Michael Olatuja (featuring Alicia Alatuja): Walk With Me

What a coincidence: this afternoon I had relocated my laptop to the three-season porch to take advantage of the quickly fading autumn sunshine. The first CD I popped into the stereo was Mahalia Jackson's Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns. Wow, what a voice. Though I did not grow up in this tradition (and I don't think my attending the Polish mass just to hear the pipe organ counts), I've spent enough time listening to various roots musics to know when something is “the real thing.”

Later in the evening, I pull the top entry off my review pile: bassist Michael Olatuja. Amazing. His modern take on the old gospel classic “Walk With Me,” featuring his wife Alicia Olatuja on vocals, has some common ground with Jackson – the subtle incorporation of many musical elements. Where Jackson brought in blues and jazz, Olatuja has funk, soul, and jazz: all in service to the tune. The more modern parts of the composition feature Olatuja's groove-laced bass work as well as Alicia's soulful vocals. But just when you think all is contemporary, the band drops into a nice & swingin' vamp that would not be out of place on a Vince Guaraldi record. Great stuff.

Something tells me I've got to try to work on that porch again tomorrow.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Jackson: T-Bolt

Opening up with a dirty, dark funk beat and bass line, Paul Jackson sets the mood perfectly for this 1978 album that was finally released on CD in 2000 here in the United States. Accompanied by musicians who weren't exactly household names, the nature of the song brings out all of their bright spots and playing abilities. The song takes a little bit to kick into the main section but once it does it's nothing short of splendid. All in all, this song moves around much more than expected. The melody begins as Jackson doubles up the melody with the guitarist as Webster Lewis then doubles up the line with the synthesizer.

Lewis plays a nice solo on this song, it's very subdued and lyrical at the same time. It's not over the top but quenches the thirst just right with choice note selections and good use of tension and release. I'm glad that this album finally got to see the light outside of Japan. There are so many good albums that have never been released here in the United States but thank goodness this one made it.

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments


The Headhunters: If You Got It, You'll Get It

When you talk a band bringing the funk, you've got to talk about the Headhunters. Fresh off of several albums with Herbie Hancock, the backing band of Mike Clark, Paul Jackson, Bennie Maupin and original Headhunters drummer Harvey Mason created an epic funk masterpiece for this 1975 Arista release. Partly produced by Herbie Hancock, "If You Got It, You'll Get It" features guitarist Blackbird McKnight and Mike Clark on vocals and they do a pretty good job of making this track work. The words aren't by any means rocket science, but neither is funk music and that's why it works so well.

The song opens up with a East Asian/African influenced string line over some nice percussion. Then Paul Jackson throws down the anchor and the funk begins. The song is highlighted by a screeching guitar solo by McKnight, which kindly walks the gray line between tonal and atonal. Overall, this song is a gem on an album that has been largely overlooked by jazz heads and more embraced by hip-hop heads for its drum breaks and sample friendly grooves. Go get this, you won't be disappointed and if you are, call me and I"ll buy it from you!

August 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Jaco Pastorius: Come On, Come Over

This is the only song off of Jaco Pastorius to feature vocals and like all of the other guest spots on the album, the bassist hired more legendary musicians to fill the spots. R&B duo Sam and Dave sing the vocal on this tune. Although this is not the most dense of songs, it marks one of the first times that Pastorius used an extended brass and reed section, which he would later employ with the Word of Mouth band. His horn section is also chalked full of some of the best players to ever have played jazz music.

Pastorius had a strong affinity for funk music and that influence is highly audible on this song. Herbie Hancock really brings the entire groove together with this wah-wah clavinet chord pattern. I really like the arrangements for the horn section and I think that Sam and Dave would have benefited nicely from an entire album with this band. Another classic song from a classic album!

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Ondagroove: Oh Yeah!

If I happen to tune to the wrong radio station, the one that plays the smooth stuff, I sometimes play a little game and see how long I can take it. Usually, Kenny G will show up and I'll scream “Uncle!” Hey, maybe I'm just courting my inner masochist.

I don't know what draws people to that kind of music. Maybe it's the relative calm and regularity. There are no surprises. The rhythms are so predictable. But...but...

Why do I like this track so much? Because it's got some of what the usual aural Velveeta lacks: steaming funk. Sure, the rhythm track is solid and unyielding. But the the keyboard vibe placed against the electronica-influenced rhythm is pretty damned hot. Plus, there's no other word for that tiny guitar figure than wicked. It seems to come by way of Prince's "Sign 'O The Times," and that ain't a bad thing at all.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock: Actual Proof

“Actual Proof” from the record Thrust was very important to me. One thing that I love about it is the way the structure works—there’s a tricky bassline where sometimes you’re not sure where one is, and sometimes the second beat sounds like it’s on one—and how the improvisation works against the structure. As those events happen, the soloist’s challenge is to make sure he’s expressing what the structure is, while also playing through it. Here Mike Clark is really funky, Paul Jackson plays very contrapuntally, and Herbie plays creative, open ideas against that. I also like that it’s an electric piano. Herbie is not only a great acoustic piano player, but also really got the thwack you need to play the different colors that the electric piano brought into the music—and here all those colors are on display. Sometimes he’s playing really complicated lines against the bassline. Other times he’s really funky against the bassline. Other times, he’s sort of playing counter-rhythms against the bassline, which has the effect of taking something that’s displaced and displacing it even further. The whole thing adds up into a really thrilling song. There’s a thrilling version of "Actual Proof” on a record called The Flood, which was a live date made in Japan about a year later with the same rhythm section, but Herbie is playing acoustic. I’ll choose this version, because it’s the first one that came out. I also like that it’s really funky, but once you start to delve into the structure, it’s not just predictable funk. It’s a puzzle to play over, but you’d never know from the ease and grace Herbie expresses when he plays on it. He’s always so rhythmically secure, so that even when things get really tricky, he’s just floating above it and playing the form.

March 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Shut Your Mouth

Most funk bands bring in a whole posse to slam that backbeat into submission. But a funk trio with no bass guitar? And no percussionists to keep company with the drummer? Leave it to Joshua Redman to try to stretch his Elastic Band to build such a big sound with so small a cadre. Of course it helps that Sam Yahel has more electric equipment plugged in than a Best Buy on Labor Day weekend. But drummer Jeff Ballard deserves special credit for keeping this number simmering for the full 5½ minutes. And our star of the sax acts like he trained his axe on stacks and stacks of Stax. Tawdry crossover, you say? I reply: "Shut your mouth!"

January 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Boogaloo Joe Jones: Right On

As the 1960s turned into the '70s, soul jazz co-opted bigger chunks of contemporary R&B, resulting in funkier, deeper grooves. Lou Donaldson, George Benson and Charles Earland all made records that closely identified with the style, as did "Boogaloo" Joe Jones.

Built entirely from a 2- chord riff, "Right On" has a very straightforward mission, but it was carried out by those best equipped to do so. Boogaloo had the great organist Earland on board, after all, in addition to Rusty Bryant and "Pretty" Purdie. Bryant turns in a muscular tenor sax solo, while Earland contributes a well-constructed, boiling cauldron of soul that he was so well known for. Still and all, Purdie's trademark shuffle is where the funkiness begins. As for Jones, he wasn't blessed with the range or harmonic sophistication of Benson, but he could nearly match him on torrid single-note runs and likewise play with a great rhythmic sense. Those were qualities that were optimally suited for "Right On." When everyone is getting the maximum mileage out of a groove, a 2-chord riff is all that's needed.

December 18, 2008 · 0 comments


George Duke: Everyday Hero

Old school funk still lives. This song will make you want to pull those '70s-era fashions out of your closet and dance around the block. Imagine something in the vein of "Pick Up the Pieces" or "Shining Star" and those other memorable K-Tel moments, and you will get the general idea of "Everyday Hero." But it is refreshing to hear a song of this sort nowadays relying on real live musicians instead of samples and loops. Not a single "programmer" is mentioned in the personnel listing on this track. So the mood may be retro, the lyrics banal, but the rhythm section is tight and hot and in the flesh. Drummer Ron Bruner, Jr. and percussionist Sheila E get high marks from me. Along with Duke, they take this simpleminded material and make it into something worth shaking your moneymaker over.

September 04, 2008 · 1 comment


Jeff Coffin Mu'tet: Bubble Up

If your nightmares came with slick funk soundtracks, they might sound like this. The high-steppin' beat underscores an opening melody built on almost unhummable intervals. But your strange dream gets stranger when Béla Fleck's banjo enters, dispelling the '70s fusion attitude with a double dose of creative anachronism. Just when you think this song can't get any odder, Jeff Coffin pulls out the "Q-Tron Envelope Filter" from his bag of tricks. I'm not sure what that contraption looks like, but the resulting sax solo sounds like a cross between a duck quacking in syncopated phrases and your mom nagging you over a bad phone connection. By the time "Bubble Up" has bubbled out, you will need two aspirins and a day of Vivaldi on the CD player.

July 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Marcus Miller: Blast!

This is Buddha Bar music with an extra dose of funk. The mixture of Western grooves with Eastern modalities is very effective, and is furthered by the clever incorporation of sitar into the mix. The structure is built off a simple call-and-response between Miller and the ensemble, but the whole piece turns on the rhythmic fire generated by the bandleader. It's great to hear Miller, who turns 50 next year, still playing with such youthful fervor.

April 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Marcus Miller: Bruce Lee

Marcus Miller's Silver Rain is caught in a jazz no-man's-land. That's the place in between Smooth Jazz and fusion. There is no way someone who likes the former is going to enjoy the latter and vice versa. So, although the multitalented Miller displays exceptional ability on every cut on this album, I find myself gagging on the smooth stuff and digging the fusion stuff. But because the tunes seem to alternate between the two worlds, I can't make my way through the whole album. I am sure the rest likewise vacillates. Two distinct albums would have been a better artistic and commercial choice, in my humble opinion.

Lucky for me that "Bruce Lee" is the CD's second cut. Miller says the title is a tribute to the martial arts superstar's ability to improvise. Miller's bass is way up in the mix on this funk-jazz piece. The sound is a bit dry, but the fun and engaging riff at the center of the tune is not. Strangely, at first I mistook it for the theme of the Boston Legal TV show. But some guy named Danny Lux wrote that. Miller's string-slapping and overdubbed synth parts on top of the band's funk groove will have you moving in your seat. Miller's solo is a robust statement. That is one hard-biting sound he manages to get. A bed of electronic ambience is laid out for Albright's solo. The opening Boston Legal riff returns to funk it out to the end.

March 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Dr. Lonnie Smith: Son of Ice Bag

Having been steady organist in the bands of both Lou Donaldson and George Benson for almost three years, Lonnie Smith had plenty of experience before cutting his first Blue Note album as leader in 1968. Add the meaty frontline of Lee Morgan and “Fathead” Newman, and you get a rare groove that is not only funky but much more daring than your average soul-jazz session. The group sounds well rehearsed, and the arrangement is tight, yet there is an openness that gives the soloists the freedom to develop their solos modally and not simply string together regurgitated blues licks. Smith and company generate some highly creative, thoughtful improvisations that will encourage close listening. This is high-quality late-'60s jazz—straight, no chaser. It just happens to also be a hard groovin’ boogaloo.

January 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Jimmy McGriff: Back on the Track

Though he considers himself to be first and foremost a blues musician, Jimmy McGriff straddles the demarcating lines between R&B, gospel, funk and jazz more comfortably than any organist in any genre. Electric Funk sounds like the lost soundtrack to an unreleased blaxploitation film and its first cut, “Back On The Track,” would be perfect for the opening credits. The deep-pocket bassist lays down some serious funk and the mystery drummer is so nasty he’ll make DJs drool. Always deeply soulful, McGriff preaches his own gospel with short exclamatory licks to fill the space allotted him in Horace Ott’s simple yet effective “small big band” arrangement. A standout track on the funkiest record in the Blue Note stacks.

January 29, 2008 · 1 comment


Donald Byrd: Weasil

An under-recognized classic, Fancy Free highlights Donald Byrd in transition between his acoustic hard-bop period and his slick, controversial 1970s albums produced by the Mizell Brothers. This was the first time Byrd used electric piano on record, and the sly, loping, dramatically behind-the-beat “Weasil” is the standout track. It features a Frank Foster tenor solo for the ages—fat-toned and confident, he speaks the blues with fierce authority. Drummer Joe Chambers adjusts his groove to each soloist, but retains a laid-back swagger and assurance that insist the track moves at his tempo. If your head isn’t bopping within two seconds after pushing play, check your pulse. This one is that deep.

January 29, 2008 · 0 comments


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