Friday, January 11, 2013

CAC's Top Music Albums of 2012

15. Oddisee - People Hear What They See

A chord was hit in the mainstream hip-hop community after Washington D.C producer / rapper Oddisee dropped his 2011 disc Rock Creek Park, an almost verse-free LP that showed off his ability to create bright and emotionally resonant melodic soundscapes on top of staggeringly funky backbeats and well placed samples (Skipping Rocks is one of my favorite hip-hop cuts of the past few years). With People Hear What They See Oddisee steps out in front of his beats to present a decidedly more rhyme-friendly, sample-heavy production. Reassuringly, Oddisee's trademark honesty and eclecticism remains intact, giving us hope the multi-talented artist still has a few more interesting LPs left in him before he ascends proper up the ladder to hip-hop royalty.

14. PS I Love You - Death Dreams

Really the only rock record on my list this year, the Kingston, Ontario indie duo of Paul Saulnier and Benjamin Nelson delivered a collection of angst-laden tunes set to Saulnier's screamingly loud guitars and Nelson's pulse-pounding drumming. Never have I heard such a great record to blast on a summer road trip containing lyrics that plumb the depths of existential darkness - also of course accompanied by Saulnier's distinctively high-pitched vocal stylings. Sentimental Dishes is an asbsolute blast of infectious rock riffs that sounds like 1970's Rush smashed together with Canadian punk rock. Not for everyone, but certainly the most balls out rock record of the year for my money.

13. Danny Michel & The Benque Players - Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me

Popular Canadian singer/songwriter Danny Michel comes the closest we've been to creating a Canuck version of Paul Simon's Graceland with his 10th album, Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me. Taking his trademark roots-rock sound to Belize to record with musicians from the Garifuna Collective, a group of Belizean artists and cultural activists, Michel has created a memorable set of funky, earthy pop tunes. Like Graceland, Michel mixes the irresistible rhythmic flavor of worldbeat with contemplative lyrics about the loss of love, life and life's winding roads. What Colour Are You?, the record's first single, is as worldly as Canadian pop songs get without having been written by K'Naan.

12. ThEESatisfaction - awE naturalE

I'm still not really sure what genre ThEESatisfacion's wonderfully funky, moody debut album on Sub Pop falls into, but what I do know is that it is one of the most fearless records of the year. Made up of the Seattle-based duo of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, awE naturalE is a politically conscious, sad, sexy, funny LP that crackles with rhythmic tension, constantly surprises with gigantic, glimmering vocal melodies and hypnotizes with lush, harmonically soft soundscapes. Sweat is an absolutely killer latin-funk track with an unrecognizable, downright heavy Earth, Wind and Fire sample.

11.  Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream / Frank Ocean - Channel Orange 

Fact: 2012 was a great year for the resurgence of R&B, seeing two great, critically and commercially successful albums from California's Miguel and New Orleans's Frank Ocean. Ocean, currently the more recognized and mainstream artist of the two, released the sultry, compulsively listenable Channel Orange this summer to great unanimous acclaim, setting the stage for a matured, creatively revitalized era for the genre. The smash radio-friendly hit Thinking About You, with its throbbing, sexy backbeat and Ocean's earnest, falsetto tinged vocals became the most replayable R&B single of the last decade.

Miguel, already known in the genre with 2010's All I Want Is You, took his artistry to a new level with his latest, Kaleidoscope Dream. A potent amalgamation of poppy hooks, funky guitars and creative rhythmic flourishes, Miguel has fashioned a truly eccentric, indescribably satisfying R&B record. The the lead single Adorn is a Marvin Gaye-style slow burn with a fuzzy, grinding bass line that lurks below a minimalist keyboard harmony and Miguel's delicate, passionate vocals. Another standout, Do You, is one of my favourite album cuts of the 2012 from any artist; a hauntingly funky psychedelic dream that builds to a swirling, kinetic chorus.

10. Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls

From seemingly out of nowhere this Alabama bluesy-rocky foursome blasted onto the music scene with a handful of explosive performances at this year's SXSW and a headlining stage on the first night of Bonnaroo. Carried by the powerful, soulful vocals and guitar work of 23-year-old lead singer Brittany Howard, the Shakes released their first full length record Boys and Girls to what seemed like an already rabid fan base buoyed by the recent rise of Southern blues-rock (The Black Keys, Kings of Leon). The album itself though, is an absolute stunner of substantial, uplifting cuts, including lead single Hold On, an adrenaline-fueled ol' country anthem with a catchy sing-along chorus and steady, funky rhythmic core. Not bad for what Rolling Stone called the "best song of 2012."

9. Esperanza Spalding - Radio Music Society

The 28-year-old Esperanza Spalding continues her complete control over the pop-jazz genre with her fourth studio album (and second in the Music Society series of albums), with another dense, meticulously constructed, emotion tugging and undeniably soulful release. We're given a funkier and more eclectic collection of songs from Spalding that retain the notes of Brazilian rhythms heard on her other records, but we get elements of soul, gospel and hip-hop. Standouts include the latin-jazz infused cover of Michael Jackson's I Can't Help It and simply sublime lead single Black Gold, a  funky dose of positive vibes featuring some of the jazz prodigy's subtle but virtuosic bass work and a killer horn line.

8. Bahamas - Barchords

I think Afie Jurvanen has had a great time so far recording and performing as Bahamas. The former guitarist of Feist and Jason Collett really came into his own since 2009's Pink Strat with Barchords, a deeply melancholic collection that manages to be sad; soothing; soulful. Lost in the Light is still a song that I almost yearn to listen to when I think about it. It's a song that I think perfectly captures the feeling of sincere romantic longing. It's got an almost four-on-the-floor tribal rhythm to it that adds a visceral punch to an already punishingly beautiful song. And the poppy, radio-friendly Caught Me Thinking is a legitimately funky track that contains great, emotional lyrics like "now I know beyond a shadow of a doubt its my fault." 


On BADBADNOTGOOD's Bandcamp page, you'll find that "...no one above the age of 21 was involved in the making" of the Toronto trio's second original set of studio cuts. Impressive, sure, for a few Humber music grads that can count Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean (whom the band backed at none other than the festival called Coachella this year), Aloe Blacc, Lil' B, and other hip-hop/jazz power brokers as cats they've performed with over the past year. But what really blows my mind about these guys is the ferocity and pure, youthful adrenaline rush they've been injecting into the  modern jazz scene. On Vices, the ethereal, dissonant second track off BBNG2, Alex Sowinski sinks his teeth in hard, pounding out a tight, rhythmic crescendo on his drums with Matt Tavares supplying smooth psychedelic keys and Chester Hansen laying in a wobbly, trippy bass line. This is insanely talented, transcendent stuff that has yielded a rabid, dedicated young fanbase and a definite placeholder in the future of jazz, EDM and hip-hop.

6. The Slakadeliqs - The Other Side of Tomorrow

Slakah the Beatchild is a Toronto based producer for the likes of Divine Brown and Drake and an altogether intensely prolific artist. He's also put out some of the most soulful Canadian music of the year, having sunk four years into writing and recording a beautifully crafted album called The Other Side of Tomorrow as The Slakadeliqs. A smooth, bright, acoustic-guitar laden sound permeates the general sound of the record, with guest stars Justin Nozuka, Tingsek and Shad lending distinct rhythmic and vocal textures to their respective tracks. Love Controls the Sun and Keep Breathing, both collaborations with the Canadian singer/songwriter Nozuka are wholly memorable, singable tracks with a mix of catchy hooks and soft, serene vocal production. This is pop music at its most blissful.

5. KC Roberts and The Live Revolution - Between The Cracks

A highly revered Toronto-based guitarist, front man and songwriter, KC Roberts creates original, highly kinetic and deeply satisfying funk music. I've been following KC since seeing a performance at 2007 Toronto Beaches Jazz Fest where the sheer rhythmic virtuosity and natural ability of KC and his 7-piece band absolutely blew me away. Most recently, KC undertook a crowdfunding project to raise money to record the ambitious Parkdale Funk 2, a two-disc follow up to the (undisputed masterpiece, in my opinion) first Parkdale Funk album. This record, Between The Cracks is a straight live-off-the-floor recording put together in one day at Metalworks studio that captures KC's band at their most spontaneous and progressively funky. Contact is one of the most electrifyingly high-energy disco-boogie cuts I've heard in sometime. 

4. Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes

The current undisputed king of experimental hip-hop came back with a vengeance this year, with a powerhouse of an album that saw the nephew of John Coltrane tread familiar, but also completely new territory. 2010's Cosmogramma was a challenging and a secretly, (at times) hugely rewarding record. This one replaces some of the more minimalist tendencies with broad, shimmering landscapes. Electric Candyman is another collaboration with Radiohead's Thom Yorke and yet again, FlyLo reduces Yorke to a ghost, only this time while creating what sounds like a post-apocalyptic party anthem. This guy's music really warps my mind. Seriously. I saw him play in November and his live show was as close to hallucinations as you get without having taken drugs. Putty Boy Strut is the single and its a crazy cool piece of trap-style hip-hop.

3. Lianne La Havas - Is Your Love Big Enough?

The most soulful new voice of the year, the 23-year-old British songstress Lianne La Havas took my breath away with her debut album Is Your Love Big Enough?; an apt title for such a deeply felt, mature, pitch perfect record. La Havas is the kind of musician that can stand on a stage armed with just a guitar and her voice and captivate a crowd of thousands, but toss some headphones on and listen to Age, easily the catchiest song she's written. It's a romantic, playful little ditty that finds La Havas at her sexiest, plucking her guitar with a carefree, bluesy swing and singing a gorgeous lament about her attraction towards a older gentleman after having her heart broken by a younger one. Forget is one of the funkier cuts, with La Havas indulging in a bit of heavy rhythm, almost like an audition for bigger, more percussive productions in the near future. Like the best soul music, this is an album and an artist best consumed by romantics and lovers alike.

2. Mac Demarco - Rock and Roll Nightclub & 2

With by far the two albums that spent the most time in my headphones this year, Mac Demarco entered the international bloodstream like a chaotic force of intense dissonance that carried a cigarette between its teeth. First came Rock and Roll Nightclub. This is record that sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a dingy stripmall and contains an almost transcendent, artful songs like Baby's Wearing Blue Jeans. I actually listened to his second album, conveniently titled 2. 2 just might be a masterpiece. It is a staggeringly listenable record; to me Demarco's  "slacker rock" is basically progressive Canadian folk-rock filtered through the lens of afro-pop. I know that might be well...impossible to understand unless you've heard his music. All you have to do is listen to Freaking Out The Neighbourhood once. Because that's all it took for me. His show at Toronto's Silver Dollar Room this year was the best hour and a half of live rock music I experienced this year. Yup, even better than this.

1. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

To say that Michael Kiwanuka is somehow a soulful jazz-pop artist that "came out of nowhere" is really to discount the evolution of how a musical cat like Kiwanuka came to be. With comparisons to Willie Nelson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and my favorite soul singer/songwriter of all time, Bill Withers, Michael Kiwanuka blew the collective socks off the soul genre this year with his first studio album, Home Again. A performer of great ease and natural rhythm, his sound is like an updated, British version of the late Donny Hathaway. The jazzy, somber lead cut Tell Me a Tale, showcases a a lyrical tenderness ("Lord I need lovin' / Lord I need good, good lovin") and deft percussively funky touches that add up to music that sounds like the kind you would want to listen to on a sweaty, adventurous summer night. Oh yeah, and Bones is my song of the year. Seriously. Here he is covering I Don't Know, a great song by - oh yeah - my favorite soul singer/songwriter of all time, Bill Withers.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Concert Review: Osaka Monaurail at The Great Hall

Osaka Monaurail & Souljazz Orchestra
The Great Hall
Toronto, ON
July 6 2012

In their first ever North American concert, Japan's "#1 funk orchestra" Osaka Monraurail, wowed a modest crowd friday night at The Great Hall in West Queen West. Put on by World Famous Music, a Canadian promoter known for organizing shows featuring highly talented funk, soul, jazz and electronic artists, the night was an absolute feast for aficionados of international interpretations of funky grooves from the late 1960s and 70s.

Opening for the Japanese funksters was Souljazz Orchestra, easily the most talented afrobeat band to ever emerge from Ottawa, Ontario. Souljazz has gained international recognition for creating catchy, lengthy singles like "Mista President" and "Freedom No Go Die" that are reminicent of the music of Fela Kuti and other popular 1970's West African afrobeat artists. Their live show was almost an exact replica of how I've often imagined afrobeat shows unfolding in a busy Nigerian bar: Intensely sweaty, funky and kind of transcendent, albeit without a bevy of semi-nude Nigerian dancers and the grand political statements that were an integral part of Fela Kuti's shows.

The Great Hall filled up quickly (with mostly Japanese Canadians, ex-pats and funk nerds like myself) as headliners Osaka Monaurail, an eight-piece band uniformly dressed in early 1960's style big-band suit jackets, took the stage, subsequently launching into instantly satisfying, funked out opening workouts of The Temptations "Get Ready" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."  Charismatic frontman Ryo Nakata took the stage in classic band-leader style, almost a full half-hour into Monaurail's set and jumped right into a Maceo Parker-era James Brown flavored jam.

The 39-year-old Nakata attended high school in Alberta and moved back to Japan shortly after, starting the Osaka-based band in 1992. And impressively enough for a Canada-educated Japanese funk musician, his stage presence and vocal twang is eerily similar to Southern soul singers of the late 60s, evoking nostalgic dreams of a time when funk and soul frontmen like James Brown ruled black music in America; when Nakata growls "we'd like to go back to the sixtaaaays", I am placated and content.

The rest of the band can be aptly described as virtuosically talented, even though their sound is wholly limited to funky nostalgia. Drummer Soki Kimura plays with a subtle, yet extremely refined funk technique, employing precise ghost notes in his almost Dennis Chambers-like grooves with a tight swing-jazz touch in his cymbal work. Tenor Saxophonist Shimon Mukai is another standout, sounding like the long-lost Japanese son of Maceo Parker

On the whole, Osaka Monaurail plays with a tightness and a ferocity that pays tribute to James Brown and the subversively-funky past of Motown, Stax and the American South. An indicative moment comes when Nakata begins taunting the band, saying "y'all look like 1986...I want to go back to revolutionary times." Mid-set, Nakata announced that the band was celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, despite having never played a show in the U.S or Canada. Nostalgia for funkier times has always been a good business (especially in Japan), so much so that tight, popular funk bands like Osaka Monaurail consistently guarantee themselves a long musical shelf life. The soul of the Godfather of Soul lives on.

Note: DJ General Eclectic, a member of the well-respected Toronto DJ collective Foot Prints, supplied a welcome serving of rare-soul and funk tunes in between and after sets.

All photos © Corey Caplan 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Funk Friday - Spotlight on Snarky Puppy

In 2004, bassist, composer and producer Michael League formed the jazz-funk ensemble Snarky Puppy at the University of North Texas College of Music in Denton, TX; a hot bed of musical talent in a city that is self-described as a "stomping ground of Jazz musicians and enthusiasts." The band, which operates as something of a collective with a revolving array of nearly 30 musicians, is on the cutting edge of both funk and jazz music. Today's Funk Friday is all Snarky Puppy and you should be very, very happy about that.

Michael League grew up in Texas, in the American South and this is important. Jazz was born in the South and since its ascension to the mainstream in the early 20th century, it has continued to be defined and shaped by Southern musicians. Texas borders Louisiana, a state whose largest and most cultured city, New Orleans is the ultimate mecca for big band style jazz-funk, which I like to call NOLA Funk music. Here's a great performance from Snarky Puppy that takes the NOLA style and slowly builds a steady groove until hitting a climax that almost literally explodes with sound.

This Wednesday I had the glorious pleasure to see Snarky Puppy play live at The Rex, arguably the finest bar in Toronto to take in a show by local and international jazz artists. Playing to a packed house of mostly jazz-hungry teenagers and early twentysomethings, the Snarky Puppy live experience is something of an intense, but inclusive, accessible and wholly memorable trip:  jams happen slowly, starting from basic melodic themes that eventually build their way into satisfyingly heavy grooves provided by League and his tighter-than-tight rhythm section. League and Snarky Puppy's addictive blend of jazz, funk and hip-hop has cemented them as an inventive, powerful force to be reckoned with. I for one will be on my toes to see where they go next.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Funk Friday - Bonnaroo! - June 1st 2012

In a few days I leave for Bonnaroo. It is my third American music festival in three years and I can reasonably predict it will by all respects be the most musically satisfying and physically arduous aural journey I will have embarked upon. Held at the same 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee for the past 10 years, the first Bonnaroo in 2002 saw 70,000 people, selling out the festival far in advance. Today, it has evolved to become one of the, if not the most high profile annual American music festival.

Mostly known for a wildly diverse slate of musical acts and the blistering Tennessee heat of the campgrounds that has effectively killed a handful of attendees in years past, Bonnaroo takes its namesake from New Orleans legend Dr. John's 1971 Meters-backed funk/R&B album Desitively Bonnaroo.

1. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Mellowship Slinky in B Major

The anchoring headliner at Bonnaroo 2012, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, formed in 1983 by vocalist Anthony Kiedis and Michael "Flea" Balzary are in my view, the most successful, prolific funk rock band of all time. Rooted in Parliament/Funkadelic funky guitar rock and the fun, aggressive California punk rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s, RHCP have consistently maintained a broad, strong following for almost three (!) decades.

While the hugely successful 1999 release of Californication saw the band finally reach a decidedly mainstream audience with a new, more mature sound complete with soaring, anthemic hooks and instantly replayable singles, 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik stands as an unheralded funk rock masterpiece. This is my favorite cut off that album.

2. Darondo - My Momma and My Poppa

In the early 1970s, William Pulliam recorded a slew of enjoyably sublime soul singles in the San Francisco Bay area as "Darondo" for Music City Records, a locally popular label that due to distribution problems, had never left California. After having been unearthed by British DJ Giles Peterson, the 1973 single "Didn't I" caught the attention of modern Californian groove label Ubiquity Records and Darondo's complete discography, which at that time had only been treasured by dedicated collectors of rare funk and soul records, was very quickly re-exposed to modern listeners.

Known to have only actually released three singles and played four shows in the 70s (including one opening stint for James Brown), Darondo disappeared from the music business for over 30 years; it is widely rumored that Pulliam created a life for himself as a pimp, but had been known to host local Bay area television specials, including "Darondo's Penthouse After Dark." Darondo's upcoming gig at Bonnaroo will certainly be his most substantial yet in this, the second stage of his musical career.

3. Dr. John - (Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away

I think there is a good reason why Bonnaroo takes its namesake from Dr. John and The Meters' 1971 funky blues classic Desitively Bonnaroo LP. The factually obvious reason is that "Bonnaroo" is Ninth ward NOLA slang, encompassing the French word "bon" meaning "good" and "rue" meaning "street." Taken literally, we would have the phrase "the best on the streets." According to Dr. John, "desitively" is a simple mash-up of "definitely positively."

Beyond etymology though, I think what music festivals, and specifically what Bonnaroo offers is a brief escape from everyday reality. A lot of the preconceived notions about music festivals involve a sort of survivalist, too-drugged-out-to-function atmosphere, but this could not be further from the truth: The music festival is a place of unbelievable positivity; where the capacity for a truly shared kinetic experience is as close to realized as we can get. If the objective of Dr. John and The Meters and the soul of NOLA funk music in general is to invigorate listeners with "the best on the streets" then we should only hope that we get a little "Bonnaroo" before our time is up.   

Friday, May 18, 2012

Funk Friday - Oliver Wang's Soul Sides - May 18th 2012

I have been completely obsessed and devoted to being something of a student and purveyor of The Funk and soul music for only a couple years now, but to the best of my recollection, it has always rested deep within my psyche; a long dormant beast cultivated throughout my almost 15+ years of being a musician, only now fully realized as a natural extension of my musical being. But there are many others that I myself look to whom are heavyweights in the writing, research and historical exploration of the genre.

Lately I have been increasingly drawn to Los Angeles writer Oliver Wang's spectacular blog Soul Sides. Wang is a prolific music journalist, academic and renowned crate digger who has written extensively about hip-hop and its historically associated groove genres since the early 1990s. I personally look to Soul Sides as a modern voice in the restoration of legendary funk and soul artists from decades past and have discovered quite a few spectacular records and cuts, a few of which I'd like to share for today's Funk Friday.

1. Eugene McDaniels - The Parasite
("Soul Sides: "Side Bar podcast #27")

 "Goddamn it! / Tryin' to make it real compared to what."

Gene McDaniels is something of a revered figure in the league of professional musicians spanning across multiple genres. Most famous for writing the above lyric in the consistently relevant protest song "Compared To What", the late McDaniels emerged from his Nebraska upbringings with a head full of jazz and a heart brimming with the gospel music of his youth to become a relatively popular pop-soul musician and songwriter, following the path of many African American musicians in the 1960s.

In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a radicalized McDaniels left the United States in a self-imposed exile to Denmark and Sweden, eventually returning to America in 1971 to record his most famous record, "Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse", a visceral, politically liberated LP that spanned the soul, funk and folk genres, with many tracks decades later by hip-hop artists like Pete Rock and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. "The Parasite" is one of the most epic cuts of soul I have ever heard: McDaniels' soaring, sometimes guttural musings on the violence of America's past, backed by the laid back blues guitar of Richie Resnikofff and underlined by Alphonse Mouzon's kinetically satisfying grooves. 

2. Dizzy Gillespie - Matrix
("Soul Sides 04/19/2012: "Naturally Good: Perception and Today Records")

There isn't much that needs to be said about Dizzy Gillespie that hasn't been repeated ad nauseum, but why the hell not. One of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, Dizzy Gillespie, was instrumental (pun kind of intended) in pioneering and exposing listeners the world over to bebop and injecting Latin rhythms into his playing, effectively creating the afro-cuban genre. Gillespie's contribution to the evolution of funk music, or even perhaps the more focused jazz-funk genre are relatively limited, but we can reasonably say that come the 1970s, most popular jazz men (names like George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis come to mind), had tried their hands at the increasingly lucrative funk scene in America.

Gillespie's 1971 "The Real Thing" LP is much more than the trumpeter attempting a stab at jazz-funk. Released by New York's Perception label, known for its soul and R&B records, the album, written mostly by Gillespie collaborator and pianist Mike Longo, is an example of groove-heavy, melodically dynamic jazz-funk; a sound that given Gillespie's genre defining career, is simultaneously refreshing and comforting. "Matrix", undoubtedly one of the most sampled and therefore pop culturally recognized Gillespie cuts, is a ridiculously catchy blast of signature Gillespie-style bebop and just plain infectious funk rhythm. 

3. Lionel Robinson - Steppin Out
("Soul Sides 04/11/2012: "Slapping Down 7"s")

 Finally, the most obscure of the musicians profiled in today's post, Lionel Robinson was discovered in 1967 singing on a street corner in New Orleans by a member of NOLA local band The Blue Pearls and shortly after landed an opportunity to record with producer Traci Borges of Knight Records, who would go on to sign Robinson to a record deal and write the first of Robinson's (now rare) EPs. Robinson would eventually leave Borges' label (now famous for rare funk/soul cuts by Jean Knight and Eddie Bo) to perform with other well-known NOLA soul performers though the years, but has never pursued other solo work to date.

"Steppin' Out", as Oliver Wang describes it, is "super-solid early ’70s gutbucket funk with an opening breakbeat...and slick bass work." Indicative of the developing NOLA funk style in the late 1960s and early 70s, popularized mainly by The Meters, with Robinson echoing James Brown gospel-style vocals, this is a raw, addictive cut that belongs on the dance floor and a must-listen for old school NOLA funk fans.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Funk Friday - Funk (also hugely infuential jazz) Artists - March 30th 2012

Usually when we think of the most influential funky jazz artists, we think of names like Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Roy Ayers; cats whose versatility and comfortability in their jazz roots allowed them to smoothly crossover into commercially and artistically successful careers in multiple genres, especially with the rise of funk music in the 1970s, which allowed traditional jazz artists to stretch out their rhythmic songwriting chops and enter into the pop blood stream.

Today we'll look at a few artists that are labeled and recognized in music circles as "jazz" artists, but in my mind are important contributors to the history and development of well-composed, infectious funk music. Two of them also worked with the man: Miles Davis, one of the undisputed legends of the fusion of jazz and progressive funk rock music.  

1. Every Little Step I Take - George Duke (1979)

Keyboardist George Duke, known for his jazz pedigree and work as a session musician, has played and collaborated with Miles Davis, Jean-Luc Ponty, Frank Zappa and Parliament/Funkadelic's George Clinton. Having attended a life-changing Duke Ellington concert with his mother at the age of four, Duke's awakening to jazz came very early in life, eventually leading to a Masters degree in music composition and a brief teaching stint at a junior college in Oakland. But it was the gospel music in the Baptist church that taught Duke the roots of Black music, informing the funky soulful sound that would manifest itself in his solo work. Duke says that "art has to have something to communicate" and this cut off his 1979 LP Master of the Game is a taste of the outwardly funky but inherently jazz-oriented work found on many of Duke's albums released during the golden era of 1970s funk music.

 2. Norman Connors - Stella (1979)

A classically trained percussionist and drummer, Norman Connors met his idol, Miles Davis at age 13 and in middle school got the chance to sit in on drums with John Coltrane in place of the legendary Elvin Jones. Connors would go on to study his craft at Juilliard and like Duke, try his hand at session playing after receiving his degree, playing on records with names like Herbie Hancock and Pharaoh Sanders. Connors released a number of jazz/R&B LPs under his name after obtaining his first record deal, but it was only after Connors signed a deal with mainstream label Arista that he would find his funky sound. Off of his debut LP with Arista This Is Your Life, "Stella" is a soulful, danceable love song, representative of the funky R&B elements of his late-seventies jams that still inspire funk fans and collectors today. 

3. Stratus - Billy Cobham (1973)

Billy Cobham is known as one of the best jazz, fusion and funk drummers of all time, full stop. Most well known from his work as a permanent member of Miles Davis's band and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, part of what makes Cobham special has nothing to do with his lightning-fast chops, chameleon like versatile yet unmistakable style, or even his impressively precise dynamics. Cobham's true genius for funk enthusiasts in particular, is his songwriting ability. His LP A Funky Thide of Sings in particular is an absolute blast of intricate, uptempo funky rock-fusion, but this particular cut off his first release as a solo artist called Spectrum was a grammy-winning sensation and regarded in the fusion and drumming communities as a game changer. It's dark, viscerally funky stuff that also completely rocks.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Album Review: Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

Steadily over the past decade or so, it has become clear that the UK has developed a knack for producing some of the most powerful and popular voices in the pop-soul/jazz scene heard round the world; names like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Lily Allen and of course newly-crowned pop heavyweight Adele come to mind. New to the genre, quickly making a name for himself opening for Adele during her 2011 tour and winning the BBC's Sound of 2012 poll over such recognizable names as Skrillex and Frank Ocean, is Michael Kiwanuka, who released his wonderful debut LP Home Again in early March of this year.

Kiwanuka's brand of soulful jazz-pop has been compared to a bevy of singer/songwriters from decades past including Willie Nelson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and my favorite soul singer/songwriter of all time, Bill Withers. The Withers connection has been made in every piece I've read written about Kiwanuka thus far, and from my view, it is an apt one: the lead track off of Home Again called "Tell Me a Tale" showcases Kiwanuka's propensity for 70s style swingin' soul-jazz rhythms and a lyrical tenderness (Lord I need lovin' / Lord I need good, good lovin') that is positively Withers-esque.

But while Kiwanuka certainly shares a meaningful amount of stylistic similarity with Withers, to me he sounds like the second-coming of Willie Wright, an only recently embraced soul-folk artist from the late 70s, whose LP "Telling the Truth" was released by the Numero Group in March of last year. Wright's brand of deeply felt soul - soft, delicate rhythms that maintain a melodic grace and palpable swing, is a departure from the kinetic funk of Bill Withers and more closely resembles the style that informs the bulk of Kiwanuka's album.

Like Wright, despite what Kiwanuka's first batch of songs perhaps lack in sophistication and versatility, the sheer listenability of smooth, infectiously lovable songs like "I'm Getting Ready", "Bones" and the melancholic title track ultimately make Home Again an impressive debut for an artist that is on the cusp of solidifying a place for himself in the pantheon of beloved British soul artists.