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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Splash” by Randy Brecker & Eliane Elias

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.

 

 

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78 On The Longplay: ‘All Fly Home’ by Al Jarreau

Al Jarreau’s first three albums,including one amazing live set the previous year all earned him a lot of critical acclaim. At the same time Al seemed to be seeking the same sort of commercial success he had overseas in his own country. Somehow it seemed that succeeding in jazz in American meant succeeding mainly with writers and critics. Which may have a little to do with why so many fans of the music began leaving it behind. So the best compromise for Al, who had no intention of abandoning his home grown vocal and writing talent,was through the sounds of soul and funk music.

The songs were flexible enough to allow for a lot of uncut jazz influence. But were,at least during the 70’s anyway also able to offer the possibility of American radio play and chart success. Al Jarreau wasn’t the only one taking this route. And as we all know the writers and critics had a field day of negativity with the idea. But creatively it wasn’t unsound and helped create at least a couple sub genres of music along the way: fusion and later smooth jazz. But what does this say for Al himself? Happily to my ears, this is one of the finest overall records Al Jarreau made in the 70’s.

Part of it is he’s still very much in his early and more jazz oriented phase. But he’s bringing somewhat more of a pop flavor into it too. “Thinkin’ About It Too” and “Wait A Little While” are sprightly uptempo pop/funk tunes-filled with somewhat abstract bass synthesizers,strong melodies and guess what? That vocal is still Al Jarreau being every bit himself. On “I’m Home” and “I Do” he’s back in his mainstay 70’s element: spare, electric piano based jazzy ballads that emphasize his style of vocalese. “Brite N’ Sunny Babe” and “All” both bring this bassy, mid tempo EWF/Charles Stepney style production.

Within this high level of musical joy,  there’s also a version of the sad Lennon/McCartney pop standard “She’s Leaving Home”. I don’t know why people don’t seem to like it. Al, doing his own harmonies same as McCartney on the original, sings the song with just the right amount of shock,regret and disappointment the lyrics require.On the more abstract of interpretations is the closing “Sittin On The Dock Of The Bay”. Done up in this startlingly unique stop and start funk-jazz arrangement Al completely re-harmonizes the song almost all in the minor chords.

For an album intended as something with more crossover potential compared to his earlier recordings, its very much in line with those albums for many reasons. All Fly Home’s primary focus is still on self written vocal numbers- based primarily in jazz. And any influences of pop, R&B, funk or anything else in the music really never takes away from the main focus. This is probably one of his most successful albums in terms of his crossover period in that regard.  If there are contemporary elements strongly at work here, you can tell Al Jarreau and his band are still firmly in control.

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Anatomy of Two Late Funkateers: “Money’s Hard To Get” by The Temptations

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.

 

 

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Hugh Masekela 1939-2018: “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” (1984)

Hugh Masekela’s passing, occurring after suffering for a time with prostate cancer, reminded me of what an vital musical figure Masekela was to Apartheid era South Africa. Because of the racist political environment afflicting America at the moment, it felt appropriate to talk about Masekela’s musical life shortly after it all came to an end for him. He was born in Kwa-Guqa Township, the son of a health inspector and a social worker. He began playing piano as a child, but switched to the trumpet having been inspired by seeing the America film The Young Man With The Horn.

Masekela’s life was always politically enshrined. His first trumpet was given to him by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston-anti-apartheid chaplain at the St. Peter’s Secondary School. From his time in Johannesburg’s “native” Municipal Brass Band  through his time with Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in 1956, Masekela’s music became reflected of the inhumanity (and resulting struggles) of black South African’s under the racist system of Apartheid. He and his future wife Miriam Mekeba also toured the UK together as part of South Africa’s first blockbuster theatrical success King Kong.

By the 60’s he was recording and touring as a leader-with he and Mekeba even giving sanctuary to now radically anti apartheid exchange students. And of course having a major crossover hit instrumental with “Grazing In The Grass” on the international stage in 1968. As a flugelhornist and cornetist, his African jazz sound evolved along with the funk and disco eras to come. Reconnecting with many South African musicians in the early to mid 80’s, one song he recorded in 1984 was called “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby”. It was re recorded later. But for this occasion, I wanted to take about its original version.

Bongani Nxele’s in the pocket drums are assisted by what was likely Masekela playing the majority of the other instruments. The core if it consists of fast paced percussion and laser like synth bass stabs-all before a higher pitched synth pad takes over. Then Banjo Mosele’s rhythm guitar adds rhythmic heft. On the chorus, a quartet of female backup singers accompany Masekela’s horn. On the bridge, that horn solo takes on an echoing psychedelic affect-with a proto house music piano. Starting out the songs fading chorus, Masekela himself provides a rap before the backup singers reprise that chorus.

What brings this mix of the original “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” to life for me is what it meant for the African musical spectrum during the mid 80’s. In its original form, this is a song that represents an Afrocentric variation on the synth pop/new wave variety of dance/funk that was already permeating the clubs of London (which Masekela had already dealt with in the 60’s) as well as the US. Masekela’s jazzy touches and nod to hip-hop with his activist style rapping of ” you’re a winner when you beat the game” give “Don’t Go Lose It, Baby” a strong musical and political relevance from its time.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Save Your Love (For #1)” by Rene & Angela

Angela Winbush has had an astounding musical journey. Its started in churches in her native St. Louis.  After a time singing to finance architectural studies, she began studying  with gospel legend Richard Smallwood. It was from there to stints with Mtume and Stevie Wonder’s Wonderlove. That proved a training ground for Winbush’s talents at songwriting/composition-as well as producing and arranging. She teamed up with fellow singer/producer Rene Moore, the brother of Rufus’s bassist Bobby Watson. The duo recorded four albums together between 1980 and 1985 before perusing solo careers.

Before the (eventually) legal recriminations that broke the duo up, Rene and Angela also embarked on a career of writing/producing for other female talent. Namely the first four songs on Janet Jackson’s self titled debut album in 1982. The duo’s final album, 1985’s  Street Called Desire is their post popular. And features contributions from Quincy Jones alumni in producer Bruce Swedien and Paulinho Da Costa. As well as Jeff Lorber and the majority of Rufus. The albums opening song is one of my favorites on the album. Its entitled “Save Your Love (For #1)”.

An industrial sounding orchestral synth riser opens up the song-just before its basic groove kicks into heavy gear. That groove is based around a brittle 808 drum machine-with ringing cowbell effects. Not to mention guest star Kurtis Blow rapping the chorus. Along with a 3 note synth bass line and pulsing, razor like synthesizer. This makes up most of both the refrains and choruses of the song-with Winbush and Moore’s vocal exchanges making up for most of the melody.  On that chorus,  Da Costa’s percussion and some gigantic swelling synths take over before the song fades out on an extended chorus.

“Save Your Love (For #1)” is naked funk of the most transitional kind. Its sound anticipates the stripped down, beat based sound of second generation recorded hip-hop. While in terms of the rhythm, it maintains a heavy freestyle funk ethic that’s tonally sharp and cutting. Of the two voices, Winbush delivers the husky soul vocals. While Moore comes at it from the higher pitched, romantic croon. On the musical, vocal and conceptual level, “Save Your Love (For #1)” brings together different approaches to soul and funk that make its very approach fairly unique and special.

 

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Bridges’ by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

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Gil Scott-Heron released this album at a very key time for his particular creative bent. This came out during the beginning of the disco era and for many, outside the influence of the Philly sound, there just didn’t seem to be too much room for complex sociological dialog in the music. There were songs with MESSAGES, yes. But in terms of the deep poetic insights you’d find from someone such as Gil Scott? It all seemed to be getting away from us at a time when it was needed most.

Heron was intensely aware of these changes in music. And had every intention of maintaining his vision and style. Even in the face of so many uncertain changes in the music industry. This album was recorded using TONTO, the massive synthesizer complex that had worked miracles for Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers during their early/mid 70’s height. Even at this point,  it was all too easy for this huge instrumental complex to create a sound that was both very much in the now and futuristic.

And musically, Bridges is indeed futuristic sounding funk for the people . Aside from Brian Jackson’s multi instrumental talents, the Fender Rhodes as well as the sound of the massive TONTO weaves it’s electronic, bubbling chords and bass lines into the musical tapestry to create unique sounds. Just as much as what Stevie and the Isley’s had done with the same instrument. The mood it sets goes right along with the emotional accompaniment of Gil Scott’s vocal style. The bass oriented sounds in the production is pushed up front. And the improvised jazz-funk element gets the same effect.

Song wise the album ranges from uptempo, positive spirited melodic funk such as “Hello Sunday! Hello Road”, the amazing “Racetrack In France” and “Under The Hammer” to slower and richly varied in texture and melody type tunes such as “Vildgolia (Deaf,Dumb & Blind,”We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Delta Man”. The range of subject matter of these songs (as usual with Gil Scott) is densely layered-ranging from enlightening muses both the concept of prejudice itself to the escape from it. Along with the usual historical contexts.

Songs such as the acapella “Tuskegee #626” tackle a well known historical atrocity (in this case the Tuskegee Experiments) but does so with a very bright and almost sunny melody. This showcases Heron’s understand of the very sharp contrasts in the lifestyles of not only the African American culture. But how it also extends those contrasts into other aspects of life for Americans of other nationalities. This welcoming, humanistic album would be followed the more darkly reflective Secrets- also using TONTO for that as well.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had certainly proved their meddle in terms of how they were able to continue adapting their art their own way during an era. An era when artists were losing more and more control of what they did. And when you listen to this, and realize the influence it’s had on so much musical poetry and the hip-hop world today, (and Gil Scott is for all intents and purposes a hip-hop artist anyway) than you know your in for something very special and meaningful.

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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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Funkentelechy Vs. Four Decades: P-Funk Set On Mood Control, Even For Those Who Can’t Afford Free Speech

How many times have I heard how important the Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome album was? And how many times have I walked passed this album? Even to the point of buying the CD and (at first) returning it because I felt the sound quality was bad? Funkentelechy has the distinction of being both a transitional P-Funk album-as well as a transitional for Parliament on its own. Before this album, Parliament was largely built around it’s horn/rhythm section rather then layers of keyboard/guitar solos. That element is a key part of this album as well with of course “Bop Gun” and the title song.

From there, things get even more interesting very fast. “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” not only serves to introduce an important P-Funk character conception to the scene but also the kind of tune that builds from the ground up into a Clinton style variation of “Three Blind Mice”. Thematically this album is a lot different than Mothership Connection. Whereas that albums concept was fairly implicit the band apparently had decided at this juncture that few were getting the point so the Sir Nose character and the story they built around him said it all.

Sir Nose’s story was that the sense of funk in music was being replaced by the “placebo syndrome”. And that it was spilling into areas outside music too. Unusually enough, there are two songs here that seem to have to do with P-Funk’s new music. While conceptually “Wizard Of Finance” and “Placebo Syndrome” are right in tune with the album, and are full of Clinton’s renowned wit, they connect more musically with his past-with their shuffling doo-wop sound. As with everything else on this album it’s Bootsy who carries this album along with the vocal harmonies and horns as usual.

Of course, the album ends with both eyes on the future with one of the bands best known numbers “Flashlight”. Thanks largely to the late Bernie Worrell’s layers of bass synthesizer, the song showcases the sound most people will tend to think of in terms of P-Funk;rhythmically dense,relatively mid tempo and very electronic. It’s the P-Funk sound that would define Parliament to the end. While Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome may not be quite as defining musically as some other Parliament albums due to its  transitional nature, it does its job on that end in terms of conceptual realization.

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Funky Reflections On 1987: ‘The Right Night And Barry White’

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Personally I don’t think it’s possible to count how many times I’ve seen this CD on the racks of the local record store and never been moved by or aware enough of it to pay any mind. One key issue that had me re-thinking this oversight was a blog written by my oft quoted friend Henrique about an excellent song from this album. It again provided a strong reminder just how much funky music charted high both on radio and with the public during 1987. So it all gave me to understand that this was an album that I DEFINITELY wanted to check out. After doing so? It also shows just how much I missed out on not looking into this from the outset.

“Good Dancin’ Music” and “Sho You Right”,the song the directed me back to this album are both hard hitting,bass synth driven electro funk extravaganza’s with some of the most intricate uses of instrumental harmony I’ve ever heard. “As Time Goes By” is transformed from it’s original ballad style to percussive cinematic funky soul number with a sauntering Caribbean vibe. “For Your Love (I’ll Do Anything)” is a slow crawling,slap bass driven groove while songs such as “There’s A Place Where Love Never Ends”,”Love In Your Eyes”,”I’m Ready For Love”,”Share”,”Who’s The Fool” and the nostalgic title song all fall into his classic ballad style.

This album did an amazing job of showcasing how the more electronic instrumentation of the time was still perfectly able to support the man’s arrangements-especially as well integrated it all was. The music ideas and classic romantic monologues are all used to full affect on here as well. During the years I was growing up? Even if they were coming out fairly close together? Each and every new Barry White album was treated as a major comeback-almost as if he’d somehow disappeared off the map between those releases. In any case? This is one of those albums that I truly wished had been a part of my musical life a lot longer than it has been.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mick’s Company” by The Style Council

Michael “Mick” Talbot could be described as the man who, even prior to James Taylor, pioneered the revival of Hammond organ based soul/funk on the British musical scene. In the late 70’s, Talbot played in a trio of mod revivalist bands. The best known of them in the end would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Mick of course found his voice with Paul Weller as The Style Council. They embraced an often jazz laced blend of contemporary funk,soul and dance music’s. All inspired by Weller and Talbot’s mutual goal to musically shatter the myths and culture of the rock music world.

The band released their debut EP in 1983 in several countries except for the UK,                interestingly enough. The following year they released their be bop and hip-hop laced full length debut Cafe Bleu. On both these releases, a precedence was set for including Talbot composed Hammond organ based instrumentals into different sections of the albums. One of my favorites was originally featured as the B-side to the 1984 single version of the song “My Ever Changing Moods”. The name of this particular instrumental had a cute wordplay about it: “Mick’s Company”.

Talbot starts off the song playing an ultra funky riff-doubling up what sounds like a Clavinet setting on a DX-7 synthesizer-all before Hammond organ swirl breaks into the drum roll right into the song. The main theme is this Clavinet effect played with a round synth bass pumping heavy behind it. And Talbot’s bluesy organ playing a counter solo to the introductory synth riff. There are two B sections of the songs where it changes chords. And the organ solo becomes more elaborate. Talbot improvises more and more on the organ as the song processes towards its fade out.

“Mick’s Company”, perhaps the most of Mick Talbot’s organ based instrumentals with the Style Council, really epitomize a somewhat under explored instrumental funk direction for the 1980’s. It combines the bluesy song structure and organ improvising of hard bop/soul jazz, the guitar like Clavinet based sound of the 70’s and mixes both together with a mid 80’s digitized synthesizer/bass oriented approach. It really encapsulates the previous three decades of instrumental soul/funk in under 3 minutes. In the end, it helped give the Style Council their distinctive spin on funk and soul  for the 80’s.

 

 

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