Tag Archives: Soul

Keep Your Head To The Sky: A Tribute To Earth, Wind & Fire’s Fourth Album As Philip Bailey Turns 66

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Earth Wind & Fire are one of those groups who have a number of distinct musical periods. They’re all pretty hard to define by name and sometimes pass very quickly but,much as with James Brown and The Beatles before them they always had a way of getting people on board with them. One important thing this album did do was solidify the bands classic lineup more so than the highly transitional Columbia debut Last Days & Time had. At this phase of their career, EWF  hadn’t fully developed the distinction they had on albums such as That’s the Way of the World.

Still the musical flourishes of then newcomers in Maurice and Verdine’s brother Fred-along with main drummer Ralph Johnson, Johnny Graham and Al McKay really give a lot of body to this music.  This album was also the step off point from where Earth, Wind & Fire went from being a more raw dog soul/funk band into one that had a certain type of lushness in the production. The one important thing to note here is that Charles Stepney hadn’t yet become involved in the production of the band yet so we find Maurice and company having to find there own way around production slickness.

One thing to be noted about this album is that there is a very intense Latin-jazz flavor to most of the music on this album;one can here the influences of similarly flavored jazz-funk then being turned out by Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith during this period on songs such as “Evil”,”Clover”,featuring Phillip Bailey singing in his lowest voice possible and the en longed instrumental version of Sergio Mendes’s tune “Zanzibar. Not only do all of these songs feature a lot of spiritually pastoral lyrical metaphors. The cover art to this album reflects the mood of the music quite well in this particular regard.

But this is also music that likewise seems to grow in terms of chord progressions and musical inventiveness. This is one of the most thoroughly instrumentally based album EWF probably ever made and even Maurice White once pointed out how this music put the band into sync with the best instrumentalists of that era. Of course, heavily reverbed,breezy psychedelic soul type mid tempo ballads such as “Keep Your Head To The Sky”,an early EWF hit and “The World’s A Masquerade” add a good change of pace to the proceedings.

“Build Your Nest” is one of the best early examples of the type of slick yet heavy bottomed funk they band would make their trademark with shortly. The elements in the music that are still being worked out are the fact the band still have a quirkiness that’s actually very random. For example-at the end of the song “Clover” someone is making a very mournful sound which is rather pained. And it provides an eerie contrast to the beautiful grooves that predominate most of this album. Maybe it was a fluke or someone’s reminder of some of the darker elements of the early 70’s

Its that and other such aspects that sets keeps Head To The Sky  apart from what’s to come. And perhaps that is why it’s one of only a few 70’s EWF titles currently out of print domestically-because of it’s sense of floating between being musical creative and commercially viable. Its also the one EWF album of the 70’s where horn charts are not a heavy priority in the production. No matter how you cut it, Head To The Sky remains one of this bands most potently creative albums and for an example of the artistry of Earth Wind & Fire this might be an excellent place to go even as a starting point.

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James Brown-Live At The Apollo, Round Two On Record, At Nearly Half a Century

James Brown’s career had a major turning point during 1967-68. Musically speaking,h is songs were not only taking on a completely different character instrumentally. But in terms of format? He had gone from 3-4 minute doo-wop soul balladry to extended,horn based dance jams that were getting their rhythmic character from Latin boogaloo and African high life music. This, of course was known as funk. With the recent passing of John “Jabo” Starks, who played in tandem with the late Clyde Stubblefield during this period very heavily, it seemed a good time to discuss JB’s own funk process onstage.

The “funk process” was entering it’s peak for James Brown. As was his sociopolitical consciousness and activity. During the summer of love, and the emergence of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, many black American’s in the early/mid 30’s even at the time were still very much in love with the suited up, processed haired JB. One who was a dramatic, gospel fueled soul balladeer. While his persona was still in the same place, James Brown’s second live recording at the Apollo would have to serve to illustrate the change in perception of his artistry.

The album begins with an introduction that goes into a faster tempo’d,heavy grooving version of “Think”, where James duets with the sassy Marva Whitney. “I Want To Be Around” and “That’s Life” are both ballad standards making strong use of orchestration and his Famous Flames. “Kansas City” is done at a very fast tempo and in a different key than I usually hear this sometimes over covered song played in. It is through “Let Yourself Go”,”There Was A Time” and “I Feel Alright” are an elongated,bass/guitar driven funky process all it’s on that leads to…”Cold Sweat” of course-his big record at the time.

After an equally furious tempo on “It May Be The Last Time” and a brief intro of “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, JB goes into an elongated version of “Prisoner Of Love”-similar in approach to “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Lost Someone” later in the album. “Bring It Up” has another a very fast tempo similar to “Please Please Please”, which concludes the album. “”Try Me” meanwhile is done more traditionally.  I once heard this  album described as erratic it sounding- likely because it emphasized extended soul ballads rather than focusing on JB’s funk innovations of the late 60’s.
On the surface, there actually is some fact in that. Taking this album out of the literary context and back into the more human one? The fact these ballads are done in 7-10 minutes lengths is musically futurist for soul as well-anticipating the approach Barry White and Isaac Hayes would take several years later on conceptually thick studio albums with a similar style format. Likewise, the shorter uptempo numbers (which are often combined together here) anticipated the musical formats of the disco era medley’s that would show up within a decade from this albums release.
Also, this allowed more vocal oriented fans of James Brown to acclimate to the idea of extended runs. Also,when the funk is on fire here? It’s SERIOUSLY on fire-probably because it was performed as it was being innovated. Not to mention how these JB’s musical innovations were generally closely linked with his live performances. Combined with James’ grateful, appreciative and loving interaction with the audience? This is also JB’s key transitional moment as a performer-as he was further emphasizing the instrumental sound of the JB’s more then the vocal centered one of the Famous Flames.

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Silk & Soul Of Nina Simone!

Nina Simone had a very strong 1967 in the recording studio. She began the year with her Nina Simone Sings the Blues album. And then released this album during the Summer Of Love. It featured the same basic musicians as the previous album with Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie. However her musical priorities were somewhat different here. She was not putting quite the same emphasis on her own self written material here. Not only that but she wasn’t laying her heart and soul bare with a sense of instrumental grit and passion.

Realizing that old adage of those who won’t hear an angry shout straining to here a whisper, Nina put another side of herself on display with this time. One she was very adept at,but very much in contrast to what had come before. More over this is an album defined more by highlights than an overall concept. “It Be That Way Sometime” starts off the album with a strangely melodically steady brassy soul number,full of orchestration and horns. “Go To Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” again find her questioning in fine piano based gospel/soul spirit her own desires and necessity.

Those necessary desires ranged from injustice to redemption. On interpretations on “Cherish” and “The Look Of Love”,she dives headlong into her unique range for for two versions of these songs that are very vocally individual in terms of how he projects them. “Some Say” finds her returning to the deeply horn based soul that began the album. “Turning Point” is actually a favorite of mine-basically a show tune telling the story of how children are taught racial hatred. Her one original here “Consummation” is an all out show stopper,a theatrically orchestrated and sung number.

Her one original song here “Consummation” is a theatrically orchestrated and sung number-with Nina holding some very loud notes that go into the nature of human consciousness itself. More musically diverse and positioned for crossover attention than her previous release of the year, this album showcases how Nina’s talents had the potential to be very outreaching. At the same time often too individual to crossover to everybody. One would tend to either be reached intimately by her music or not. Since her music tends to have the latter effect on people, its probably a moot point in the end.

 

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Bettye LaVette-Thankful ‘N Thoughtful: 2012

Bettye LaVette’s career is an example how it often seems that soul, in the context of a genre of music, refers mainly to a type of singing and playing.  You can have the right singing,the right playing and somehow it just isn’t quite soul. It’s very much a literal term. Very much an individual conception. LaVette here has a new book out,and one knows she has a lot of stories to tell. But I know two things for sure: her recording career was stalled for decades. And he has a reputation for being a headstrong personality with an enormous sense of conviction in the tradition of all the greats in the genre.

This album,celebrating her half century in the “biz” is musically dedicated to all the music that inspired her along the way. For starters,this album is extraordinarily funkified. In a very deep, southern way too-filled with heavily revered drums, electric guitar, bass and keyboards. Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken”, “I’m Not The One”, “The More I Search )The More I Die”, “Fair Enough” and “Time Will Do The Talking” all showcase this predominantly. Her take on “Dirty Old Town” seems to almost illustrate her own attitude and is presented here in two versions,the later longer and far more spare.

The rhythm goes up on the very heavily funky “I’m Tired”, and actually goes very much the opposite direction on the night time bluesy soul of “Crazy” and “Yesterday Is Here”. Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” gets a countrified treatment whereas Sly’s title song goes more to the gospel roots of the song. One appealing thing about LaVette right off the bat is that,as an interpretive singer,she never veers from altering the song lyrics in certain ways to personalize it, have it make more sense that she’s singing them.

On the other hand all the songs selected for thing album already make sense in terms of her doing them. And considering that this is the first full length Bettye LaVette album I’ve ever heard? The fact that comes out so strongly even for a relative newcomer (such as myself ) speaks volumes for her ability to grab the attention of the largely uninitiated. Also it helps if one is a music lover getting into more interpretive singers at a given time anyway as I am at this point. Even still the overall effect I get from this is that I’d never have known they weren’t originals given her take on them.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ by Van Morrison

Van Morrison followed his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher  with one of his best albums of the decade. And perhaps one of the grandest achievements of his career. This album found Van reaching back into the flavors that has made his music such a treasure and creating a musical tapestry that will stick right to your soul. In fact there are elements of this album that do recall his breakthrough twenty years before this with the genre defying/defining Astral Weeks. The music is a mix of mid,down and uptempo songs with a strong jazz and classic pop flavor.

This man is not only someone mindful of blues/R&B. But on this album,  he is clearly bringing the breezy orchestral pop/jazz flavors of Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach before him. Van plays piano,sax,harmonica and guitar throughout this album and on the back of the CD you’ll find little pictures of Van playing these instruments. That is kind of appropriate for this album as it starts of with a lushly orchestrated jazzy sax instrumental “Spanish Skies”,perfect for an evening at a really elegant cafe or night spot or just a stroll on a warm moonlit evening with a loved one perhaps.

The like minded instrumental “Celtic Excavation” showcases the same flavor and both tunes are significant highlights of this album. There are of course plenty of his classic mid tempo Celtic soul type tunes in “The Mystery”, “Queen Of The Slipstream”, “I Forgot That Love Existed”, “Give Me The Rapture” and “Allow Me”. These songs all have more of a jazz/nightclub type groove than anything on the more folk influenced arrangements on the previous album. And are very much a production update of Van’s classic sound he made so distinctive for himself during the 70’s.

His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is  a  beautiful expression of the joy and pain of personal isolation. And the arrangement here carries the song right along from start to finish. “Alan Watts Blues” is one of the more rhythmic songs here that actually has a light jazz-pop-funk flavor to it. In some ways, it recalls some similarly styled music on his 1980 album Common One. One song that stuck out strongly to me was “Did You Get Healed?”. As soon as I heard the upbeat soul/gospel rhythm and the melodic female backup vocals I realized this is a song  before.

Had heard “Did You Get Healed?”  many times as young man, in fact. Played around the house by my father. It struck me as a hummable tune I’d enjoyed. And had  now found it’s way back into my life. . In terms of his output of this decade this album is one of his musically most  strong and rich. All of the songs on this album will likely take you into a musical experience-with their fluid sound and depth of soul. And along with the many great icons of soul, I cannot think of many artists I’ve listened to over the years who’ve been able to produce the same accomplishment seemingly at a whim.

 

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘The Cost Of Loving’ by The Style Council

The Cost Of Loving is an album that I’ve heard many times. And have a special affinity for. Paul Weller’s earlier records for with the Style Council were fairly diverse musically  And they met with mixed results from both fans and critics. . For the most part, the results of this album commercially weren’t mixed. And they weren’t that great either.  Its possible that lack of accolades this album receives has to do with this music by and large is not only uptempo. But is based in different varieties of funk. The Style Council themselves went through an interesting process in the conception of this album too.

Some of the tracks from this album were also featured in a short film The Style Council made called JerUSAlem.  The album itself was recorded in the autumn of 1986. But was released early in 1987. And its overall sound is very much bound to the international musical explosions pf that year. Obviously inspired by the music that Jam & Lewis were putting out during this time period “It Didn’t Matter” resulted in,musically one of the finest singles the band had put together thus far with it’s strong synth bass line,rhythm guitar and fairly slow dance beat-great in the mid 80’s funk context.

“Right To Go” is just out and out funk with one of the finest and most obvious bass lines of any of their songs and features an Reagan/Thatcher-based political rap by the UK’s own Dynamic Three. “Heavens Above” ups the tempo a bit and concentrates heavily on the drumming and the rhythm and a well executed use of horns. On “Fairy Tales” and the title song there’s a bit more of a balance between the slower beat and the horn oriented sound. There are also three ballads here in “Waiting”,which is beautifully structured 80′ soul in the same way as the Dee C Lee sung “Angel” and “A Woman’s Song” are.

Perhaps it was the heavy funk and R&B content from someone like Weller, who apparently had other expectations of himself, from the following he had earlier. Earlier Style Council music by and large focused on 60’s R&B and soul-jazz. With only the occasional nod to this type of music. And with very sleek production as well. However this album thoroughly acknowledged the 70’s in the music. And because of the closeness to that decade maybe it wasn’t given the kind of recognition it  deserves. Especially considering the high quality of the songwriting,musicianship and general atmospherics.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Touch The World’ by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had slowly declined in commercial success during the early 80’s. But even then? They still had enough momentum from their still recent classic run of the late 70’s to sustain them creatively and with the public. Still, the pressures of losing members due to creative differences, plus the effects of the post disco freeze out, was beginning to take it’s tole on a band who’d always been able to adapt to musical changes at every point.

In 1987 the bands core Maurice and Verdine White, Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Andrew Woolfolk were convinced by Columbia to reunite. They added guitarists Sheldon Reynolds, fresh from The Commodores and Dick Smith along with drummer Sonny Avery and a brand new horn section called the Earth Wind & Fire horns. The result is probably the first major comeback album experienced in my personal memory.

“System Of Survival” begins the album with with a very fast paced horn packed call and response type modern dance/funk jam dealing with the disintegrating effects of Reagan era trickle down economics. “Evil Roy” is an even harder edged,somewhat slower tempo’d groove with a strong bass/guitar interaction illustrating the slice of life tale of a drug pusher.

“Thinking Of You” is a kalimba-led melodic pop-jazzy jam with some creamy vocal exchanges from Maurice and Phillip.”You And I”,”Every Now And Then” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are all mid-tempo,melodic funk ballads that function as an update of the Charles Stepney era EWF school of balladry. “New Horizons” references samples of songs like “Shinning Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World”,”Reasons”,Serpentine Fire” and “Magnetic” before going into a fast paced,digitized synthesizer jazz-fusion led by an Andrew Woolfolk sax solo.

“Money Tight” is a stomping,electrified hard funk number dealing with the matter of unemployment. The title song is a shuffling mid tempo gospel number-featuring White,Bailey and Reynolds vocally illustrating how individual people’s lives of turmoil effect others. “Victim Of The Modern Heart” has a powerfully jazzy melodic exchange and another show stopping vocal from Bailey.

This album is one of those that I had the privilege to experience the moment it came out. It was an enormous family event when the cassette tape was bought into the this. “System Of Survival” and “Evil Roy” were showing up on the FM dial on car rides around the town while my father gave me the chance to tune into the music videos to these songs via Friday Night Videos. It was a proud experience for me, a young man growing up in semi rural Northeast Maine in the mid/late 1980’s, to hear music that not only had a strong social consciousness but offered hope for a better future.

It’s proud to know that this album might’ve been a successful entry point to EWF for people of the late Gen X age group living in areas that may not have had access to see them in a concert setting,and where funky music wasn’t as emphasized in the culture. Overall,a very successful entry for EWF into being able to fully integrate electronics into what amounts to a total revisit to their classic sound and musical spirit.

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” by Sting

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.

 

 

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There’s No Place Like America Today: Reflections Into This 1975 Curtis Mayfield Album On Independence Day

Curtis Mayfield’s message to America’s black community is a hard one to overstate. As Jerry Butler stated, Mayfield witness the financial exploitation of many an (often illiterate) blues musician in Chicago as he was coming up in the world. He arrived into Record Row in the late 50’s as a teenager-witnessing these “musical sharecroppers” (as Butler referred to it as) basically having to “sing for their supper” by gigging just to earn a living. As the 60’s came in, Curtis Mayfield became one of the first black American musical figures to change that for himself. And as an example for others to come.

Half a century later, America is still in many ways a developing nation. Its still an autocratic nation in many ways. With many marginalized people remaining so in a nation that should have plenty for all of them. For thoughtful people such as myself,this might make Independence Day difficult to celebrate these days. In 1975, Curtis Mayfield released There’s No Place Like America Today-an album that addressed such concerns.  Its cover art is based on a photograph of black flood victims in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. Here’s my review from a couple of years ago about the album.


From what I’ve heard of the man from the beginning of his solo career onward? Curtis Mayfield’s music focused on sociopolitical matters from the point of view of a storyteller. He’d basically tell the tale in his poetically strong manner, and than make either make passing observations or ask a rhetorical question. Always with the idea of setting things up for positive change.

After the events of Watergate and the ensuing oil crisis in the mid 70’s? Curtis’s thematic focus was beginning to change from one of implied optimism to one of the need to face the harsher realities head on, and as they were. From the cover artwork re-imagine a famous photograph onward? This album exemplified the change of focus in Curtis’s music.

“Billy Jack” is a thick,boiling over the edge yet spare jam defined by melodic wah wah bass-with a crying blues guitar backing it up and carried along rhythmically by conga’s and other percussive elements. “When Seasons Change” keeps the that same sound fully intact with a lot more reverb on this very hollow around the middle,but still beautifully crafted hard funk ballad.

“So In Love” brings in the close horns,organ and pretty orchestral strings for a shuffling mid tempo soul ballad. “Jesus” throws down a tick tocking drum with a high liquid bass and yet more organ for a gospel/soul ballad. “Blue Monday People” is another mid-tempo ballad full of that round,reverbed wah wah sound along with the typically powerful melody.

“Hard Times” brings all the elements of the opener for a hard funk number with a strong blues flavor while “Love To The People” brings in both this heavy echoed rhythm section with the orchestration together for a swelling,horn filled mass of funky soulfulness. Over and over again? This album brings in a spare,very glossy funk sound that stands on near perfect ground with the lyrical focus. And of course it finds Curtis taking a look at the darker side of his one conceptual vision.

He is seeing the inequities of racial privilege for exactly what they are. And makes it clear over and over that the black community will have to turn more and more inward to move forward. And that stands on both creative and social grounds as well. Of course with musicians like Phil Upchurch and Henry Gibson as part of Curtom’s backing band of the day? Curtis Mayfield was in just the right place to take his funk to a musically broader and lyrically less certain place.


The idea that America should celebrate its birthday based on unconditionally positive ideas is probably a destructive one. Every year as knowledge becomes broader, American’s learn not only truths of its history. But the less than savory circumstances on its founding. Yet America is also a nation where its democratically based…messiness (as my friend Henrique said once) allows for a lot of positive things to be accomplished.  There’s No Place Like America Today takes this well rounded view of outward and inner human politics and brings it all to the table. And in Curtis’s own funky eloquence too.

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