Deodato was one of the first major artists I had a experiences with during my early crate digging exercises. So much so that looking back, I wonder if the people in charge of stocking their 50 cent-$1 used vinyl bins had any idea who Eumir Deodato was. The history of this artist is something I thoroughly addressed last year with an overview of his 1978 song “Area Code 808”. This year, wanted to share a song connected to a one of these crate digging sessions that occurred in the early 2000’s. One that really taught me how to better scope out vinyl.
About 14 years ago, I was visiting the city of Portland Maine with my family. We found a new shop there-one we often still visit to this day. Its called Strange Maine. They sell old video games,books,movies and used vinyl. On the first visit,the store had a sizable jazz section. Flipping through it, I came across a 1980 Deodato album called Night Cruiser. Upon turning it over, the back cover proclaimed it featured a sax solo from Khalis Bayyan. Which made sense since Deodato was producing Kool & The Gang at the time. The song on the album that leaped out at me upon hearing it is called “Skatin'”.
A slow dragging 4/4 beat starts off the song with a flange filtered slap bass line and processed Fender Rhodes as the intro. The high pitched rhythm guitar joins in halfway through-with the scaling up strings getting into the main chorus. This showcases the rhythm section of the intro with a horn like synthesizer playing the leads. On the refrain,an ascending synth bass provides the backup to a melodic trumpet solo and string synthesizer. As each chorus goes on,the lead synth becomes more bell like in tone. Even the pitch of the song goes up on the last chorus before it fades out.
“Skatin'” is a song that truly plays up to both Deodato’s talents as both a funky musician and a cinematic,melodic arranger. This was a mixture that extended from the blacksploitation soundtrack to the extended disco mix. Its surely a disco era song if there ever was one. At the same time,the groove is slowed down to give it a deeply funkified crawl. And the fact that the song is as driven as much by a punched up slap bass as well as string and horn orchestrations makes this as strutting a jazz funk jam as The Crusaders “Street Life” in a way. Very much an unsung musical treasure from Deodato.
DNCE, a group just introduced to me by my boyfriend Scott, are a never band who are in a somewhat complex musical position. Its a functional band of musicians consisting of bassist/keyboardist Cole Whittle, guitarist JinJoo Lee and drummer/percussionist Jack Lawless. Its lead singer is Joe Jonas,a member of the Disney based family pop/rock band The Jonas Brothers. Of course,JinJoo Lee was a member of Cee-Lo Green’s touring band in the early 2010’s. Whittle describes DNCE’s sound as being like funk and disco hits played by a good garage band. And of course,they have their influences.
70’s and 80’s funk,pop and disco of the likes of EWF,The Bee Gee’s,ELO,Hall & Oates and Prince. They also site 90’s alternative band Weezer as an influence as well. Having heard several songs from their self titled debut from 2016, this is obviously a very diverse band. And vocally,they have their modern pop ethic down pat. Still they have a strong love of a strong groove with a strong melody. There were several songs that stood out on the album for Scott and myself. The one that stood out most for me personally was basically the album and bands self titled theme song.
An acapella chant of the groups name starts out the song-just before a tougher vocal grunt gets the main melody going. Its a thick,slow drum accented by shuffling percussion. The rhythm guitar/slapping bass interaction has a rolling thickness. And the lead synthesizer plays a bright “church style” melody. On the third chorus of the song, horns (or at least horn samples come in) come into accent the melody-with each choral bridge having a a chugging guitar and percussion sound. The bridge breaks it all down to the drums,bass,horns and vocals before the chorus repeats to its abrupt final curtain.
“DNCE” is a groove that has a lot going on in it. There’s a little bit of the Bee Gee’s “Jive Talkin'”,and the use of Prince style synthesizers to create gospel oriented melodic chords. The band are a very talented quartet. Counter to what I hear in much pop music of the 2010’s,everything on this song makes distinct musical statements. And every one of them come from the roots of the soul/funk/disco dance persuasion. The surface melodies are very strong and prominent. But the bottom has a thickness too. Should DNCE continue in this direction,they will be a nu funk to watch for more from.
Prince’s final album Hitnrun Phase Two , to me anyway, still lives in the shadows as the Prince swansong it was never intended to be. It was a completely different album than the more contemporary pop centered first volume in the series. This was generally a live band album featuring a 28 member lineup of the NPG-very likely the largest lineup of that band Prince ever had. It also featured contributions from other artists such as Ledisi and Cassandra Wilson. The oddest part about the album was that it was released on CD only a couple of weeks following Prince’s passing.
The album was originally only released digitally through Tidal,in a bundle with the first volume of the series, at the end of 2015. Up until April of the next year, it was slowly released for sale on CD in different places and venues. In particular at the Paisley Park gala performance of Prince’s Piano & A Microphone tour. With absolutely no bias on my part, I found Hitnrun Phase Two to be the strongest album of his 2014-2016 comeback period. Especially in terms of funkiness and musicianship. The song that stands out to both Henrique Hopkins and myself is “Stare”.
Prince starts out with a hard hitting slap bass line-starting out slowly and speeding up on the final part of its bar. This hefty bass run provides the basis for the entire groove. After the unaccompanied intro,the drum plays every rhythm change within the bass line. The NPG Hornz and Prince’s low rhythm guitar each accent these changes with ever more elaborate variations as the song progresses. There’s even a sample of “Kiss”‘s opening rhythm guitar early on. The bridge of the song is basically a false fade-followed up by an emphasis before the song comes to an actual dead stop.
“Stare” finally allows every type of funk that Prince ever dealt with coming into its full flower. It has his live band funk style he’d been perfecting on and off since the late 80’s. But also has the digitized crunch of his earlier electronic grooves even with the live instrumentals used for this. This also emphasizes the hard slap bass more than most band oriented Prince funk,which was generally paced on a higher pitched rhythm guitar sound that isn’t present here. Its funky,stripped down,Minneapolis and all the way Prince. And as it turned out,as good a funky swansong as one is likely to get.
The S.O.S Band (standing for “Sound Of Success”) was originally formed in 1977 in Atlanta,Georgia. They were originally named Santa Monica, but later changed their name. Clarence Avant was impressed enough with the bands demos to sign The S.O.S Band to his label Tabu in the late 70’s. Tabu would shortly become known for being among a series of independent black owned labels (such as Solar),inspired by Motown, which focused on R&B and funk acts. And S.O.S Band became a flagship act for Tabu with their self titled debut album in 1980 and its smash hit “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”.
After S.O.S’s second album Too,a creatively strong record focusing on message songs and even a jazzy instrumental,didn’t do well commercially the band turned to Rickey Sylvers to produce their third album. This album was called III. This album generally found The S.O.S Band moving towards a more synthesizer based sound-as opposed to focusing on the rhythm and horn sections. One song on the album is noted for being the first outside production for early Time members Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam,celebrating a birthday today. The name of this song was “High Hopes”.
A fairly slow drum beat and a 5 note slap bass line provide the intro to the song. As the intro progresses,a low 16 note rhythm guitar becomes part of the mix before a brief drum march inaugurates the main theme of the song. This represents both the chorus and refrain of this song. This adds two main synth parts to the song. One is a textural pad ,the other is a high pitched, more brittle new wave style arpeggiated line. Each respond to the other. After each section there’s a synth/drum breakdown. The bridge breaks into to intro with an added rhythm guitar before the chorus fades it out.
“High Hopes” brings together the sleek new boogie/post disco variant of S.O.S Band’s evolving funk sound and the more condensed approach of Minneapolis. The instrumental production of the song is stripped down. Yet the polish of an experienced live band defines the slinky groove Jam & Lewis wrote and produced for them. While this production would be part of a series of events that wound lead to Jam & Lewis being thrown out of The Time,it would begin their career as THE production team representing twin city funk for the rest of the 80’s.
Prince developed a carefully crafted persona as a man of mystery. That extended far into his music as well. If one looks at any Prince based website today, he seems to have revealed uneven information on his recording sessions: when he made what and who played with him if applicable. What is well established is that he’d recorded dozens of songs for each album,as many artists actually do. And siphon off the cream of that crop for the album in question. This is a likely case involving a song I’ve enjoyed by him since hearing it during the mid 90’s.
On the soundtrack for the Spike Lee Joint Girl 6,one song that every single member of my family fell in love with was “She Spoke 2 Me”. It was one of two unreleased songs (including a seemingly new title song) Prince provided for the film. A few years later,Warner Bros released a collection of Prince music recorded in the early 90’s called The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale. This included an extended version of “She Spoke 2 Me”,apparently recorded with the original NPG lineup in late 1991 according to PrinceVault.com. And that’s the version of this song I’m reviewing today.
A rumbling bass and drum begins the song,before it all settles into the musical statement of the chorus. This brings in a sizzling jazz-funk styled drum break with Prince playing a bluesy 7 note ascending rhythm guitar part-with the NPG horns responding with an instrumental version of the vocal hook. The refrain has more sustained muted trumpets and a slightly higher chord progression. After several rounds of this,the last 3-4 minutes of the song go from a swinging big band jazz chart with a break for a free jazz horn freak out. The main melody of the song returns as it all fades out.
Especially as an extended song,”She Spoke 2 Me” is one of my favorite Prince songs of the 90’s period. It really showcases Prince actually being in a very collaborative state with the NPG. Overall,its a slinky nigh club friendly jazzy funk groove with a totally live band flavor. This comes to light especially well on the swinging final part. Just Kathy Jensen and Brian Gallagher’s avant garde “sax attack” on it says it all for this songs power. The NPG have often been described as the best band Prince ever assembled. And this song is a very strong contender to prove that position as having merit.
Deniece Williams was born in Gary,Indiana-also the home town of the Jacksons. And is very close in age to the musical family’s eldest member Rebbie. Very much like EWF’s late founder Maurice White,she initially had her eyes on the medical profession-in her case in becoming a nurse and anesthetist. She dropped out after one year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She then recorded as a singer for a number of small labels until she joined Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove during the early 70’s.
After leaving Wonderlove in 1975,she released her solo debut This Is Niecy on the Columbia label,in the company of Maurice White and much of the Earth Wind & Fire musical crew. Her epic song “Free” really broke her into hit status,even getting her an appearance on Soul Train. She continued her association with EWF on through her followup album in 1977’s Song Bird. Discovered the album last year in the vinyl bins and became really entranced with every song on it. One particular song from the album that got my attention was the opening song entitled “Time”.
The Phenix Horns are fanfarring call and response style with the marching call like drum breaks on the intro of the song. After that,the entire musical flavor of the song thickens up with this big rhythm with a three note snare drum hit around the middle. Al McKay’s heavily reverbed guitar and Verdine White’s extended bass runs play musical hide and seek with Niecy’s vocals along with Larry Dunn’s electric piano and the Phenix horns. While the chorus merely changes the chord of the refrain a bit higher,the final part of the song finds the drums playing a more stop/start beat until it all fades out.
“Time” is the kind of intricately structured song EWF delivered in such a consistent,well oiled way during their mid/late 70’s salad days. Williams’ high and often quite loud voice literally does seem to sour and fly in her fine gospel drenched style throughout the entirety of this song. EWF were a band who had mastered their ability to be highly daring musically,often very jazzy and still leave room to accomodate singers with big voices. Like The Emotions,Deniece Williams was another such singer. And this song was a total funk triumph for her in her years recording with the members of EWF.