Tag Archives: Phil Ramone

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Zanzibar” by Billy Joel

Billy Joel is at the core of how I tend to relate to pop/rock music. A Bronx native, Joel’s music career was less inspired by his father being a classically trained pianist than in his mother pushing him into taking piano lessons. This cost him the credits to graduate from high school-playing in a piano bar just a bit too long so it seems-trying to earn money to support his family. He eventually joined up with a band called The Hassles. He and the bands drummer Jon Small ended up forming Atilla and releasing one album in 1970. After the duo broke up,he began his solo career with the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor.

As his music developed,particularly after early hits such as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” after being signed to Columbia,Joel’s sound began to take on even stronger elements of the Broadway show tune and pre rock jazz styled pop that had always been an influence on him. This culminated in his 1977 release The Stranger,produced by the late Phil Ramone. Its followup 52 Street was part of my moms 8 track collection. And upped the jazz influences even higher. One song from the album that stood out for me on that particular musical end is a tune called “Zanzibar”.

After an opening piano flourish, Joel is dueting with himself on both a melodic and a bass piano arpeggio-with Liberty DeVito’s drums keeping in time with the rhythmic piano for the refrains. Dancing around this are a high electric piano and round bass line. The chorus returns to the more rhythmic piano style and bursts of rock guitar from Steve Khan. Joel duets with piano and a backwards keyboard loop before the bridge goes into a straight swinging bop jazz arrangement with Freddie Hubbard soloing on flugelhorn and trumpet. After a choral/refrain repeat,this swinging solo fades out the song as well.

 

After hearing this song enough for so many years, it has a quality of the progressive jazz rock being done by both Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan during the late 70’s. That Steely Dan influence-especially Hubbard’s trumpet solo,has been discussed by many people. Joel’s elaborate melodicism and way with a strong,funky rhythmic groove also maintained the Steely Dan like cryptic lyric regarding trying to pick up a sexy waitress at a sports bar. It also showcases,with both its writing and choice of musicians, how funky and soulful an artist like Billy Joel can be with a strong jazz base to their musical sound.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Billy Joel

Heatwave Holiday: A Summer Celebration Of A Band Too Hot To Handle

Heatwave 1978

Heatwave are a band that remind me of summertime perhaps even more than the Beach Boys do. I’ve told the story over and over of being introduced to the bands second album from 1978 Central Heating at the family summer camp during hot early 1990’s summers on 8-track tape. Sometimes,you can be very euphoric about a band’s music in the beginning. But as time goes on,the luster wears off. That’s never happened with Heatwave for me. Each time listening to them,I get something different. Much as with James Brown’s music,each listening to Heatwaves albums have me hearing things I never heard before.

2016 marks the 10th anniversary of Heatwave founder Johnnie Wilder Jr’s passing away. He was the co-founder,heart and soul of the band. And along with Rod Temperton,he helped write man songs for them as well as singing most of them. As Independence Day is on the way-with immigration is a hot topic this hot summer election year,Heatwave remind me of a wonderful cross continental American musical spirit-with members from the UK,Switzerland and the Czech Republic as well as Dayton,Ohio. So I’d like to present my favorite Heatwave jams that showcases Wilder’s amazing lead vocals!

“Ain’t No Half Steppin”/1976

It surprised me to hear such a raw live instrumental funk number from a band I’d always associated with studio slickness. But with it’s Jimmy Nolan style guitar and Wilder’s low leads and falsetto harmony vocals,this songs percussion break might possibly have also inspired Soul II Soul’s 1988 smash “Back To Life”-showcasing how one UK based live funk success could inspired one from a whole other era.

“Always And Forever”/1976

From my understanding,Johnnie Wilder’s iconic lead vocals on this classic slow jam were recorded live in a single take. The band wanted the vocal freedom Wilder would have in their live shows. And this song truly bought the stage to the studio-with  Wilder’s soulful extravaganza of vocal cries across his range talking up the entire last half of the song. It has as slow a tempo as a song could have. But it’s straight up gospel energy bursts with boundless musical magnetism.

“Put The Word Out”/1978

The intensely processed Brazilian drum breaks,percussion and atmospheric strings of the intro on this Rod Temperton song is truly an instrumental spectacle for the ears to behold. Then the rhythm guitar and bass get going with Wilder giving it his all on this melodic,harmony laden uptempo disco/funk marvel.

“The Star Of A Story”/1978

The ultra low strings,Brazilian guitar flourishes,the processed Fender Rhodes piano along with Wilder’s cosmic falsetto vocal turns showcase how amazing Temperton and Wilder’s sense of musicality was when working in close concert. This is my favorite Heatwave ballad and another technical marvel of sound and production. George Benson even interpreted this three years later-showcasing the strength this song had to a guitarist who sang too.

“Raise A Blaze”/1979

Heatwave’s third album in 1979’s Hot Property used to be one of the most obscure albums to find while crate digging. Produced by Phil Ramone,Johnnie Wilder really got a chance to shine on the bass/guitar heavy dance funk delight of this song. Again,it showcases much compositional power and energy Heatwave put in their uptempo tunes.

“Turn Around”/1980

This is one of those arrangements where the strings and horns really let the bass/guitar interaction shine as the main thrust of the rhythm. Much like Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”, this is one of those deep soul/funk grooves whose slinky,stripped down rhythm section can fool the listener into thinking its actually a ballad. As always,Wilder shines on the vocal leads and harmonies.

“Posin’ ‘Til Closin”/1980

Something about this Temperton song,with it’s bass/guitar heavy rhythms and witty lyrical storytelling,reminds me of something from the Chic Organization from this time period. Wilder singing the line “she’s a TV star/she watches all the shows/had a face like Farrah Fawcett since they corrected her nose/that’s the way it goes” never ceases to make me giggle and hum along to this catchy disco classic.

“Find It In Your Heart”/1982

Heatwave’s 1982 album Current is probably their most underrated album-with it’s ultra glossy production,top notch compositions and aurally electric synthesizer use. This mid tempo,urban contemporary sort of funk has a strong bass/guitar part and some of Wilder’s finest vocals ever. Has a flavor similar to early Luther Vandross solo material.


Of course there are many more Heatwave songs I could go on about for many other write ups. And am intending to do just that. This particular list of Heatwave songs merely emphasizes my favorites that involving the participation of Johnnie Wilder. While there’s a lot of focus on uptempo funk and disco here,Wilder had a tremendous talent to pack a vocal punch on powerfully arranged slow jams as well. Being that listening to Heatwave will likely lead the listener to seek out George Benson,Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson albums from that same era out,turn up their music for a sizzling summer groove!

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Brazilian Jazz, disco funk, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Heatwave, Johnnie Wilder Jr., percussion, Phil Ramone, rhythm guitar, Rod Temperton