James Mtume almost seemed to be born into the royal family of funk. Everything seemed to come into place for it. He was born in Philly as the son of jazz sax icon Jimmy Heath. He went on to play with Miles Davis during the last few years before Miles’ late 70’s retirement period. That combination of being a Philadelphia native and having a strong back round is usually the key ingredients in a recipe for a funk icon. At first,Mtume had his mind on athletics. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.
After learning about music somewhat through the jazz musicians coming in and out of his adopted father,local Philly jazz pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman,he had the abilities as a musician to begin his career as a session player on the West Coast by the early 70’s. He recorded a couple of albums as a leader.. These were both in a more free jazz style. In 1978 he’d teamed up with percussionist/arranger/producer Reggie Lucus and formed the funk outfit Mtume. They would hit pay dirt with 1983’s sexy “Juicy Fruit”. Yet one of their most telling grooves is the title song of their 1978 debut album Kiss The World Goodbye.
The drum kicks off the slow,percussive crawl of the rhythm for starts. A grinding guitar plays a funky blues riff that swiftly dovetails into another guitar line-this one a amp’d up rock one. This is assisted by some incredibly phat popping bass playing a lower version of the first guitar riff. This is the main body of the song-one that relies heavily on the one. As the song progresses,these main rhythmic elements are accented by both horn charts and synthesizer squiggles on every other chord or so. And this is how the groove goes on until it all fades out.
Taken as itself,this song is not only a great way for Mtume to debut as a band concept. But it is also so far removed from the electro/boogie sound they’d be known for 6-7 years later that is really showcases their musical arc. Mtume actually had four year gap from 1980 to 1983 where they didn’t record anything. But on this 1978 song,their focus was not only based more in the funk/rock aesthetics of Funkadelic,Ohio Players and Slave but the arrangement on this is especially thick. The instrumentation is so closely mixed,this song is among the most musically dense hard funk of the late 70’s.
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.
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.
Swing Out Sister began life as a UK trio in 1985. This consisted of keyboardist Andy Connell, drummer Martin Jackson and lead singer Corinne Drewery. While both Connell and Jackson had been in the bands A Certain Ratio and Magazine prior to this point, Drewery came from the world of glamour-being a fashion designer and model. This likely helped with their suave image. It was a member of another group called 52 Street, Diane Charlemagne. Connell’s association with her label Factory helped get the band signed. Charlemagne sang on Swing Out Sister’s original demos as well.
The bands debut album Its Better To Travel came out in the spring of 1987. Its jazzy,horn fueled and very catchy debut sing “Breakout” had become a major UK hit in the autumn and early winter of 1986. It happened exactly a year later in the US of course. It was actually only several years ago that I picked up the record on CD. Did so because,while vinyl copies were available to me, the CD contained four bonus tracks. Heard “Breakout” while growing up. And enjoyment of that groove helped me to appreciate another song on the album-their non charting debut single from 1985 called “Blue Mood”.
A theatrical,orchestral crescendo beings the song. Then the popping synth bass line pops in-along with the digital percussion that is soon joined by the electro funk styled drum machine. Bursts of rhythm guitar and MIDI horns leap in and out of the mix on the refrains. For the chorus, the chord changes key to a jazzy,keyboard based melody-coming after a leaner B section of the refrain. There is a bridge of sorts that showcases a frenetic rhythm guitar playing on where the vocal line. An extended chorus closes out the song until it all fades out.
“Blue Mood” combines a number of musical threads of the mid/late 80’s. The base of it comes out of the post disco, techno based club music. Rhythmically however, the song is structured more like an Afro-Latin jazz funk number. Tons big,bouncy percussion and freestyle drums. Accordingly, the melody is strongly based in jazz as well. It goes right in with the jazzier end of the post disco UK club scene-not dissimilar to the work of Basia/Matt Bianco in that regard. Its the emphasis on groove,from both the groove and the singer, that make this song do distinctive for Swing Out Sister.
Michael Jackson began the sessions for Off The Wall, his first solo album produced by Quincy Jones, with the idea that he wanted to separate his adult solo career from what he’d been doing with his brothers. This was a concept he’d already pursued on their previous album Destiny from one year earlier. Talking with my friend Henrique, the then current sound of Barry White interested MJ in 1979-his album The Man and its emphasis on live horns and strings. That is the direction he pursued on the finished album. Early on in the sessions however, the music MJ and Quincy were making was slightly different.
Of course, instrumentally the same West Lake studio crew that worked on this album also played on the Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night. That album was recorded during the same time as Off The Wall, but was released in 1980. So musicians such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton and Toto’s Jeff Porcoro likely switched off from one album session to another. Since Light Up The Night has a more electronic flavor to its grooves, it doesn’t surprise me too much that an early song from the Off The Wall sessions has a similar flavor. And it was called “Sunset Driver”.
The intro features what sound like higher pitched synth horns followed along closely by the drum-beat by beat. The drums then settle into a straight up disco friendly dance beat pounding away. The melody is led by a thick polyphonic synthesizer, with a pumping synth bass underneath it. Chucking right along with it is a scratching wah wah guitar. On the refrains of the songs, the string arrangements ascend and descend with MJ’s vocals. On the choruses, the strings sustain along with the lead synth. On the bridge, the lead synth goes into a more descending pattern before an extended chorus fades out the song.
Upon hearing it shortly following MJ’s passing eight summers ago, “Sunset Driver” emerged as an unreleased song I had trouble placing into MJ’s vast recorded catalog. Its a lot closer to the post disco/boogie funk of a Brothers Johnson song such as “This Had To Be”. Especially with the synthesizer being a far more significant element than it had been on the final cut of Off The Wall. Still with MJ’s dialog near the end of the song saying “that’s it Jerry,that’s nice”, its clear now that this shows MJ in a different and cutting edge electronic dance/funk flavor at the beginning of his adult solo career.
Nesbert “Stix” Hooper is the last surviving member of the band who originally called themselves The Jazz Crusaders. The Houston native spent most of his youth studying music even before any of this occurred. While enrolled at Texas Southern University, Hooper , he got a musical education that most would envy. Everyone from members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra to a number of local professional players. By the time of his peak with the Crusaders, Hooper’s musical excellent touched on everyone from The Rolling Stones,B.B. King and onto London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
What Hooper brought to his drum and percussion work was the in the pocket funk rhythm. And basically helped to shape the sound of what became the jazz-funk subgenre from the outset. As a Crusader,the man was and remains a musical icon. His solo career, consisting of two albums released in 1979 and 1982, didn’t seem to receive the recognition they deserved. Especially having heard them both. The first I got was the 1982 album called Touch The Feeling. My dad pointed it out in a discount vinyl crate to me some years ago. My own favorite cut on it is its final one called “Gimme Some Space”.
Todd Cochran’s huge synthesizer riser fades into the song before the intro comes in. Its a powerful one for sure-with Hooper’s drum hits announcing the horn charts coming at within 3-4 seconds of time between each other. That’s when the entire song kicks in. This consists of Hooper’s huge funky beat, Neil Stubenhaus’s thick slap bass and Larry Carlton wah wah toned bluesy guitar along with Cochran’s synth and the horn section. On the next part, the synths take on a distinctly spacey late 70’s P-Funk air. Everything comes together after that-from the calculated pauses and solos until it actually fades out.
“Gimme Some Space” is one of those funk jams that gives you exactly what the title implies. A good portion of the song relies on adding musical drama with long and calculated silences. That makes it very much in line with the James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield/Jabo Starks type of funk from the late 60’s. That being said, its basic instrumental character comes out of the late 70’s/early 80’s jazz/funk George Duke style take on the P-Funk sound. Its a powerful and strong blend of acoustic and electronic funk ideas that shows how powerful a musical figure Stix Hooper truly is.
Cat Stevens, now known as Yusef Islam, was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London. He was from a Greek and Sweedish back round, from a family of restaurateurs. Adopting the name Cat Stevens by 1966, he began singing in coffee houses before recording a pair of popular albums and singles such as Matthew & Son in the late 60’s. After that, he contracted tuberculosis. And his long recuperation encouraged him to seek holistic therapies to improve his health. This not only effected his spiritual life, which would lead him to the Muslim faith later. But a change in his music focus.
By 1970 Cat Stevens was the UK’s top representative of the signer/songwriter movement. For the next several years songs such as “Lady D’Arbanville”, “Wild World”,”Moon Shadow”,”Peace Train” and “Oh Very Young”. By the mid/late 70’s, Cat Stevens was growing restless with his music and identity yet again-prompted by a near drowning in 1976. A year later he released the album Izitso, which added synthesizers to his musical mix. The hit off the album was “Remember The Days of The Old Schoolyard”. What popped off the album for me though was an instrumental called “Was Dog A Doughnut?”.
A deep electronic pulse that evolves into a spacey synthesizer wobble provides the intro to the song-almost like an introductory fanfare. After that,a four note synth bass melody comes in,at first unaccompanied,to be joined shortly by a spacious 2 beat drum pattern that repeats on the second. A high pitched digital sequencer accompanies this until it evolves into a mid range one playing an extension of the bass part. The sound of a dog part plays a percussive role in between. Chick Corea plays an electric piano solo on the bridge before an extended chorus leads to the song closing with the dog barking sound.
“Was Dog A Doughnut?” is unlike anything I’d personally have ever associated with 70’s Cat Stevens. First heard the song as part of a CD mix by New York DJ Danny Tenaglia that my mother picked up in the early aughts. It got the perhaps expected accusation of being “too robotic” by some rock oriented critics of the late 70’s. But basically, along with Kraftwerk, it provided a jazzy funk tinged addition to the European end of the proto hip-hop/electro sound to come in the 1980’s. Strange a it might seem to some, this very quality make it one my personal favorite Cat Stevens songs.