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.