Tag Archives: synthesizers

Prince’s ‘For You’ At 40 Years: A Debut Of Love, Sincerity & Deepest Care

Prince Rogers Nelson arrived at the tail end of the 70’s-during the era when P-Funk and jazz funk artists such as George Duke (both his musical heroes at the time) were in the throws of their peak grooves. With Stevie Wonder having hit his peak, and Shuggie Otis having not quite reached it,  Prince emerged as the barely 20 year old “wunderkind” from Minneapolis. As with a number of musicians before him,  Prince was insistent on doing it all right from the get go. Writing,producing-even down to playing all the instruments. Musicians like Wonder before him had a decade of preparation to get to that creative independence.

Prince was apparently so confidant in what he was doing, he stipulated all of this in his recording contract before he got started.  What is important on For You is that even in the very beginning, Prince wasn’t trying to change the face of music itself. He definitely had his musical influence. But he didn’t exactly where them on his sleeve either. Instead, he elected to integrate them into his own unique soul/funk style. This album introduced that style of music that would later be called the Minneapolis sound. With Prince playing all the instruments that sounds main trademark was the multi-tracking of synthesizers.

In the late 70’s, Prince’s arsenal of synthesizers included  Oberheim’s, ARP’s and Polymoog’s. These were polyphonic instruments that allowed him to create his own heavily harmonized electronic soul symphonies. It’s sort of an extension on what Wonder did with TONTO earlier in the decade-only in a somewhat more cinematic style. Most of this album’s sound is built largely on harmony over rhythm:Prince at the drums and Prince playing guitar while his multi-tracked vocal and synthesizer harmonies fit very nicely into that rhythmic backdrop.

And even for that this album, especially for a debut, is very much a magical experience. Prince sings all the songs in his dreamily soulful falsetto voice. After the a capella title track,consisting of nothing but harmonized vocalizing we come to the almost trance like synth funk of “In Love” where we get the first of one of Prince’s famous lines “I really wanna play in your river”. The closest this album came to a hit single is the stop-and-start funk of “Soft And Wet” which contains what sounds like a pretty jazzy, improvised synth solo in the bridge of the song.

Prince always cited Joni Mitchell as an enormous musical influence on him and songs like “Crazy You” and “So Blue” with it’s water drums, fretless bass riffs and acoustic guitar riffs have roots very much in…say something like Hissing of Summer Lawns,an Joni album Prince exhibits a special fondness for. Both of these songs also possess a strong Brazilian jazz flavor at their core. The emotionally naked ballad “Baby” finds Prince baring his heart to his lover whom apparently learned she has become pregnant. His lyrical tone on the song also maintains a sensitivity in its earnestness.

“Just As Long As We’re Together” and the more mid tempo “My Love Is Forever” both have the strong Carlos Santana guitar sound that Prince always cited. And both would fit well sound wise on Santana’s late 70’s albums such as Inner Secrets or Marathon. And even more in that vein would be the fierce guitar fueled funk rocker “I’m Yours”. A lot of people have criticized this album for being both un melodic and boring. Those are two things this album definitely is not. As a matter of fact that may be why a lot of people don’t like it as much as later Prince albums.

The harmonics and melodies on this album are somewhat overwhelming at times. And the production of For You was apparently so elaborate, Prince blew the entire budget he was given on his first three albums on this one project. I’ve long speculated with friends that this reality might’ve led to the more famous stripped down variation of MPLS funk of Prince’s hit period.  As with Bernie Worrell before him, Prince made the still relatively new synthesizer his own personal orchestra..  That factor was already so well established on this album, it’s more than worth a second notice.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald emerged out of his native Ferguson, Missouri (and his first band Blue) to become one of the most important building blocks of the west coast pop/soul/funk sound out of LA-during the late 70’s and early 80’s. His first gig was in singing backup on Steely Dan’s 1975 Katy Lied. And he brought his distinctively jazzy soul way with the Rhodes piano to The Doobie Brothers when he joined them shortly thereafter. In doing so, he totally reshaped their southern rock sound into west coast funky soul such as “Takin’ It To The Street”, “It Keeps You Runnin'” and of course “What A Fool Believes”.

Turning 66 years old today, McDonald has had an equally varied solo career. Especially with his soulfully, distinctively slurred vocal delivery and raspy falsetto. He even made a more  popular comeback in the early aughts with two separate CD’s of classic Motown covers. Both with and without the Doobie’s, McDonald’s career has many exciting moments that got my attention. Especially 1982’s G funk building block “I Keep Forgettin'”. The song that I’m talking about today was from the 1986 movie Running Scared. And its the late Rod Temperton written “Sweet Freedom”.

A snare/tom based drum kicks into a percussion based intro with two corresponding synths-one playing a marimba like sound and the other introducing the main melody with McDonald’s refrain. Other layers of synth, including a brittle bass line come in as the drums fatten up. On the choruses, the rhythm guitar of (likely) Paul Jackson and the horn arrangements of Larry Williams beef up the arrangement. After a re-harmonized bridge ending with a pitch bent synth solo, an extended version of the chorus closes out the song.

“Sweet Freedom” is one of those songs I’ve personally enjoyed, sung and danced around to since childhood. And it makes sense now that its another Rod Temperton composition. It really brings to life that danceable, Caribbean inspired funky soul injected into the mid 80’s American pop landscape. It all had just the right mix of melodic sweetness and rhythm heft to make it work very well. And in terms of keyboards and vocals, this is some of McDonald’s finest work-with Temperton making the most of the artists jazzy twists as well. A wonderful meeting of two soulful icons in a very enjoyable setting.

 

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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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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Kiss The World Goodbye” by Mtume

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.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “One-Eyed Jack” by Gary Bartz

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.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Read My Lips” by Michael Franks

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.

 

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Swing Out Sister: “Blue Mood” by Swing Out Sister

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.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sunset Driver” by Michael Jackson

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.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Lucky Star” by Madonna

Madonna Louise Ciccone and her place as an American cultural phenomenon requires no clarification. From the early 80’s onward, she has been both a fashionista and a trend setter at the same time. What always interested me about her early days as a hungry and ambitious dreamer from Rochester Hills,Michigan is that she climbed up the musical ladder based (among other things) on the music of the black and Latin club scenes of post disco NYC. That has enabled her to not merely follow but often anticipate changes in danceable pop music throughout the decades.

Seymour Stein, co founder of Madonna’s label Sire Records, once spoke of Madonna’s first single (which was a 1982 song called “Everybody”) as not having her picture on the sleeve. He said the reasoning for that was that he felt she sounded like a black post disco artist. And had the opposite approach to what Motown did for Teena Marie in trying to make believe Madonna was black. Valid as a story or not, Madonna’s association with Mtume’s Reggie Lucus on her self titled debut album does make clear her musical connections. That also goes for one of the albums breakout singles “Lucky Star”.

A twinkling, high pitched synth riser begins the song. Then Reggie Lucus’s LINN drum dance beat comes in along with Paul Pesco’s melodic,chunky rhythm guitar. The brittle synth bass pops on every beat or two and is high up in the mix. Light synth horn accents are the order at first. Than by the refrain and chorus, there’s more sustain to the synths. There’s also an iconic be section-with has a thick grooving guitar from Pesco that’s punctuated by pitch pent synth stabs. After a couple such sections, the song settles into an extended chorus until it all fades out.

“Lucky Star” appears a relatively simple song at first. The melody is focused on Madonna’s voice and singability in general. What the production and electronic instrumental touches of Reggie Lucas brought to the song is a mixture of the brittle rhythms of post disco boogie funk, the solid beat of disco and the synthesized approach of new wave. In essence, it allowed Madonna to popularize and to a degree innovate the genre known as dance pop. Madonna herself once said all the negativity regarding her lack of talent helped her to do even better. And this song really set her notoriety alight.

 

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The Crusaders Remembered: “Gimme Some Space” by Stix Hooper

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.

 

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