Eliane Elias was born in São Paulo. And was a musical prodigy. She began learning piano at the age of 7, transcribing solos from musicians at 12 and teaching music by 15, She went on to perform with singer Toquino and poet Vinicius de Moraes during her late teens. After journeying to New York to attend the Julliard School Of Music, Elias joined up with the new jazz fusion outfit Steps Ahead. It was there she met jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker, to whom married for a time and with whom she had a daughter Amanda Elias Brecker.
As a multi talented pianist/singer/ composer/arranger, Elias has gone onto earn praise from the jazz press over the decades. The first time I ever heard about her was via a cassette she recorded when married to Randy Brecker in 1985 entitled Amanda. It would seem to have been her first album as a leader. Having it on vinyl now? Its a lot easier for me to hear the albums reconciliation of Elias’s Brazilian jazz approach with Brecker’s funk/fusion approach in their improvisations and orchestrations. And the song that really pulls this all together for me is this albums lead off number entitled “Splash”.
Danny Gottlieb’s funky drumming starts things out with Elias’s phat synth bass and Jeff Mironov’s rhythm guitar interaction. Where Will Lee’s electric bass supplies the rest of the song’s bass lines. Brecker plays a brittle melody over this before the main chorus-where Elias provides a chordally complex, flute like wordless vocal-duetting in harmony with Brecker’s trumpet. The bridge of the song features an energetic piano solo from Elias along with her synth bass. Then after a break,there’s a muted electric solo from Brecker before an extended chorus continues to the songs fade out.
“Splash” is a song that crosses a lot of different jazz bridges. Its production sonic’s are cleanly of the mid 80’s. At the same time, the actual arrangement Brecker provides from this song is a mix of jazz samba and be-bop. Same goes for the how Elias and Brecker approach their solos. At the same time, the rhythm section and electricity of the synth bass and trumpet/guitar interaction hits on thick funk/jazz grooving. At the same time, the melody takes a cue from the Miles Davis/Dizzy Gillespie school of “something you can hum”. So “Splash” hits its bop/funk/Latin jazz hybrid in all the right places.
Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunick decided to change things up in 2013. A long standing member of the flexible lineup oriented acid jazz/funk group Incognito, he began a solo career. Bluey’s sound has by now joined many of the jazz/funk greats such as Donald Fagen and the late Joe Sample in aging to near perfection much like fine vintage wine. Of course a lot of changes have come thick and fast during the years 2012 through 2015. His solo music had enormous potential to showcase the many bright shades of the musical rainbow.
Bluey has elected to expand his musical vision into something that represents the very core of what funk (as a thematic concept) can truly accomplish in terms of speaking directly to people’s souls. “Dance To My Drums” opens with applause,funky drums, popping slap bass and rhythmic backup singing right upfront. The title song has a bass and dripping rhythm guitar based uptempo post disco/boogie funk sunshine to it.”Hold On” keeps that same instrumental vibe-only stripping it down to emphasize the hand clap powered rhythm.
“Saints And Sinners” is a very stripped down electric piano led neo soul/acid jazz style rhythm while “Trippin’ On The Feelin'” features a melodic synthesized symphony in a thickly percussive Brazilian jazz rhythm. “I’ve Got A Weakness For Love” extends the spare instrumentation into a more rhythm guitar led mid tempo groove. “Tomorrow Never Lies” is a stomping Brazilian tinged jazz funk melody while “Columbus Avenue” has a swinging rhythm accompanied by big heavy piano chords for an acoustic vocal jazz oriented number.
“Caught Up In The Grey” has a sleek contemporary jazz flavor based on the piano. “Been There Before” has a melodically bright groove about its thick rhythm. “More Than Getting By” and “The Poetry Of Life” are both stripped down acid jazz mid tempo numbers while ‘Sunships On The Shores Of Mars” takes on an acoustic bossa with cosmic lyrical poetry concluding the album. On every level, this astounding album is a fluid journey that references jazz/funk’s past,present and future as one expansive musical continuum. Very happily? Bluey accomplishes that beautifully with this album.
Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.
Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns. Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.
Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”. Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.
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.