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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Funk Friday - The Chicago Sound - March 16th 2012

1. We Ain't Free - Boscoe

 The south side of Chicago produced many soul / funk superstars but is also known in funk circles as one of the beating hearts of American funk in the early-to-mid 1970s. The golden era of funk music was born out of the... need for a rougher, tougher sound evolving out of the popular soul music of the early 1960s and into the angry, violent mood in America, especially in low-income African-American communities beginning around 1967. Coming straight out of the south side, the self-titled album by Boscoe, discovered and re-released by the always reliable Numero Group in 2008, is a slice of virulently political funk that explicitly skewers American policy, while pushing through tremendously infectious funk grooves and melodies. "We Ain't Free" is the best example of the band's fearlessness, starting off with a dissonant blast on the Star-Spangled Banner then morphing into a delicious groove with the protest-worthy "Can't you see / We ain't free" chanted in sparkling harmonies throughout. 

2. Black Enuff - The Pharaohs 

 Before Maurice White formed the pop-funk behemoth known as Earth Wind and Fire, he was a session drummer from Chicago working for the legendary Chess records, having recorded tracks with the likes of legendary artists ...like Etta James. But before EWF, White put together an 11 (!) piece ensemble band with a percussion section led by White and Derf Reklaw, who would go on to become one of the most respected names in the world jazz genre. Their first album "Awakening", which Allmusic called "absolutely one of the finest funk albums of the early 70s, and one of the most unfairly neglected" is an impressively mounted LP that lays down complex horn arrangements on top of gritty afro-funk rhythms and a rowdy, free-flowing lyricism in tune with black protest rhetoric of the early 1970s. Easy to see early elements of EWF in this cut, called "Black Enuff".

3. Help Somebody - Earth Wind & Fire

Probably the most successful funk group ever, Earth Wind And Fire is founder Maurice White's crowning achievement and the truest expression of the Chicago funk sound. Formed in 1971 by White, their first, self-titled... album stood out in the increasingly crowded pantheon of funk groups of the 1970s with a decidedly eclectic sound employing afro-funk style grooves, heavy use of African percussion, White's complex horn arrangements (honed his time with The Pharaohs), and progressive, positive lyrics. EWF would go on to record seven top-10 albums, influence more popular musicians than appropriate to name and play for President Obama at his administration's first social event. "Help Somebody" is the first cut off their debut LP.