Tag Archives: tributes

Aja At 40: Welcome To The Land Of Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja was an album whose success has been based far more on its quality than its commercial potential. In 2010, it was even inducted by the Library of Congress into their United States National Recording Registry. It even won a Grammy in the the year of its release for being the best engineered non classical record of the year. For me, it represented the precision musicianship of the jazz funk era musicians who played on the album at some of their personal best. Also in 2010, I wrote a review on Amazon.com about the album and how I personally heard it.


Time has a way of testing a work of art that might be today’s masterpiece but tomorrow’s rubbish pile. One would probably find that not only would this album ace such a test with flying colors but could actually still be considered something of a yardstick of it’s kind. I am not sure but before this album very little music that qualified as jazz-funk,fusion or pop/jazz ever quite had the same level of all around success this one had in pop and rock circles and especially among pop radio listeners. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one the music featured here is a fully realized refinement on what was accomplished with The Royal Scam and unlike that albums more jagged moments both the production and arrangements on this album are clean as a whistle. For another thing none of that took away from the daring and adventurous flavors here. So you have this mixture of elegance,sophistication and a strong groove that only those really in the know about funk can provide.

The production of the Clavinet on “Black Cow” pretty much tell the story and some of the songs people don’t remember as well here such as “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” there’s some of the most intricate and uniquely textured piano work Donald Fagen had committed to record thus far and trust me: on that area he’d more than earned a few brownie points already. The title song has one of the most complex melodic constructions your liable to find in a pop record.

And of course it’s not easy to get Steve Gadd’s amazing fusion style drum solo at the songs conclusion out of one’s memory even after the passing of time. The popular hits from this album “Deacon Blues” and of course “Peg” showcase another surprising element of this album. Those familiar with Steely Dan before this album realize lyrically they tended to specialize in warped tales,usually of people no one wanted to know. These songs maintain their lyrical style but the tales they tell are a bit more accessible in tone and are among the more lighthearted and quaint in their catalog.

Yeah they were probably making a few funnies about the stereotypical simplicity of pop music lyrics but….a lot of it just is what it is and that’s kind of different for their usually double meaning approach. “Josie” ends the album on a similar note although the lyrics on that one may be just a tad slinkier and the groove just mildly edgier. At this point you could say this was Steely Dan’s best overall album and it’s certainly their best known.

But it’s also important to know their “laboratory in the studio” approach to recording across their previous two albums really opened the door for this to happen. So this was the conclusion to a long enduring musical experiment rather than something that came out of this air. That taken into considering the amazing thing about this is…..all these years later it still doesn’t sound like a product of hard labor.


Aja was an album that I first heard playing in my family’s car “boom box” when, as I recall, we were going to pick apples. Its an excellent example of a record where the melodic and very welcoming jazz/funk fusion grooves of the album deflect from Steely Dan’s typically cryptic and “insider commentary” based nature of their lyrical content. There’s a lot on the musical end of this album that I was able to project into a YouTube video I did about the album recently.  Aja is a record I could go on and on about here. But in the end, its best for the music to do the talking in this case.

 

 

 

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Steely Dan: The Early Years As A Duo-A Tribute To Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Steely Dan Early Years As A Duo

Steely Dan started life as a sextet that included musicians such as guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. By 1975, group founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were on their own. And their sound took on a sleek jazz funk sound as such-bringing in more session players from that field. A lot of this had to do with the founding members lack of interest in touring. Yesterday I woke up to the news from my boyfriend Scott that Walter Becker had passed away at the age of 67. Considering the bands relationship in their years as a duo, this essentially marked the official end of Steely Dan.

At the suggestion of Henrique Hopkins, I decided to wait a day or two in terms of writing about Becker and his music. After all, another friend in Thomas Carley already was doing some wonderful writing on Walter Becker-both as a member of Steely Dan, a solo artist and producer for people such as Ricki Lee Jones,China Crisis,Rosie Vela,Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. Woke up this morning to read a Rolling Stone article by one Rob Sheffield about Becker. This article mainly focused on Becker’s more negative “rock star” qualities. So decided there had to be another way to present Steely Dan.

In all honesty, the gritty and…cryptically jazzy poetry of Steely Dan’s lyrics have never detracted from my love of their music. Nor did it define everything about them. Becker, who according to Sheffield had the most attitude of the Dan’s founders, managed to balance (along with Fagen) the sometimes very sarcastic and cynical lyrics of Steely Dan with a romantic (and even relaxing) choice of words and a sound often defined by an extensive use of the processed Fender Rhodes piano. So as tribute to Walter Becker, wanted to present my two Amazon.com reviews of their first two albums as a duo.


Katy Lied/1975

Originally Steely Dan was a band featuring people like Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter. By this time Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had grown weary of the road the decided to stop touring and concentrate on their studio craft which,they felt was their strongest suit. They also broke up the band and Steely Dan became them as a duo plus the studio session musicians they hired for the sessions.

Even so during this time Becker and Fagen were not entirely sure how their sound was going to evolve from this point on so not only was the music on this album fairly tentative but Donald Fagen detested the recording quality of the album to such a degree he issued an apology to record buyers on the back of the original sleeve and didn’t desire to listen to this.

Well it’s not really that bad an album but it does find them beginning to re-imagine their sound with very mixed results. “Black Friday” and “Chain Lighting” are two of the best remembered songs here and even though nothing on this fared too well commercially these songs embrace a slick blues/rock flavor that Steely Dan really hadn’t emphasized in their music too much and really never would to this extent again.

“Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City Anymore” again showcases the same idea only with somewhat of a jazzier funk edge to it. A lot of the songs here are rather spare jazzy pop such as “Bad Sneakers”,”Rose Darling”,”Doctor Wu”,”Any World” and “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies”. Here also you see them really putting even more emphasis on their twisted character plays in the lyrics and things are becoming so metaphorical in that respect some of their lyrics are more impenetrable.

A second part of “Your Gold Teeth” and “Throw Back The Little Ones” show a stronger indication of their future sound,even to an extent Aja in terms of the intricate and complex jazzy arrangements and tempos. The best way to describe this is as transitional. Most of it is still very much in the same musical zone as their first three albums with a full band. But as with any retooled musical concept it takes time to both maintain AND refine a musical style and that’s basically where this album stands for Steely Dan in the context of their career.

The Royal Scam/1976

To be said Katy Lied had it’s definate moments but without any doubt this has to be Steely Dan’s most creatively and musically satisfying since Countdown To Ecstasy several years earler. Musically however the music couldn’t me more different. By this time Becker and Fagan had settled firmly into the studio oriented ethic they were hoping for but didn’t fully achieve with the previous album.

And even though this never got the recognition that what came after it did this is really the pair and the studio aces they surrounded themselves with at last finding their sound. What they really found is the funk. Now Steely Dan had ALWAYS been funky but in terms of the technically demanding rhythms and harmonics of the music,which naturally suited Becker & Fagen’s style anyway this album really finds them dipping into that area more than anything.

This was actually one of the earliest Steely Dan albums I owned and it was deep in my “funk period” so it worked pretty well. Yes true this album does feature a lot more guitars;Becker himself,Larry Carlton,Denny Dias,Dean Parks and Elliot Randell are all featured throughout this album and that’s a pretty big guitar army for these guys. Interestingly enough the guitars are used in a very jazzy funk way throughout as more of a textural sound element overall than just as soloing noise makers.

That’s exactly the effect you get on four of the albums strongest (and uptempo) cuts in the sharp,aggressive yet elegant funk styling’s of “Kid Charlemagne”,”Don’t Take Me Alive”,”The Fez” and the almost Songs in the Key of Life-period Stevie Wonder sounding “Green Earrings”. The Clavinet’s and keyboards used on these songs really add to the harmonic style as well.

Lyrically most of these songs are Steely Dan at their darkest:songs about misdirected anti heroes,youth bombers and domestic unrest are among the themes explored here and the good part is their presented in a wonderfully poetic and intelligent manner. “The Caves Of Altamira”,”Sign In Stranger” and the title song are all elaborate mid tempo jazz-funk-fusion explorations that really look the most to their sound to come although the dynamics are a bit looser than they would be in the immediate future.

“Everything You Did” and the lightly Caribbean flavored “Haitian Divorce” are closer to the breezy jazz-pop of the earlier Steely Dan but again produced very differently. Officially bidding farewell to their earlier band based sound this album finds Dan firmly on the way to Aja and if you listen to this album thoroughly you’ll realize that album was really the logical follow up.


These reviews were written seven years ago, right in between Fagen’s 2012 solo album Sunken Condos and what turned out to be Becker’s final solo release in 2008’s Circus Money. Becker and Fagen were always musical perfectionists. Both in terms of instrumentation and production. But with Katy Lied and The Royal Scam, their relationships with Crusaders’ Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton along with the great session bassist Chuck Rainey took their precision to the next level. And represent the best way for me to remember Walter Becker’s contributions to the Steely Dan’s sound.

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sister’s Who Aren’t Here: “Timeless” by John Abercrombie

John Abercrombie picked up his first guitar at age 14 in his native Port Chester,New York. He attended the Berklee School Of Music in the early to mid 60’s. He played with a group of fellow students at Paul Mall’s Jazz Workshop, a local my father often talked about seeing some acts at during his 70’s trips to Boston. This resulted in him being discovered by organist Johnny Hammond,who had him join his group for a time. After a brief time attending Northern Texas State University, Abercrombie returned to New York to become one of the most renowned jazz session guitarists in the city.

Abercrombie went on to recording as a leader on the German ECM label. This is one of those jazz labels that actually has its own particular sound. Primarily a jazz label, the artists on ECM didn’t want to focus too much on any other musical genre they adopted into their music. But more on their playing ability and their own sound. Abercrombie made his debut album for the label in 1974. It featured him in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and fusion pianist/organist/synthesizer pioneer Jan Hammer. The album was called Timeless. And the title track is one of those songs that speaks a thousands words.

Hammer starts off the song with a sustained,deep synth bass tone. Than his organ comes in with its own kind of sunny sustain. Into this mix comes DeJohnette’s drums, which come through with some ascending hi hat and cymbal brushes creating a dreamy rhythmic atmosphere. Abercrombie’s guitar, playing a number of bluesy and faster gypsy jazz style licks, is complimented by Hammer’s synth bass changing harmonically to accommodate it. Around the bridge of the song, the drums gain a heavier power with Hammer’s synths rocking more. Then the song fades into its original theme as it fades.

“Timeless” is a nearly 12 minute song that’s based heavily around Abercrombie’s soloing. His style was light and understated-very much in the Miles Davis/Ahmad Jamal school. Yet he takes some very fast and elaborate runs too. Jack DeJohnette’s serves the soloing amazingly. While Jan Hammer provides that critical extra texture on his organ and synth. Its big,small,progressive and ambient all at once. Its also the first time hearing this song-after the passing the album over many times. John Abercrombie has sadly passed away this week at the age of 72. And this is a beautiful way to remember his music.

 

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‘Faith’ In Its 30th Year: George Michael Goes Solo!

 

George Michael’s solo debut album Faith won’t officially turn 30 for another couple of months. Just couldn’t wait to discuss this particular album. It came along during that 1986-1988 time period that my friend Henrique and I often discussed. It was a period where rock and pop artists could again integrate elements of funk and soul into their music. Where guitar based rock across entire albums was no longer the standard. Danceable,funky music was making a huge comeback in 1987 in particular. And George Michael began his solo career right in that creative frame of mind.

For his part, George Michael basically made a move that would follow onto what Justin Timberlake would do 15 years later: leave a group that was popular with the teen set and emerge with a rather adult solo album. And even Don, the owner of the local record store in Bangor Maine called Dr. Records praised Faith as the very finest album George Michael made. I also have personal memories connected to it-especially seeing its video clips as part of the Friday Night Videos TV magazine program. What I wanted to present here today is a review I wrote on Amazon.com for the album six years ago.


Interesting how you can like a piece of music on one level but have it grow on you in totally different ways. Of course one of the things that has made this album special to me is how it’s stood the passage of time. Didn’t seem that way living through it but the late 1980’s were actually a pretty divided time in terms of pop music. There was a lot of discontentment at how things were going,in terms of popularity versus creativity,that would only really come to the surface years later.

In terms of where George Michael stood at this point,Wham! had gone out on one final tour following their last release Music From the Edge of Heaven and it was time for George to go out on his own. It had been coming for some time. In fact many contend that Wham! owes every single bit of it’s musical potency to his talent. Where George’s talents played an enormous part in it,there was an actual band involved and Andrew Ridgley who was perceived more as pure eye candy.

It was mostly teen idol folly to a degree. But the talent was there in George. So where exactly was he going to take it the first time out? The title song itself and it’s video,sporting George playing a mean rockabilly in leather and jeans is a great,soulful rocker. An obvious hit. Same goes for the slower “Father Figure” with it’s mixture of Eastern melodies,gospel choirs and twisted sexual fantasy.

What makes this album most notable to me is even on those,but more for the rest of the album it totally rejects the fluffier pop melodies on Wham!’s previous two albums in favor of extending more on the sound of the debut album Fantastic. In short this finds it’s success on all accounts by being a very muscular contemporary soul/funk album. The surprisingly un-commercial 9+ minute hit “I Want Your Sex” is a great example.

Starting as stripped down Minneapolis type funk it goes into this live band funk part,complete with a hot horn section. “One More Try” is a spare ballad in the spirit of “A Different Corner” from that final Wham! album. “Hard Day” gets into some heavy old school hip-hop/80’s funk grooves. “Hand To Mouth” tells a compelling street corner story with a breezier funky soul dance type rhythm. “Look At Your Hands” comes to terms with a vibrant rock and soul type number.

On “Monkey”,George deals with his lovers drug problems (so it would seem) over some heavy 80’s Cameo type funk. “Kissing A Fool” is a very 50’s style soul ballad,in the spirit of Ray Charles using something jazz oriented instrumentation. A modern day standard,if you will. There’s a heavy hip-hop/scratch influenced Shep Pettibone remix of “Hard Day” here too as well as “A Last Request” which,listed as “I Want Your Sex Part 3” is an electronic percussive Brit-Funk type number.

One of my favorites here really. So it was a massive hit and likely outsold Wham!’s three records combined. Was it a hit parade? Not really. This is actually a very cohesive album and,although not obviously conceptual follows a loose theme of adult realizations of poverty,romance and sexuality. In a lot of ways it lays a lot of hardness down too,anticipating much of what would happen in the next decade.

Even though a variety of styles are presented this is also in essence a funk/soul album. That has always been George Michael’s true colors when you get right down to it. And on every song here it gives it every single chance he can. Much to the delight of people like me who listen to it. One of a number of excellent AND popular musical moments of 1987!


Faith is an album that painted George Michael as an artist who was not only extremely diverse in his grooves. But also did musical diversity well. And always kept his distinctive flavor intact. His recording career would actually be fairly sporadic after this, as he became involved in elongated record company disputes. And its no lie that George Michael did some amazing albums during the 90’s as well. It hasn’t been a year since his passing yet. And as with Prince, its taking its time feeling real. Yet Faith, with all its energy and high funkativity, is an album that never seems to stop feeling real.

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Bobby Taylor 1934-2017: An Understanding Of A Major Motown Jelly Maker

Image result for Bobby Taylor

Bobby Taylor epitomizes what a phrase Henrique Hopkins told me several years ago. That in terms of making a difference in life, there are tree shakers and there are jelly makers. To extend the metaphor, DC native Bobby Taylor didn’t shake many trees save for the hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me”. And I myself only found out about him as a teenage watching a VHS copy of  the 1988 Showtime documentary called Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues. It was MJ’s brother Marlon who mentioned Bobby Taylor’s place in his history as the man who brought the Jackson 5 to Motown.

Taylor began his singing career in NYC-with a doo-wop group whose other members later joined the Teenagers and the Imperials. It was journey from groups in Ohio,San Francisco that led to him migrating to Canada and forming a multi racial band called the Calgary Shades. During this time, he had been in a band with a man who’d later become the drummer for Three Dog Night.  As for the Calgary Shades? The name came from the multi racial nature of their members. One of them was a young Tommy Chong, who would of course later go onto a career in comedy with Cheech Marin.

It was Supreme’s Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard who alerted Berry Gordy to the newly rechristened Bobby Taylor & The Vancouver’s after seeing them live. They had a live repertoire of mostly Motown covers. Gordy signed them to the self named imprint of Motown.  The Vancouver’s eventually broke apart due to a disagreement with Johnny Bristol and their headliner Chris Clark, who fired a couple members of the bands for missing a big whilst trying to obtain green cards. But they did record one self titled album on Gordy before this occurred.

Taylor’s history with the Jackson 5 is another story. In 1968, the Jackson brothers opened for the Vancouver’s at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Taylor was so impressed, he brought them to Detroit to audition for Suzanne De Passe and in turn Berry Gordy. The band were signed to Motown in a years time. Taylor was their first producer. He was involved in producing tracks for their debut album. Including an 11 year old Michael’s show stopping version of “Who’s Lovin’ You”. His emphasis was on classic soul cover songs-from within and without Motown.

What happened was that the J5’s debut was called Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. She was even credited as discovering them by Ed Sullivan on their first appearance on his iconic variety show. As Motown began moving its operations to the West Coast, Gordy didn’t give any credit to Taylor’s earlier work with the Jackson’s. While he did work with them a bit in LA on their second album ABC, Gordy along with Fonce Mizell and the late Deke Richards took on writing and producing for them. Taylor’s solo career on the labels VIP imprint went nowhere. He was dropped from the label and faded into obscurity.

Despite being something of the poster man for Motown’s lack of support for its behind the scenes people during its move from Detroit to LA, Bobby Taylor’s place in the labels late 60’s history remains carved in stone. He died of cancer on July 22nd of this year in Hong Kong. But bringing in what became the last of Motown’s classic groups in the Jackson 5 was no small feat. He even made some of the most insightful commentary on MJ on the documentary Michael Jackson: The Life Of An Icon.  So while belatedly so, wanted to remember Bobby Taylor for the great work he did in Motown’s peak.

 

 

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Gregg Allman 1947-2017: The 70’s Allman Brothers Years & A Tribute To The Late Midnight Rider

Image result for Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman, interestingly enough, had an interest in medicine growing up. In particular dentistry. Despite childhood rivalry with his older Duane,the Nashville native formed the Allman Brothers Band (as a keyboardist) with Duane and Dickey Betts. While years of drug abuse likely contributed to Allman’s fairly young passing at the age of 69 this past Saturday,the music he created with the Allman Brothers Band was not merely innovating Southern rock. But also allowing for long,instrumentally focused songs with jazz and funk elements helped expand the basic framework of countrified 70’s rock.

My personal chance to see Gregg Allman performed with the Allman Brothers Band was deferred. As I understand it,he was unable to appear with the band as one of the opening acts for the now deceased (and musical hero) B.B. King because of a reappearance of liver cancer with him. The concert was a bit of a fiasco in some ways. At the same time,it got my into exploring the Allman Brothers’ earlier albums. There’s much more I have to look into. But today,wanted to review my Amazon.com reviews of the Allman’s first four studio albums released from 1969 to 1973.


The Beginning (1969-70)

A few years ago when I was first getting heavily into beginning my collection of music from The Allman Brothers Band? There was an inner debate going on about how exactly to purchase their first two albums. Realizing these were considered the major cornerstone of their catalog? The two choices had an awkward wrinkle between them. Both albums were available separately on CD.

Yet so was this edition-both released unedited on a single CD. One of the reviews I read here actually mentioned the debut being remixed for this set. Still it was finding an used original CD edition of this double set at a reduced price (under $5) that decided me. After all,it’s all about the musical content in cases like this. And on that level?PHEW! What an set this is!

“Don’t Want To Bear No More” is a percussive,organ based instrumental while “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”,a cover of Muddy Water’s “Trouble No More” and “Dreams are more deeply blues oriented pieces. “Black Hearted Woman” and “Every Hungry Woman” are both riff heavy power blues/rock pieces.

“Whipping Post” blends an atmospheric jazzy rock flavor with yet more of a blues flavor. “Revival” opens the second album in this set with a rousing uptempo jam based in rhythm guitar/bass/organ interaction at it’s core. “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”,”Midnight Rider” and a version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” again deal with the shuffling blues again.

“Please Come Home” is a slowed down,classic Southern Rock ballad while “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is a creamy guitar/organ led Latin jazz/rocker while “Leave My Blues Alone” ends the album with a thickly grooving power blues number. Both of these albums taken together have the effect of being part one and part two.

The powerful presence of Duane and Gregg Allman,along with drummer Jai Johanny Johanson really give this band the sort of jamming instrumental jazz/rock improvisational touch that set them in a class by themselves from many of the more pop oriented Southern rockers who came after them. Whatever way you pick these up? These are absolute essentials to build any Allman Brothers collection.

Eat A Peach/1972

The Allman Brothers Band,as led by Dicky Betts,are one of the few famous bands I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform live. Their facility,even without an absently ill Gregg Allman on the keys,on elongated grooving jams is something worth hearing on the stage if the opportunity arises. Of course this album had a difficult place in Allman Brothers history.

It would have to be the transition from the original band led by Duane,who died in a motorcycle crash at the end of 1971 and the Dicky Betts led group that would come later. The juxtaposition of talents in this band seems to be of a sort that could have a domino effect if not handled very carefully. Luckily the way in which this album pulls that off really does the trick.

“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Stand Back” are both hard grooving funk/rock jams that are loaded with Dicky’s Mississippi Delta blues flavor. “Melissa” and “Blue Sky” are more mellow countrified numbers filled with soulful melodies “Les Brers In A Minor” begins with Betts’ psychedelicized lead guitar before going into another of those great percussive 9+ Allman jams.

The middle core of this album was the last recordings from when Duane was alive-recorded at the Fillmore East. The highlight of this is “Mountain Jam”-an over half hour epic that is essentially several different songs: a guitar improvisation of Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain”,than a massive drum solo from Jai Johanny Johnson,a funkified electric bass solo from Berry Oakley and than a Southern Soul ballad before going back to the original theme.

Two faithful and amazingly played blues covers of Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” and Elmore James “One Way Out” round out the Fillmore set while the bluegrass guitar picking of “Little Martha” closes things out. Black Rock Coalition member/lead guitarist of Living Colour Vernon Reid claims this album as being a huge part of his musical education. Listening to it I can see why. It finds a band of musicians of different sorts bringing their different styles into clear focus.

The country slide guitar twang along with Dicky and Duane’s wonderful feel for the blues,along with the percussive drumming approach leads to enormous levels of instrumental improvisation here that puts the Southern Rock genre the Allman’s help pioneer into perspective between the psychedelic soul/rock and jazz fusion of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis respectively. One of the most fluidly musicinaly rock ‘n’ roll albums I’ve heard from the early 70’s!

Brothers & Sisters/1973

It would seem that a metaphorical specter of death was hanging over the Allman Brothers in the early 70’s When they were just hitting their very early stride as a recording entity? First band founder Duane is killed in an accident. Then during the making of their follow up without him,bassist Berry Oakley dies as well.

Dicky Betts, Gregg Allman and the remaining members made what turned out to be the very good decision of soldiering on without their two departed fellow band members and creative guiding lights. Being that they still celebrated an improvisational spirit? They actually found a functional way to adapt their sound to suit the circumstances.

“Wasted Words” starts out the album with a piano driven Stonsey blues/rocker. The electric organ fueled and more jazzy “Come And Go Blues” as well as the classic urban blues wailing of “Jelly Jelly” pretty much keep that essential core going right along with it. The bigger successes here ended up being the huge hit “Ramblin Man” with,along with the somewhat more instrumentally inclined “Jessica” showcase a sleeker and more relaxed sounding melodic variation of their Southern Rock approach.

“Southbound” brings a percussively shuffling funky soul rhythm to the affair and brings out some of the bands more jazzy improvisational instrumental spirit again “Pony Boy” closes out the album with a fast paced acoustic 12 bar blues.

Actually this is the very first Allman Brothers CD I ever saw. When I was 16,a friend of mine named Jeff gave me some things he was about to put in a yard sale and a copy of this album on CD was among them. I listened to it and intended to keep it. When he told me the CD went in the box he gave me by accident? I of course gave it back.

But I was happy to hear it a second time,after getting a copy of my own and realizing just how well the Allman’s musical broad mindedness helped them to survive as a band even when circumstances would seem to dictate otherwise. This album lacks the elongated instrumental approach they had with Duane and Berry in the band. But they were gaining another kind of ground. And even even greater commercial success while they were at it. And so they’d continue for decades to come after this!


Gregg Allman is survived by five children by from a number of his female partners and wives over the years. Most famously his now 40 year old son with Cher Elijah Blue-lead singer of the nu metal band Deadsy. Devon,four years older, is also the lead singer of a band called Honeytribe. No matter makes mark his progeny make on music in the future, what Allman did as a member of the Allman Brothers,despite personal problems between him and the group,was the most history making music he was associated with.

 

 

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Something Lovely” by The Main Ingredient-A Tribute To Cuba Gooding Sr. (1944-2017)

Cuba Gooding Sr is probably famous for to two things. One would be as the lead singer for the Harlem vocal trio The Main Ingredient after their original lead singer/songwriter Don McPherson died. The other would be a the father of actor Cuba Gooding Jr of Jerry McGuire fame.  Under McPherson,The Main Ingredient mixed romantic and black power themed funky soul. During Gooding’s era,the political elements became less pronounced. And the group began doing more cinematic soul numbers arranged by Bert DeCoteaux. At the same time, The Main Ingredient never fully lost their funk.

Cuba Sr’s history is every bit as political. His name derived from his father Dudley marrying a woman when he fled to Cuba. After being murdered due to her support of Pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey,he vowed on her death bead that his first child would be named Cuba. Gooding was in the process of working on  documentary about his family tree before he was found dead in his car on April 20th,2017. Though best known for their 1972 hit “Everybody Plays The Fool”, one Main Ingredient song that always stands out to me in a similar vein is the following years “Something Lovely”.

A drum kick off breaks into the instrumental intro of the chorus. This is lead by a descending string and muted trumpet arrangement. When Cuba and the rest of the trio come in with their three part harmonies,the arrangement pairs down to a wah wah guitar/bass/drum/electric piano based sound. That goes for the arrangements too-accented occasionally by a several not long horn chart before the next chorus. After one refrain where the horn arrangements play the vocal lines, the trio finish the song out with an extended reprise of the chorus.

“Something Lovely”,written by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright, is a masterpiece of funky soul arrangement as far as I’m concerned. The harmonies that Cuba,Luther Simmons and Tony Silvester come up with on this song are a superb example of funky soul as sweet as it can be. Its from their 1973 album Afrodesiac, which I purchased at the recommendation of an employee at one of my favorite record haunts Dr. Records when I was trying to exchange a defective CD of Parliament’s Funkentelechy Vs The Placebo Syndrome. 

I fell in love with the Afrodesiac album after getting it. Especially in the interpretive material it embraced. Stevie Wonder offered some of his own material and wrote two songs for this project itself. I also discovered one of my favorite Isley Brother’s songs “Work To Do” through The Main Ingredient doing it on this record. The very unexpected passing of Cuba Gooding Sr not only reminded me of that youthful musical discovery. But also of Gooding’s strong musicality and respect for quality. He will be missed by many and I wish his surviving family all the best at this difficult time.

 

 

 

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Prince-One Year Later Since He Left Us

Prince blog photo

It was a Thursday morning one year ago that I first heard that Prince had passed away. It was via a Facebook post one of my friends there shared from TMZ. Being a tabloid agency,it came across as just another online “fake news” story about a dead celebrity. It was my Aunt Deb who confirmed the unfortunate news. Prince Rogers Nelson had been found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park earlier that morning. It turned out to be just one part of a huge “funkapocalypse” of musicians dying in 2016-among them people such as David Bowie and EWF founder Maurice White.

In the weeks following Prince death, there was much ugliness unfortunately. Because he left no will in regard to his enormous musical output,the future of his art was in question. Therefore there was more concentration on people suddenly coming forward claiming to be his child (and a potential heir to his fortune),as well as conspiracy theories about Prince having died of HIV/AIDS. The reality of his death wasn’t any prettier. He’d died of an accidental overdose of the pain medication Fentanyl,part of a series of medications he’d been taking since an injury he’d sustained onstage in 1985.

Now that 365 days have passed since we lost Prince, there remains much mixed appraisal of the man and his music. The fight for control over Prince’s estate still remains fairly hot-with family representatives such as his half sister Tyka and record companies in the process of figuring out how to manage his music releases and online presence. Articles circulate consistently on fan sites all over the internet-especially Facebook and Twitter. And the debate between restorationists and preservationists of Prince’s legacy has proven a true example of the messiness of democratic dialog.

All of this being said, the year since Prince’s death has not been about complete uncertainty. Currently his mid 80’s era band the Revolution have begun for a US tour-indicating that its helping them cope with the loss of Prince. There was a somewhat rushed compilation released by Warner Bros. entitled Prince4ever,which included one item from Prince’s vault from 1982 entitled “Moonbeam Levels”. The CD release of Prince’s final album Hitnrun Phase II also took place a week after his passing. And now,its promised that a floodgate of new Prince material is about to be opened.

Following the Grammy Awards tribute,much of Prince’s music was re-added to streaming sites such as Pandora and Spotify. And there’s also the promise of a deluxe edition of the Purple Rain soundtrack at some point this year. This week however, the Prince estate has filed a lawsuit against against his former engineer George Ian Boxill for attempting to a release an EP of unreleased Prince songs from 2006 entitled Deliverance. In addition,Prince’s music has yet to re-appear on YouTube. And that brings me to what I feel is the most vital aspect of Prince’s creative legacy.

Myself, Henrique Hopkins and Zach Hoskins have been having many discussions since Prince’s passing about the lost opportunities for his continuing legacy online. As for Prince,that’s all in the past now. Because his music is in danger of being somewhat unknown by future generations (and some members of current ones) due to this problem,I hope that those in charge of Prince’s estate realize the mistakes he made in his final decade about publicizing his art. It would be a fitting tribute to him if they continued to maintain the presence of Prince’s musical legacy for the future.

 

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “The Dominant Plague” by Allan Holdsworth

Allan Holdsworth was a guitarist who not only crossed styles,but also technological areas of music. Sadly,he passed away this past Saturday at the age of 70. He was a truly academic player known for his advanced chord progressions. But he could play some serious blues with the same technical level. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s he played with both prog rock and jazz fusion bands in his native England/Europe such as Soft Machine,King Crimson,Gong and Nucleus. In the late 70’s,be became a member of Tony Williams New Lifetime before beginning his solo career as a recording artist.

The first Allan Holdsworth album was his 1986 LP Atavacron. Picked it up based purely on the cover and title-based on a favorite episode of Star Trek of mine. On the cover,the cartoon Holdsworth is holding an instrument called a SynthAxe. It was a type of MIDI controller manufactured in the UK which allowed for a more guitar-like playing style for synthesizers.  Turns out it was fairly rare,and few outside Holdsworth and Lee Ritenour actually ever used it. One of my favorite songs on the mid 80’s fusion oriented Atavacron to use the SynthAxe heavily is called “The Dominant Plague”.

Future Level 42 drummer Gary Husband,along with Chad Wackerman provide the opening duel drum attack-which has a slow,gated African percussion style about it. Jimmy Johnson also provides his 6 note bass line that he improvises on throughout the song on this intro. Very the chorus Alan Pasqua delivers a wailing synth brass solo. On the refrains,over the same rhythm,Pasqua also provides a very glassy,steel drum like synth line. On the bridge,actually a chorus of the song,Holdsworth plays a rather Hendrix style SynthAxe solo-before the song fades out on the double drum rhythm.

“The Dominant Plague” is mid 80’s world fusion at some of its finest. It has the blend of Afrocentric rhythms played in a progressive new wave sonic approach. Holdsworth composition is both passionate and hesitantly chilly from chorus to refrain. I am not at all sure about this. But from its feeling and title, I’ve wondered if this composition was inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic than polarizing the world. One can only wonder. The SynthAxe is also used to fine affect here-allowing Holdsworth to sustain notes more than a guitar might’ve. Its my favorite song of his that I’ve heard so far.

 

 

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