melodic level. And it just opened up a whole new groove as it went along.
A slow crawling,percussive samba opens the album with rather Asian sounding chimes playing a similar melody to Marvin’s round and bubbling synthesizer. The chorus develops into a mix of jazzy piano voicing’s,elaborate string arrangements and the equally complex bass improvisations-so much so they aren’t always easy to hear for some people. On these choruses,Marvin’s Moog solos play in and around the chords of the melody in a similar manner to a bop jazz era pianist. As the intro to the song repeats,the Moog is really pushed up as a boiling round bass line until the main chorus fades out the song-this time with the Moog solo accompanying Watts flute soloing.
While I always loved the “sea of Marvin’s” vocal harmonizing that was present on the vocal hit version of this song,understanding the lyrics as I do now make them come off more as a tortured inner dialog than a beautiful vocal statement. This version focuses in on Marvin as an instrumentalist. And by using unusual melodic voicing’s that are more chord oriented,the range of emotion projected through the instrumentation allows the lyric of the song to be a lot more open to interpretation than the original words might’ve been. Hearing the instrumental made me fall in love with this musically sensuous Latin jazz soul/funk groove all over again. And that makes it all the more special.
Filed under 1970's, Afro-Latin jazz, Calvin Harris, Ernie Watts, flute, Leon Ware, Marvin Gaye, Moog, Motown, multi tracking, percussion, slow funk, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized
Today being Martin Luther King Day brings up an event that occurred during my lifetime ,but of which I am also too young to remember fully. In the early 1980’s Stevie Wonder along with fellow musical artist/writer/poet Gil Scott Heron really championed the crusade to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. He even wrote a song for the occasion called “Happy Birthday”,included on Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter Than July. It was a song that was recorded and released five years earlier,however, that’s always gotten my attention-from hearing it on 8-track at the families lakeside camp growing up to my present day discussions with friend and fellow music lover Henrique Hopkins.
With an elaborate production taking two and a half years to complete,Stevie Wonder finally managed to release his double album plus four song EP which he entitled Songs In The Key Of Life. It continued the man’s commercial and creative winning streak that had began earlier in the decade. And did so by really reaching for even more imaginative and reflective instrumental,lyrical and compositional heights. One of the songs that impacted me on this sprawling opus was another example of being deeply effected by music that was not a huge commercial hit. But to me anyway,it’s the glue that made the entire album function as a strong musical statement. It was called “Black Man”.
Rhythmic intensity defines the groove from the get go. It’s a fast marching drum rhythm-accentuated by a lightly melodic ring modulated drum sound. A deep Clavinet solo is soon joined by a brittle Moog bass solo. A wandering,higher pitched synthesizer soon joins in along with the horns of Stevie’s band Wonderlove playing the melodic accents of his lead vocal parts. The bridge strips back most the instrumentation so the only things heard are the main rhythm,the modulated one. This leads into a intertwining pair of synthesizers playing a bluesy jazz melody before going back into the main theme-with a verbalized classroom recitation along with Stevie on Vocorder illustrating the songs lyrical theme.
The first time I heard this song,my mother described this song as a history lesson. And that is exactly what this is. Time has allowed me to appreciate on just how many levels it is. Stevie’s outlook on race relations here is not merely integrationist, but understanding the vitality and difference each race present in America brings to the nations continuity. Far as it’s place in black history goes names such as Benjamin Banneker,Garrett Morgan and Dr.Charles Drew would have remained unknown to me-as well as their contributions to the country. They all played a part,as Stevie sang of who helped make our banner wave during the bicentennial year this song was written to celebrate.
One major element that permeated the entire Songs In The Key Of Life album (especially this particular song) was Stevie’s use of the Yamaha GX-1,known as the Dream Machine. It was a double keyboarded synthesizer with a rhythm machine. It felt like a Hammond B-3 organ, but was a very tonally advanced polyphonic synthesizer underneath. It allowed Stevie to build the sound of his own sound along with Wonderlove. The most important thing one can ever say about Stevie Wonder as a musician is his contribution of innovative tonal sounds. Herbie Hancock once pointed out Stevie’s ability to deal with synthesizers on an organic level allowed it to become it’s own instrumental element of the band itself.
Instrumentally speaking,this might well be one of Stevie Wonder’s most exciting compositions. The energy level is both high enough to reach a breaking point, and controlled at a level where the excitement is totally attainable to the listener. The tempo is a lot faster than it is for most funk. Yet rhythm is locked down to a point where the multiple melodic conversations of the different keyboard and synthesizer tones that define this song express tonally the cultural diversity of America for the next almost 40 years from when this song was created to the present day. It’s one of a view songs out there with the power to get every American,of every shade to dance to it’s rhythms.
Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1970's, Black History, clavinet, drums, Funk, horns, Martin Luther King Jr., Moog, ring modulator, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized, Wonderlove, Yamaha GX-1