Reggie Lucas is one of those names who appears on the credits of many albums. In all my years of crate digging, I’d grab just about any album which credited him. Didn’t matter if it was on guitar, as a producer or not. Lucas’s lineage was strong as iron. Born in Queens, the man got his start playing within the Philly soul community as a session musician with MFSB and as a live musician with Billy Paul. In 1972, he began his professional association with Miles Davis, where he met percussionist James Mtume. Together they put together a new band named after James’ taken surname.
Mtume started out as an avant garde jazz outfit with electric elements, very much inspired by Miles’ loose grooves of his mid 70’s period. The band added singer Tawatha Agee in 1978 and released Kiss The World Goodbye. This version of Mtume was a full funk/soul elements. Lucas also began production work during the late 70’s. He began and association with both Phyllis Hyman and Stephanie Mills that would last several years and albums. He also produced jazz sax player Gary Bartz during his own transition to a funkier sound.
Lucas’s biggest success as a member of Mtume was with their 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit”, a sexually spicy electro funk jam that inspired an equally famous hip-hop reboot called “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G, who also sampled the original hit in his song. During that same year, Lucas provided production on the then little known singer/dancer Madonna Ciccone on her debut album. His LINN drum and guitar work, including Lucas’s own composition “Borderline”, would find him part of the musical team that launched one of the 20th centuries major dance music superstars.
Looking back on his accomplishments today? Reggie Lucas served a similar function on guitar as Marcus Miller did as a bassist. He came to fame as a musician working with Miles Davis. And went onto become a session player for a number of soul and pop artists-many of whom themselves became iconic. Lucas may have passed away on my 38th birthday. But in the end, Lucas was another major seed that Miles planted into the tapestry of black American music during the electric jazz and funk/soul/disco era’s. To me, this will be what I’ll always think about when contemplating Lucas’s creative arc.
James Mtume almost seemed to be born into the royal family of funk. Everything seemed to come into place for it. He was born in Philly as the son of jazz sax icon Jimmy Heath. He went on to play with Miles Davis during the last few years before Miles’ late 70’s retirement period. That combination of being a Philadelphia native and having a strong back round is usually the key ingredients in a recipe for a funk icon. At first,Mtume had his mind on athletics. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.
After learning about music somewhat through the jazz musicians coming in and out of his adopted father,local Philly jazz pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman,he had the abilities as a musician to begin his career as a session player on the West Coast by the early 70’s. He recorded a couple of albums as a leader.. These were both in a more free jazz style. In 1978 he’d teamed up with percussionist/arranger/producer Reggie Lucus and formed the funk outfit Mtume. They would hit pay dirt with 1983’s sexy “Juicy Fruit”. Yet one of their most telling grooves is the title song of their 1978 debut album Kiss The World Goodbye.
The drum kicks off the slow,percussive crawl of the rhythm for starts. A grinding guitar plays a funky blues riff that swiftly dovetails into another guitar line-this one a amp’d up rock one. This is assisted by some incredibly phat popping bass playing a lower version of the first guitar riff. This is the main body of the song-one that relies heavily on the one. As the song progresses,these main rhythmic elements are accented by both horn charts and synthesizer squiggles on every other chord or so. And this is how the groove goes on until it all fades out.
Taken as itself,this song is not only a great way for Mtume to debut as a band concept. But it is also so far removed from the electro/boogie sound they’d be known for 6-7 years later that is really showcases their musical arc. Mtume actually had four year gap from 1980 to 1983 where they didn’t record anything. But on this 1978 song,their focus was not only based more in the funk/rock aesthetics of Funkadelic,Ohio Players and Slave but the arrangement on this is especially thick. The instrumentation is so closely mixed,this song is among the most musically dense hard funk of the late 70’s.
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.
Miles Davis seemed to record a lot of his electric music of the early 70’s with his noted sense of spontaneity. He had his producer Teo Macero just record whatever he and his players were doing-all of it. And than have individual songs cut for albums later on. He did this on his fusion breakthrough Bitches Brew. And it’s a strong possibility he approached his 1972 album On The Corner in much the same way. That accounts for why there have been so many “complete sessions” box sets during the CD era for Miles. And it also points to the general approach Miles came at the whole idea of grooves and rhythm.
Miles said of On The Corner that he recorded the album as a way to “reach the kids” as he put it. Henrique and myself had a very meaningful discussion on this recently. And he bought out an excellent point. Miles was a member of America’s silent generation. Musically,this was a generation who championed melody. His own mother had advised him to “always play something you can hum”. As an innovator of modal jazz in the late 1950’s, Miles tended to view funk’s rhythmic base as solely for a dancing mindset. However ,he was able to fuse rhythm and melody here on the song “Black Satin”.
Badal Roy’s tabla drums and Khalil Balakrishna’s electric sitar washes introduce the album. After that Mtume’s percussion and Michael Henderson’s up-scaling three note bass line kick in to fatten up the groove. Miles plays a high medium pitched,processed trumpet fanfare. He punctuates with single note,percussive hits throughout the song. All between bursts of wah wah guitar,Herbie Hancock’s tweeting synthesizer and manic hand claps. On the last section of the song,Miles’ solo fives way to the cinematic organ of Harold I. Williams before the tabla/sitar intro that opened the song fades it out.
Miles’s On The Corner album is almost like one 54 minute jam sliced into four pieces. “Black Satin” would function as the second segment of that jam. But it has the most melodic content of the entire album. And it comes from Miles’ solo too-that aspect of the song you can hum. In terms of harmonic atonality, Miles was inspired by the experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Henderson’s bass line and the fast,percussive tempo tell another story. It’s based very much on the chase scene music of the blacksploitation films of the day. And this song was used as such in Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead.
The very first time I heard On The Corner,it was like being transported into a funky utopia. Part of the appeal was that the melodies were so minor or absent. It was like music where every aspect of it was doing it’s own dance. As time as passed,this song with it’s budding melody epidermises Miles’ extending on James Brown’s concept of turning his whole band into a drum. Also with the poly rhythms of this groove and the psychedelic sitar soloing, “Black Satin” also blends Afro-Caribbean and Indian flavors for pan ethnic funk delight. It brings Miles’ sound into the early forefront of the world fusion jazz/funk sound.
Filed under 'On The Corner', 1970's, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Badal Roy, blacksploitation, electric sitar, Funk Bass, Harold I. Williams, Herbie Hancock, jazz funk, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Khalil Balakrishna, Michael Henderson, Miles Davis, Mtume, organ, percussion, Psychedelia, synthesizer, tabla drums, Teo Macero, trumpet, wah wah guitar, world fusion