India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.
India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.
The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.
“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.
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.
The Jackson’s were already prepping for their second album self written and produced in June of 1979-just when the finishing touches to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album were being completed. It made sense then that musicians such as Michael Boddicker, Jerry Hey and Paulinho Da Costa played strong instrumental roles between both albums. The Jackson’s Triumph album turned out to be no mere extension of MJ’s swiftly developing solo music. It was one of the most truly collaborative albums they made together. With Michael, Randy and Jackie Jackson being its creative triad.
Each member of the family played a different part. Michael and Jackie contributed much in the way of songwriting. While Randy did the same with more instrumental touches as well. The brothers fully flowered independence earned them their most successful album in nearly a decade-both in terms of critical acclaim and commercial status. I’ve had a decades long relationship with Triumph now. And had actually grown up on a truly epic video to very musically like song that turned out to be the opening track of the album. The name of this song, of course, was “Can You Feel It”.
An enormous adult choir sings the songs chorus acapella for the intro. This is arranged masterfully by the talented vocalist/vocal coach Stephanie Spruill . The horns kick into the disco march that makes up for the refrain of the song. And also its central rhythm as well. Ollie Brown holds down the 4/4 beat to perfection. Nathan Watts and Ronnie Foster play a conjoined, clomping bass line. The string and horn melodies go right into Randy’s vocal intro. On the chorus, another drum is added for funkier sound. Along with David Williams chunky, reverbed guitar while Michael sang lead. With flourishes of synths and a choral bridge, the orchestration fades the song out.
Musically “Can You Feel It” starts Triumph off in a manner that would follow it through the entire album. That is showcasing disco’s roots in the cinematic soul/funk of the early 70’s. All wrapped up with a more electronic boogie/post disco twist. As for the songs Utopian message? Its tempting to view its plea that “we’re all the same/ the blood inside of me is inside of you” as being Michael and Randy being a bit removed from earlier civil rights struggles generationally. Yet the general message of seeing racial difference as positive is at its core. And its all pushed forward by a dynamic musical offering.
Nile Rodgers had a colorful life long before being the one of the founding members of Chic. This native New Yorker was born to a teen mother who, like his father, was a beatnik and heavy drug user. More importantly, it was an environment filled with music. Being drawn to the guitar at an early age, Nile began as a session player with the Sesame Street band-which was led by the iconic composer Joe Raposo. He gained much of his experience as the guitarist for the Apollo Theater house band. With them, he backed up acts as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and P-Funk.
It was while working for a Sesame Street stage show that he met up with bassist Bernard Edwards. Together they formed the Big Apple Band, who became the backup musicians for the vocal group New York City. After seeing a Roxy Music concert, Rodgers was inspired to change the name of the band to Chic. Their self titled debut helped establish disco as a genre of dance music-with songs such as “Dance,Dance,Dance” and “Everybody Dance” leading the way. The album also showcased what strong composers and musicians they were. Especially with album tracks like “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic”.
The song starts right off with an instrumental version of its chorus. This consists of Tony Thompson’s pocket dance beat with Nile and ‘Nard’s classic bass run/chunky rhythm guitar based rhythm dynamic providing the base of the song. Over that, there’s a chromatic walk down on piano. A glockenspiel and what sounds like an ARP string synth provide the harmonic sweeteners to the bottom of the song. The refrain take the song up a key slightly-emphasizing Nile and ‘Nard’s bass/guitar and closer piano riffs higher in the mix. After a barer version of it on the bridge, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Es-Ce Que C’est Chic” showcases many examples of different trademarks this disco outfit would have in their time. One was the use of their name in song titles-along with a chorus that was sung partly in French. Instrumentally, it takes older black American ideas from bluesy soul jazz and R&B. And really stylizes them with a lot of sonic polish and elegance. The song lyrics about about an actress seducing people to get to the top, sung sweetly by Norma Jean Wright, showcase the witty (sometimes topical) story songs that reflect the disco era realities of which Chic were part of the soundtrack to.
Michael Franks has a somewhat unusual back round for a jazz artist. He primarily studied art and got a bachelors degree in comparative literature. While his Southern California family always played jazz around him, none of them were musicians. And Frank’s actual musical experience came from buying a guitar at 14 that came with six private lessons. While at UCLA, he began playing in folk rock and writing songs-inspired by his favorite (and known for his rhythmic writing style) Theodore Roethke. His main talents became as a composer after his college years.
I first discovered Frank’s music in…a pretty undignified way. It was a cassette copy of Frank’s 1987 album The Camera Never Lies given to my dad by a janitor who said he pulled it out of the dumpster outside the TV station my father worked master control at. This got me interested in seeking out more albums by him. And finding out he wrote many songs for artists I later got into-from the Manhattan Transfer to The Carpenters. In a funk context, one of my favorite songs of Franks opened up his 1985 album Skin Dive, the first album he co produced. The song was called “Read My Lips”.
Chris Parker’s drums kick off the intro-with the slap bass of Marcus Miller and bluesy guitar licks of Hiram Bullock accompanying Frank’s vocal hooks. Rob Mounsey’s synthesizers come into play in different ways throughout the song. On the refrains, they assist Frank’s vocal melodies. On the choruses, they act as a synth horn type orchestral element. Bullock’s guitar and Miller’s bass become fuller elements on the b-section as well. On the bridge refrain of the song, the key of the song changes to a higher one before an extended chorus serves to fade out the song.
“Read My Lips” is a superb way for a gentle vocals, with so much subtlety of expression, as Michael Franks to create funky music. For one, he has exactly the right people for 80’s jazz/funk fusion in his bass/guitar lineup-with the iconic Marcus Miller and the late Hiram Bullock. The arrangement is relatively spare and very Minneapolis in terms of the keyboards. But the bass and guitar provide very heavy, funky meat along with Chris Parker’s pocket groove. Michael Frank’s music went from more mellowness to heavier funkiness in the mid to late 80’s. And this is one song that reflects that strongly.
Amy Winhouse is quite possibly THE popularly successful jazz oriented female vocalist during my adult years who wasn’t strictly a balladeer. Born to a English Jewish family, her exposure to jazz came early in life. Her mother was a singer for a time who dated UK jazz sax player Ronnie Scott. And her father sang her Frank Sinatra songs as a child. She began playing guitar and writing songs at age 14. At 20, she released her debut album Frank, a rather neo soul oriented album produced by Salaam Remi. In 2006, she took the world by storm with her Back In Black album, recorded with the Dap Kings.
Winehouse’s career was marked by a dysfunctional family and love life. And a lot of resulted drug abuse and eating disorders. Sadly, she joined the 27 club in 2011 from a culmination of her self destruction. My friend Henrique and I have talked to some level about the significance of her musical legacy-especially in regard to her breakout album Back In Black. Upon hearing her debut album however, it became clear to me just how vital her jazz/funk/soul sound was even at the start of her career. And one number that illustrates this well is called “Mr Magic”.
Winehouse starts out the song with steady jazz guitar strumming-with Remi’s drums playing an in the pocket beat right along with her strumming. Winhouse’s vocals are accompanied by Vincent Henry’s punchy sax solos. John Adam’s Fender Rhodes also provides a solo that plays the exact counterpoint to Winhouse’s main guitar rhythm. The chords on the chorus have a brighter tone to them. The bridge of the song showcases an instrumental section featuring an extended sax solo from Henry and one from Adams on Rhodes before all the horn charts fade out the song following an extended chorus.
“Mr Magic” is a great example of a song that has was written on guitar. While the instrumentation has a neo soul spareness and doesn’t feature a discernible bass line, everything is on the rhythm with this song. From Winehouse’s vocal solos to her harmonies on the chorus, she is every bit part of the instrumentation vocally as Billie Holiday was before her. The horn and Rhodes based jazz/funk sound of the song also provided a template on how she’d expand this sound later-when working with the Dap Kings several years later.
Blood, Sweat & Tears were the first major jazz-rock group to hit the scene. This NYC group was formed in 1967 by Al Kooper. The main members included Mothers Of Invention album Jim Fielder along with Steve Katz and Bobby Colomby. It was also the first self contained rock group to have an integrated horn section. The group would record through the 70’s-losing and gaining new personnel as they went along. Including their original lead singer Al Kooper. Their most famous lead singer is David Clayton- Thomas. He joined the band for their sophomore album in 1968.
Thomas’s raspy,soulful vocals and songwriting immediately hit pay dirt for the band with the hit song “Spinning Wheel”. He continued writing for the band until pursuing a solo career after the 1971 album Blood, Sweat & Tears 4. He returned to the band just under five years later. They continued to record studio albums, with the ever changing lineup, until their final album to date came out in 1980’s Nuclear Blues. This was their first and only album on the MCA/LAX record label. One of the highlights I’ve heard so far is the David Clayton-Thomas penned title song of the album.
A rumbling, blasting bass synth tone with a cinematic wind like sound from behind it provides the intro to the song. The horn charts blast in along with the rhythm guitar, popping bass and an equally popping keyboard part in the back round. The B-section of the main theme has the Clavinet takes over behind Thomas’s vocal. On the bridge, this same B-section is played up as an instrumental part. First with an organ solo, than a sax solo playing behind an eerily bouncing, heavily reverbed bass line. During the extended chorus fading out the song, Thomas breaks into a mini rap over that same bass line.
“Nuclear Blues” finds Blood, Sweat & Tears, by this time on their 11th studio album, having marinated on from their elaborate jazz/rock arrangements into a well oiled jazz funk ensemble. Especially with the then newest members such as the bass/guitar duo David and Robert Piltch. Along with keyboardist Richard Martinez and the slow, in the pocket drumming of Bobby Economou. David Clayton-Thomas wrote a straight up 12 bar blues for this musical backing-one with a timely lyric dealing with the tail end of the cold war. This makes “Nuclear Blues” a perhaps unsung swansong of Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Redbone came to my attention through my friend Ben Minnotte over at YouTube’s ‘Oddity Archive’. The context was regarding backwards masking of songs. Ben described them as a Native American rock band. That got me seeking out their albums on vinyl. Especially, as with so many, I knew them mainly for their 1973 hit “Come And Get Your Love”. The band was started by the brothers Patrick and Candido Vasquez, known by Pat and Lolly Vegas, in Coalinga, California. The group actually came together from mere cents in their pockets after Pat won the first ever Coca Cola singing context.
The name Redbone apparently derives from a Cajun term of people of a mixed race heritage. Pat and Lolly, both of Native and Mexican descent, went from playing surf music in the mid 60’s (which resulted in their name change at the suggestion of their label) and session playing for people such as Tina Turner,Elvis Presley and James Brown. The brothers were inspired by the part Cherokee heritage of Jimi Hendrix to form Redbone to began with. And it was in the late 60’s that the members of the band began to come together to shape their sound.
The original lineup of the band aside from Pat and Lolly were drummer Peter DePoe and rhythm guitarist Robert Anthony Avilla-known as Tony Bellamy. Bellamy passed away in 2009-a year before Lolly Vegas passed. Bellamy’s birthday would’ve been today. And it reminded me of listening to Redbone’s albums and finding that amazing musical mix of rock,Cajun (with frequent lyrical references to New Orleans),jazz and funk. Definitely out of the diverse 60’s era pop music landscape, I wanted to focus on one of their songs today. The one chosen was this 1974 Redbone tune entitled “Physical Attraction”.
Butch Rilera’s drum roll starts off the groove with a bang-before the horn charts start playing a strong melody with Lolly Vegas’s trademarked Leslie rotating speaker effected guitar (sounding something like an electric sitar). This represents the instrumental element of the chorus. The refrain consists of a fast paced Clavinet groove with accents from Bellamy’s ringing rhythm guitar. The songs concludes on what what starts out as an extended chorus. Then it all goes into a sustained horn crescendo that serves to fade out the song.
“Physical Attraction” has a sound that reminds me something of what would happen if Sly & The Family Stone collaborated with the Edgar Winter group. The rhythmic precision and horn fueled melodies of funk is combined with the heavy drumming of horn rock. By the early/mid 70’s, it would seem that Redbone were embracing the heavier soul/funk aspect of their sound. Which was evident from the outset anyway. This particular song has the vibe of an unsung hit if I ever heard one. And a great testament to this first Native American rock band.
Steely Dan disbanded after the release of their 1980 album Gaucho. Walter Becker retired with his family to Maui. Donald Fagen released a very successful solo album in 1982 called The Nightfly, basically semi-autobiographic nostalgia that served as a musical followup to Gaucho to a degree. Becker did occasional production work,in particular with the British group China Crisis in 1985. After some aborted sessions after working together with singer/model Rosie Vela in the late 80’s, the pair came together with Becker producing Fagen’s sophomore solo album Kamikiriad in 1993.
With that album being a positive experience, the two launched on their first live tour in roughly 20 years in 1995- for both Becker’s solo album 11 Tracks Of Wack and a box set containing remasters of all their studio albums Citizen Steely Dan. This prompted their first live album Alive In America. A couple of years later, Becker and Fagen were recording Steely Dan’s official follow up to Gaucho. In 2000, the album came out as Two Against Nature. Much to my surprise, it won album of the year at the 2001 Grammy awards. The opening song that got my instant attention is called “Gaslighting Abbie”.
Ricky Lawson’s hi hat heavy drums start off the groove with Fagen’s Fender Rhodes/ Clavinet and Becker’s high rhythm guitar playing a brittle call and response. Lawson’s drumming gets into that slow,funky beat-with Becker and Fagen’s Rhodes/rhythm guitar continuing for the refrains of the song. The B section and choruses takes the song across several chord progressions. On the second refrains, the horn charts quietly enter the mix. On the bridge, Dave Tofani plays an electrified sax solo before Becker takes a guitar solo. An extended refrain plays out with a sustain horn chart fading out the song.
“Gaslighting Abbie” basically picks up where the musical approach of Gaucho left off. Rhythmically its structured as a strongly funk based composition. In terms of the notes,chords,harmonies and instrumentation however, the vibe of the song is highly jazzy. It establishes Steely Dan as perhaps being their own particular sub-genre of music as opposed to a group embracing many genres. Becker, Fagen the the players they work with fully understand the composition their dealing with here. And it made it a fresh and very familiar start to the first album of their early aughts comeback.