Tag Archives: TONTO

‘Showdown’ At 40: The Isley’s 3+3 Era Band Taking It To The Next Phase!

Showdown was recorded in 1978 as the follow up to the Isley’s Go for Your Guns, which followed through with the fast paced funk style of the three previous 3+3 era Isley Brothers’ releases. On the Showdown album, everything had begun to change for this family band . In focusing more on slowing the funk down to this smoldering hot crawl of a groove,even the uptempo stuff  has a sleeker (and less brittle) approach in their instrumentation. This resulted in a certain lushness that mildly  hinted at the disco/dance sound in some of its rhythmic pattern.

The title track is about as great an example of this sound as one could ask. And the Isley’s of course work the groove straight into the subconscious, whilst talking full advantage of the slower tempo.  In the end, that makes the bass/guitar interaction all the funkier. “Groove With You” is another case where the Isley’s do their best type of bedroom groove,setting up the most romantic imagery and of course the music just melts like caramel. “Ain’t Givin’ Up No Love” is type of funk jam that’s like a fist slamming down slow and hard onto a table and leaving an enormous crack.

The simple fact that Chris Jasper seriously throws down with his bass synth on this one right along with Marvin’s bass guitar just throws out all kinds of extra punches. “Rockin’ With Fire” and “Love Fever” are all two part Ernie Isley funk/rockers that all showcase his guitar work and the power of this rhythm section. All are taken at the faster pace of this album. “Take Me To The Next Phase” is just about the most glorious funk jam the Isley’s ever did. In the funk tradition of James Brown,  “Next Phase” is a studio recording overdubbed with applause and band banter to sound like a live stadium performance.

“Take Me To The Next Phase” ends up capturing the flavor of both their own sound along with a bit of Stevie Wonder style funk chords (not surprising since they both utilized the electronic sounds of TONTO at the time) and despite it’s lengths leaves you hoping for more. ‘Coolin’ Me Out” is a more pop crafted variation of the same sound and still turns out to be an incredible jam-probably one of the most unsung on this album. “Fun And Games” harnesses a bit of a West Coast jazz-pop influence in the melody along with the peppy groove.

Showdown is an album that I felt for years was a bit of a letdown compared to its predecessors. In terms of funk, what has been revealed over many listening’s is that its actually an album with one great, iconic song (“Take Me To The Next Phase”) and seven other good to very good songs with…good to very good grooves. That is somewhat what happened upon listening to Funkadelic’s final two 70’s releases with me as well. At four decades old now, this album remains as another potent reminder of how unique the 3+3 era Isley Brother’s were with their take on the funk/rock hybrid.

 

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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 For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Fancy Lady” by Billy Preston

Billy Preston was,in a similar manner to Stevie Wonder,an artist who used analog synthesizers,organs and pianos to create totally new sounds during the early/mid 1970’s. Wonder often utilized jazz oriented chord progressions-often emphasizing European classical arrangements as well. The sounds that Preston created were all based in hardcore soul,R&B and what had already occurred thus far with the innovation of funk. What both of them emphasized was a strong love of instrumental layering and love of leading their whole show by soloing on the Clavinet.

By 1975,the connection with Stevie Wonder’s music by Billy Preston became extremely evident. The album he recorded that year,It’s My Pleasure,was recorded at the TONTO synthesizer complex-the same facility used by Wonder,The Isley Brothers and Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson during this era. One of this albums hits actually featured a vocal duet with ex wife and frequent creative collaborator of Wonder’s in Syreeta Wright. She would eventually go on to do a duet album with Preston in the early 80’s. The name of this song was called “Fancy Lady”

Preston starts off the song with a descending Moog bass before the drum kicks in. This is a thick snare/cymbal kick surrounded by a bluesy sea of synth layers. This continues on the chorus-with the Moog bass and Clavinet weaving through it all like needle and thread. The refrains that Syreet sang on repeats the intro of the song instrumentally. Their are two instrumental bridges. One features polyphonic synths playing a call and response horn chart while the second is a percussive,unaccompanied drum break. Preston plays a full on synthesizer solo for the last minute and a half or so of the song before it fades out.

From the first time I heard it over 12 years ago,this song always stood out to me. Always had a special affinity for the early synth/proto electro funk that emerged out of the mid 70’s. Especially in such cases like this,it again brought the bluesy soul musical past into the electrified/digitized future. As synthesizers expanded in complexity,electro based music began to rely more on the sound than the musical base. And this is a good example of music that didn’t. Its funky because the synths are fat,play bass,guitar and horn lines and always maintain a heavy,chunky instrumental flavor.

 

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Filed under 1975, Billy Preston, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Moog bass, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Syreeta Wright, TONTO

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Show Bizness” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson

Gil Scott Heron described himself as a “bluesologist” in his 1982 concert film  Black Wax. In a lot of ways,that pretty much describes the entire lexicon of black American music. From jazz up to funk. In the beginning of his recording career in the late 60’s/early 70’s,Heron was recording primarily spoken word poetry over Afro-Latin percussion. Gradually the arrangements swelled to included jazzier electric pianos and bass lines. By the time he began collaborating with keyboardist Brian Jackson in the mid 70’s,Heron was singing. And his music was on the forefront of socially conscious,poetic jazz-funk music.

After having been signed to Arista since 1975,Gil and Brian eventually reduced the participation of their instrumental ensemble The Midnight Band and began working more with Malcolm Cecil on his TONTO synthesizer complex. Their 1977 album Bridges began the pairs focus on creating new synthesized musical worlds for Heron’s songs to live in. Their follow up album was 1978’s Secrets. This album garnered Heron a Top 20 R&B hit in the funky groove of “Angel Dust”. This was an album chocked full of funky grooves. But the one that’s standing out for me right now is called “Show Bizness”.

The song starts off with a high pitched synthesizer playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the minor key. This is done over a brittle electric piano and a thick layer of synth bass and steady drumming. The remainder of the song lays that grooving, percussive synth bass down-and locks it right in tightly. From the chorus to the refrain, higher pitched synth lines play melodic call and response support to Heron’s vocal leads. And to that of the upfront backup singers as well.  That lead synth that started out the sng brings it on home with a very jazzy blues style melody.

Instrumentally speaking,this album was presented to me by friend Henrique as being an example of Stevie Wonder’s sonic influence on musicians. And this song in particular does have a similar musical vibe to Stevie’s “Jesus Christ Children Of America”. With the decedent wealth of Donald Trump making this current US presidential election such a high stakes,yet almost farcical mess this song has deep resonance now. And with the future election of President Reagan.  It takes of ignoring social decline when gaining fame. And that makes it a strong synth funk process number aimed at the idea of celebrity itself.

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Filed under 1970's, blues funk, Brian Jackson, drums, electric piano, Gil Scott Heron, Malcolm Cecil, message songs, synth bass, synth funk, synthesizers, TONTO

Anatomy of THE Groove: “People Of Today” by The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers,to paraphrase writer and my Facebook friend Rickey Vincent do come off strongly as the embodiment of funky masculinity. That not only goes for their mixture of pragmatism and sensitivity. But also to their musical approach as well. The family group’s  3+3 combination adding younger brothers Ernie and the late Marvin Isley and cousin Chris Jasper added a strong instrumental element to the vocal harmony approach of the elder brothers Ron,Rudy and the late Kelly Isley. During the mid 1970’s, they came up with a distinctive approach to instrumental vital funk and rock along with keeping the soulful bedroom ballads cooking at all ends.

During this time,the sextet began recording in the TONTO synthesizer complex. This is where Stevie Wonder was than working his own electronic funk/soul masterpieces as well. Most of the 3+3 Isley Brothers classic albums were recorded using the complex-especially with keyboard maestro Jasper in tow. In 1976 they released their album Harvest For The World. The album continued to expand on the throbbing grooves they developed,along with the lyrical themes of sensuous eroticism and strong minded brotherhood. Nothing on this album could ever be underrated from where I sit. But it’s the song “People Of Today” that really pulls everything else here together on every possible level.

A rolling drum launches into the song itself. It’s a gurgling mix of bass synthesizer and guitar with multiple Clavinet parts. One of them even contributing to the bottom end of the song as well. This huge tonal array of sound is calmed somewhat on the vocal refrains from Ron Isley. On the end of each chorus,a second refrain features Ron singing a call and response vocal line to a Vocoderized voice singing “my world is fine”. After this a fast and bluesy Clavinet riff leads back into the central theme of the song in which it all begins. This pattern of two separate refrains and repeated choruses maintains itself from beginning to the fade out of this song.

If I were to describe this or any Isley Brothers funk from this period, it would be as the musical equivilant of chunky peanut butter. It’s caramel colored cream texture with a strong crunchiness mixed into it. And has the same strong flavor too. The layering of the keyboard parts of this song are amazing. And it’s the perfect accompaniment as Ron Isley sings about getting ones head out of comfortable denialism. At one point he even responds to the Vocorderized “my world is fine” with the vocal response “ah your jivin’ me”. As implied in the title, it’s a wonderful example of the type of classic 70’s funk that I’ve dubbed over the years as “people music”.

 

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Filed under 1970's, bass synthesizer, Chris Jasper, clavinet, electro funk, Funk, Isley Brothers, Rickey Vincent, Ron Isley, TONTO, Uncategorized, vocoder

Anatomy Of The Groove For 2/13/2015-“Shut ‘Um Down” by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

The late Gil Scott Heron,self proclaimed “bluesologist” evoked a three prong musical transition in the 1970’s. He began by primarily performing raps over percussion and flutes to a melodic small group jazz/funk sound. During the late 70’s,he and his keyboard playing musical partner Brian Jackson began utilizing synthesizer abstractions in their music,based on the sounds created by Stevie Wonder at the same synthesizer facility Brian was using-TONTO. In 1980,Gil and Brian elected to put their collaboration on pause to pursue separate interests with their album 1980 at the very start of the new decade with it’s lead off song “Shut ‘Um Down”.

Beginning with a low rumbling piano that ascends into an explosive up-scaling after which Gil declares “hey what’s that rumble/did you hear that sound/know it wasn’t no earthquake,but it shook the ground”. The musical accompaniment has instantly swelled by this time into a slow,stomping and incredibly funky dance beat with very grits and gravy style juke joint piano accompanied by a medium pitched,rocking amplified guitar. On the choruses Gil is accompanied vocally by gospel drenched female backup singers along with a horn section blowing and wailing the changes. On the refrain,Brian Jackson takes over on a deep synth bass accompanying himself on a higher pitched ARP-sounding melodic synth line.

Musically speaking this song evokes the clean,concise production of a song such as Herb Alpert’s “Rise” with a get down and funky attitude-full of psychedelic soul flourishes,female choral vocals that take it back to Church as the saying going and most importantly? It all emphasizes Gil’s consistent emphasis in his vocal/song structured music on the usefulness of the very basic blues form in just about every aspect of black American music of the 60’s,70’s and even the beginning of the new decade. The song has a disco era four on the floor beat. But it really brings out George Clinton’s musical idea that anytime the rhythms and beats are slowed down? The music get’s incredibly funky.

Lyrically this song took on a theme one might not expect from Gil Scott-Heron. Long a champion of black power with his combination of razor sharp wit and homespun wisdom,this song deals with the massive environmental “no nukes” movement that arose enormously after the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. Gil calls for the immediate shutdown of all such power plants in America. Having been “thinking about power” on a literal and figurative level? He’s concluded that we’ve “gotta work for Earth,for all it’s worth ’cause it’s the only one we’ve got”. As one of the very few black musical spokespeople for environmentalism during the early 1980’s? This song is a strong thematic continuation of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from a decade earlier. And as such being strong “people music” represents one of Gil and Brian’s very funkiest jams ever!

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Filed under 1980's, Brian Jackson, disco funk, Funk, Funk Bass, Gil Scott Heron, message songs, no nukes, synthesizers, Three Miles Island, TONTO

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 9/20/2014: ‘Apocalypse’ by Thundercat

Apocalypse

It has never ceased to delight me that since 2010 there has been a consistently high level of innovation happening within music. For one thing,indie developments of the past fifteen years aren’t so indie anymore. And musicians who have been waiting in the wings to emerge are again beginning to do so with new and exciting musical hybrids. This is especially true of the jazz/funk/soul spectrum. Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner-with a father and brother who’ve alternately played with the likes of Diana Ross,The Temptations,Stanley Clarke and so on is one of these people. Having been the bass player for thrash/funk/metal band Suicidal Tendencies with his brother Ron Thundercat re-upped as a solo artist in 2011. Rather makes sense if you think about it since metal and funk are more easily blended than one might think due to both music’s emphasis on a strong groove and being rooted in the blues. The difference is the approach-playing dirty (metal) or playing cleanly (funk). So this is Thundercat’s sophomore release. The question I have to ask myself in this situation is one asked before: why am I only hearing about Thundercat just now?

Produced with the help of Flying Lotus this album begins with “Ten Fold”,”Heartbreaks + Setbacks”,”The Life Aquatic”,”Special Stage” and the ambient styled “Tron Song”. These songs are build around harmonically rich swirls of electronic synthesizers-pulsing Moog type bass blending with Thundercat’s electric bass riffing. His high,ethereal voice keeps up with these melodically and rhythmically challenging grooves. The bass groove “Seven” is one of the speediest and most nimble I’ve heard on such a spare “nu jazz” number,apparently a funk hybrid I didn’t know the name to. “Oh Sheit It’s X” is brilliant,my favorite on here with it’s 70’s TONTO style Isley Brothers meets P-Funk mixture of retro synthesizers into a think funk groove with wonderfully elaborate melodies again. “Without You” is a much more spare mid western Minneapolis/Ben Sidran approach to funk-jazz-with it’s juxtaposed stop/start and steady rhythmic sound. “Lotus And The Jondy” is another deep groove with a heavy bump to it-another favorite. “Evangelion”,the intro “We’ll All Die” and the orchestrated closing epic of “A Message For Austin/Praise The Lord/Enter The Void”-tribute to the passing of Austin Topper Peralta are all ornately psychedelic style fusion numbers.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album recently that actually innovates it’s unique sound from an accumulation of the many musical innovations of the 60’s,70’s,80’s and even 90’s quite the way this album does. And it does so while sounding not contemporary but instantly somehow ahead of its time. This is a factor that has produced the pasts most enduring music. One of the best part is how he manages to blend nearly complete non-commercialism musically while writing,singing and playing songs that are melodic and highly memorable to the human ear and the human soul. The instrumentation here is very elaborate and expansive. Lyrically he takes on a rather pantheist level of spirituality and human self improvement completely in keeping with the funk era his music celebrates with elements of Eastern and Christian ideas. By blending together all the best elements of jazz,funk and psychedelia of the past Thundercat has made a masterpiece…that will likely be found in the electronica section of your record store. Today this is an excellent place to find unique and very funky and jazzy musical hybrids like this. A strong candidate for the most innovative funk/jazz album of 2013 thus far.

Original review posted on July 10th,2013

*For original review,click here!

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Filed under Funk, Funk Bass, Jazz-Funk, Thundercat