Steve Miller, a Milwaukee native, had very strong connections to jazz growing up. His mother Bertha sang in a very jazz oriented manner. And his father George, called Sonny, did some record engineering in his spare time off his job as a pathologist. While attending the University Of Madison, Miller and his longtime friend Boz Scaggs formed The Ardells-eventually joined by keyboard player Ben Sidran. This began the circle of musicians who’d eventually become The Steve Miller Band. Their psychedelic blues sound evolved into a more pop friendly sound during the early 70’s.
By the early 70’s, The Steve Miller Band had a series of eclectic hits from the rock of “The Joker” to the synth pop/new wave of “Abracadabra”. After the band took a hiatus in the mid 80’s, Miller began recorded a series of blues and jazz oriented solo albums. One of them was 1988’s Born 2 Be Blue. It reunited him with Ben Sidran, who acted as a producer and keyboard player on the album. My father had the cassette of the album in the late 80’s. And there was one Lionel Hampton song Miller recorded at the end of the album that became an ear worm for both of us at the time. It was called “Red Top”.
Gordy Knudtson’s drum kickoff starts off the song-with the late sax great Phil Woods blowing away the melody before a break for Miller vocally introducing the chorus. Knudtson’s drum takes on a more New Orleans type flavor. Sidran’s synthesized organ plays a strong foundational role in this as well-along with Miller’s bluesy guitar riffs accenting it all. Billy Peterson’s bass line bounces right along with the drums. On the bridge, the rhythm all swings for Woods to take a full sax solo. After this the song has an extended chorus before coming to a stop on a reprise of the intro.
“Red Top” has been recorded by a lot of people since Hampton composed the song. There’s something about Steve Miller’s version that really brings it to a new generation. The song of course as a straight up 12 bar blues structure. But between Ben Sidran’s keys and Gordy Knudtson drumming, there’s a strong Crescent city jazz/funk flavor to this song that takes the actual melodic structure of it to another level. Miller himself seems right at home in this particular musical setting. And its actually among my personal favorite things I’ve heard Steve Miller record.
Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.
As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.
Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.
“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s musical output and history is such a vast subject, I find it somewhat intimidating to write about. The Tampa native and his trumpet playing brother Nat were playing with Ray Charles in the early 40’s. After his musical studies and years of band leading positions, he was noticed by Miles Davis for his blues rooted approach to the sax. His works with Miles included albums such as Milestones and the modal jazz classic Kind Of Blue. Miles’ musical journeys, from avant garde to electric jazz fusion, continued to inspired Adderley’s own music until his passing in 1975.
One idea that Cannonball and his brother Nat did at different times in the early 70’s were a pair of albums with their own groups with the subject matter being a lighthearted look at astrology. That was the side of Cannonball and Nat Adderley’s artistry that I’m most familiar with. Another album of Cannonball that was played around the household a lot was a 1973 album called Inside Straight. It was a live in the studio session recorded at the Fantasy studios in Berkeley, California. The song that got my attention right from the get go on the album is the opening title song.
Roy McCurdy’s in the pocket drumming gets the groove going at 88 bpm, with Hal Galper’s Fender Rhodes and Walter Booker’s bass clomping along rhythmically right along with it. Cannonball plays an equally rhythmic 12 bar blues melody in his classic style over this-giving the song a strongly themed chorus. He improvises on this theme for much of the second minute of the song. On the second chorus of the song, someone (likely Cannonball) is making a squawking, almost flatulent like vocal horn effect. The choral theme of the intro fades out the song.
“Inside Straight” is just the kind of hard bop/soul jazz/funk process type of groove that shows how vital Cannonball’s music was in the early 70’s. Especially in terms of the evolution of jazz into the funk era. The groove itself is very straight forward and clear-its relatively slow tempo allowing Cannonball’s funky improvisations to really take flight. It really embodies how distinct Cannonball’s approach to sax was to allow it to evolve. That common ground between he and Miles Davis’s approach to music is really what makes this such a standout Cannonball Adderley number for me.
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.
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.
Steely Dan’s 1980 album Gaucho had its rough patches in terms of productions. Started only months after the release of their Aja album in 1977, there were some major issues that hampered the sessions. Two revolved around the now late Walter Becker. One had to do with his increasing drug problem. The other had to do with a traffic accident that sent Becker to the hospital. And into six months of recovery. Donald Fagen collaborated with him via phone during that time. The album finally came out just a little over three years after its predecessor-in November of 1980.
Even for all that and a number of legal battles over the album title from Keith Jarrett, Gaucho continued Steely Dan’s peak of musical excellent. It would be their final studio album for twenty years. And that was just fine for most people. It was one of the few newer albums my parents had in their record collection during my own early years. Most of my life, the song from it I was most familiar with was “Hey Nineteen”. By the time its followup Two Against Nature came out, I began to explore Gaucho even deeper. And that’s how I discovered what’s likely my favorite song on it called “Glamour Profession”.
Steve Gadd’s straight up dance beat sets the pace right away. Its accompanied by Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano and Anthony Jackson’s counter melodic bass hump. Before the refrain comes in, Tom Scott’s Lyricon and Michael Brecker’s sax play a nighttime friendly horn chart. During the refrains and chorus, Steve Khan plays some bluesy jazz guitar riffs. He also gets time for a solo just before the vocal bridge of the song-where the song changes key for a bar or so. The song fades out on an extended instrumental refrain with Khan’s soloing taking precedence.
“Glamour Profession” is likely the coolest song (and only one as I recall) about a fading basketball player’s involvement in an elaborate drug deal I’ve ever heard. Donald Fagen’s lyrics are as poetically cryptic as usual. Its also an amazing “dazz” song-its disco jazz flavor enhanced by the jazzy chords of the guitar,bass and processed Rhodes part that define the song. The production and melody are the sonic equivilent of clear glossy lacquer. The sound is slick and slippery. Yet is also full of weight and texture. And surely one of Steely Dan’s many fine musical moments of their original run.
Wilton Felder was far more to me than a founding member of the Crusaders. And even that was an great accomplishment. He set the precedence along with David Sanborn for the top session sax king of the late 60’s and early 70’s. He was pretty much Joni Mitchell’s go to guy for sax during her mid/late 70’s jazz explorations. He even told the Virginian Pilot in 2006 that her music was just fun to play for him. Of course his session work also extended to electric bass. An ongoing project that myself, Henrique Hopkins and Calvin Lincoln have been on is to figure out just how many sessions Wilton played on.
Today, wanted to talk a little about Felder’s solo career. It started out with the soundtrack to the 1969 Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. Since my father described the album as one which turned him away from Felder’s solo albums, I didn’t actively pursue it. But he did record a number of solo albums in the late 70’s to the late 80’s. These were done concurrently with Crusaders releases and under their production moniker. I have three of them on vinyl. One of them is a 1983 LP entitled Gentle Fire. It contains one song I’ll be talking to about today entitled “Summer Nights In Rio”.
The Afro Latin drums and percussion starts off the songs-courtesy of drummer Rayford Griffin and one of Rio’s finest in Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. A liquid guitar and thumping bass solo accompany it. Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements come into the mix at that point. These horns play over an extended, chordally complex melodic movement with fellow Crusader Joe Sample providing the Fender Rhodes. Felder’s solos, ranging from higher pitched to deeper tones, occupy most of the songs middle before an extended chorus fades it out.
“Summer Nights In Rio” represents the very best aspects of Brazilian jazz/funk fusion. Felder,Da Costa, Joe Sample and (with six musicians between both instruments) the bass and guitarist on this song are all seemingly experiencing a great deal of joy in playing it. Its strongly based in Felder’s sax solos. At the same time, everyone playing with him are focusing on beautiful melodic and rhythmic dynamics. It showcased how that well oiled Crusaders sound of the late 70’s and early 80’s remained a major aspect of Felder’s solo albums as well.