Tag Archives: Jazz

“The Band is his Orchestra/The Sounds of Delight”- A Riquespeaks feature series on Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones turned 84 earlier this month, in a year that has already seen the passing of such musical luminaries as Junie Morrison, Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jarreau and most recently, the cornerstone of Rock & Roll Chuck Berry. It is going on eleven years since we lost James Brown, who Quincy was three months older than, and we just lost Prince last year. It is now seven years since we lost the man who’s career is seen as Quincy’s foremost musical legacy, Michael Jackson. A few years ago, Quincy’s close friend and Montreaux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobbs passed on in a skiing accident. But Quincy remains a unifying figure, one who speaks to the history of African American music in the 20th century and how that tradition can be carried on into the future and recognized as a key contribution to world heritage.

One very interesting project that Q had on the table during the administration of President Barack Obama was to get music and American culture in general cabinet level recognition in the United States. He was not able to get that project accomplished, though I’m sure he gave it his all. Although that particular project was not successful, Quincy has used his own music and albums as a platform toward that very same aim.

Respect and appreciation for Quincy Jones was something I grew up with, outside of his production for Michael Jackson. His work with M.J might have been the main reason I was checking for this “old jazz guy” as a kid, but the facts are, my father was a serious Quincy Jones fan. I grew up hearing albums like “Quincy Jones plays the Hip Hits”, and “The Quintessence.” My father highly respected Q as somebody who took the mantle from the great jazz composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Carter, Gil Evans, and so many others. Q was highly proffesional, had trained at the future Berklee School of Music back when it was called “The Schillinger House”, and has also trained in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He also was one of the first Black arrangers to be involved on an ongoing basis with film scoring.

Through all of this, Q was developing a particular brand of musical magic that prepared him perfectly to deliver three of the best selling, most incredible examples of American popular music ever assembled, namely, “Off the Wall”, “Thriller”, and “Bad.” Now I don’t mean to make these three albums the focus of Q’s entire career that encompasses so much of whats good in American music, from Count Basie, to Frank Sinatra, to The Brothers Johnson, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. But what I will do with this series is talk about how the unique musical, experiential and spiritual gifts of Quincy Jones were present throughout his career on his solo albums, which really meant Michael Jackson was stepping into a rolling train when he and Q began work on “Off the Wall.” Which also made possible the later star studded success of “The Dude” and “Back on the Block.”

The different musical approaches of Q’s albums, from his skillful use of guest stars, his choice in cover songs, his incorporation of his portage’s compositions, his usage of tones such as flutes mixed with synthesizer leads, his dipping into the old blues and African styles, his jazz based pop language, and his strong rhythm sections manifest themselves on his pre “Off the Wall” and “The Dude” albums. So this particular series will focus on how Q innovated this genre of the producer led album, which is a genre that would later give us great musical works such as Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” Q really brought “The Producer” out as a star and musical artist in a way few have done. His skills as a producer were based in his skills as a composer and arranger, but when he reached the peak of his career he no longer needed to write or even arrange the tunes on his album. He mastered the very modern musical skills of setting the right tempos, choosing the right artists, both instrumentalists and vocalists, choosing the right songs, and a million other musical details that went beyond the magic of simply sitting at the piano or holding a guitar and writing a song. This magic of the producer is one that has been appreciated more and more by the music industry and the public at large in recent years. And it’s one I intend to explore in depth, from “Walking In Space” all the way to “Juke Joint”. Q’s success with MJ and his other R&B/pop hybrids in the 1980s was definitley not a fluke, but something masterminded by one of the greatest social musicians we’ve seen, the great Quincy Delight Jones!!!

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Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month I: “March of the Panther” by Mongo Santamaria

Mongo Santamaria is the one of the best artists to talk about during Black History Month because the cultural forces behind his music cover such a large part of the African diaspora. A native of pre Revolutionary Cuba, he learned music in his community based on rhythms that had come directly from Africa. It was said one of his grandfathers had in fact been a Yoruba priest. His composition, “Afro Blue”, was considered to be the first jazz standard based on an African “3 over 2” rhythm, and was popularized by John Coltrane. In the ’60s he moved from a straight Afro Latin jazz to a Boogaloo based melange of Afro Latin rhythms interlaid with the popular sounds of Soul and Funk. One album I grew up with during that period was an album he did called “Soul Bag”, that featured an incredible version of “Cold Sweat.” Today’s Black History Month special is a song from his 1970 LP, “Mongo 70”, entitled “March of the Panther.” This song was composed by guitarist Sonny Henry, who was the composer of Carlos Santana’s breakthrough hit, “Evil Ways”, which he originally recorded with Willie Bobo. “March of the Panther” is a funky, strident, striving number with the electric energy of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The song begins with an old school military march theme, featuring snare drum, tuba, flutes and horns playing in a style straight out of the Revolutionary War period. The allusion is very clear as the song transitions from music for that old school revolutionary army to a groove for the new school revolutionary army, The Black Panther Party, as the drummer plays a snare fill that leads to the groove. Bass Player John Hart plays a funky two note baseline supported by two pickup notes in the classic late ’60s, early ’70s style. There is a call and response relationship between the bass line and the electric piano, as the piano plays a syncopated rhythm chord figure after the bass plays its eighth notes. The drums play two strong kick drum notes in harmony with the bass but besides the cracking snare drum hits the drums are partially obscured by Mongo’s powerful African percussive figures, which are both pattern setting but also communicate in an improvisational way. These provide the setting for the rousing horn fanfare, which is a national anthem type melody that plays long, sustained notes, in the style of marching/military music, but also reminiscent of horn sections in African and Afro Latin bands, playing horn lines in unison. The bass and horn melody goes between two chords, as the bass line walks down to second chord sequence and the horns follow. After playing through that sequence the arrangement goes to a change part where the whole arrangement seems to come together in unity for the chorus, which is then followed by another vamp/statement of the main melody, with more attention paid to the trumpets, followed by another chorus that is again, heavier on the top end of the horns. After that a tenor sax solo is introduced, under which the bass player is given more freedom to improvise funky lines that support the solo. After the solo ends, Mongo’s conga playing becomes more pronounced, as he varies his rhythm and begins to take more of a leadership role, introducing the sections of the song with his drum flurries. The song grooves on and fades out, shifting back to a straight military march at the end.

“March of the Panther” took up the call that was made during the 1960s for new forms of Black art that would be the new symbols of the New Black Nation. In this case, it envisions itself as the theme for The Black Panther Party as the military arm of that nation. Mongo always foregrounded African/Black identity in his music, naming songs after Yoruba Gods and Black figures such as Malcom X. It was amazing for me to discover this funky song that took the idea of a military march and remade it for the age of The Panthers. The song itself is a good example of uptempo, super rhythmic, boogaloo inspired early 70s funk, in fact it would work very well over a montage movie scene about The Panthers or activists set in that time period. It was said that Herbie Hancock played his classic “Watermelon Man” for Mongo after Mongo had said he couldn’t see the connection between Afro Cuban and Afro American music. Upon hearing the funky tune, Mongo immediately got excited and began playing along with it. Of course, in Mongo’s hands, “Watermelon Man” went on to become one of the biggest hits in jazz history. It was this ability to connect the African roots, modern Afro Cuban music, jazz, and the then current funk and soul vibes that gave Mongo the unique place in Black music history and Black culture that he occupies. And that is one reason, along with his excellent musicianship, that a figure like Mongo deserves more consideration when contemplating the bonds of Africans in the Americas. And “March of the Panther” stands tall as an anthem for the Party that is no longer that brings together the energy of the whole African diaspora for the long waged fight for total prosperity and liberation!

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Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Special

Black History Month is admittedly one of those things my opinion of has vacillated on through the course of my life. When I was a young child in school I enjoyed it more than anything else in my school curriculum. I have always been the type of individual who views the acquisition of knowledge with the attitude of exploration and discovery. And Black history, both in Africa and America having the “Hidden” quality that it does, due to suppression, ignorance, arrogance the profitability of subjugation and domination. My parents always had a strong sense of Black history simply from their backgrounds, my father being born in the Depression era south and being active in the Civil Rights movement, and my mother being a Liberian with a rich understanding of both Africa and her country’s roots in being established as a haven from American slavery and white supremacy. Still, I don’t think the majority of Black parents want to overburden their children with sad and negative messages. So even with my parents having the knowledge of things that they did, some of the most substantial information would come out when they were watching and responding to news items.

I was fortunate enough to have Asian and white teachers in Oakland, California who were very responsive and understanding of the predominantly Black demographics of their school, under the guidance of Mrs. Kelly, a strong Black Principal, to inject Black and multi cultural information into the curriculum. I still remember my kindergarten Teacher Ms. Huen giving us red envelopes for Chinese New Year, which is also this month, and marks the return of my birth sign, the Rooster!

So I always enjoyed learning about Carter G Woodson, Lewis Latimer, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Phyllis Wheatley, W.E.B DuBois, Madame C.J Walker, and the numerous other luminary figures who against all odds contributed to America and kept Black people alive to get to the point we are today. Many of their inventions and discoveries proved to me a truth my father related to me from his experience down south, that a great many things were invented by very hands on Black people who were tasked with getting the work done and took it upon themselves to find an easier way to get those tasks accomplished.

Then when I grew up, in the Def Comedy Jam ’90s, I got innundated with the same jokes as everybody else, about how they “gave Black people the shortest month.” Which totally overlooks the contributions of Carter G Woodson and the fact that Black History Month is a BLACK invention. More recently the line has been “Black history is all year round”, which is one that I wholeheartedly agree with and try to practice on this blog and my other writing activities. However, just as with holidays, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and other events, there is a reason Human beings choose dates to commemorate things. There is a great power to Human ritual that we sometimes forget in our modern fragmented world, a certain purification of purpose and inspiration. And it’s in that spirit that I’m adding a supplement to “Music 4 the Nxt 1” in honor of Black history month. I will still review funky songs but the scope will expand in terms of era, genre, and locale. I will cover songs of inspiration, songs in honor of Black historical figures, and songs that were just breakthroughs or inspiring to Black people at any given point of time. These grooves will come from Reggae, Soul, Funk, Rock, Gospel, Spirituals, Jazz and many other genres. I hope that my readers enjoy it and that it reminds you of the struggles, accomplishments, joys, pains and exultations of peoples of African descent and why it is critical our position continue to be strengthened for the good of all.

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Music for the NEXT One Purple MusicLives Edition : “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” by Wallace Roney

 

The only way I’ve been able to really come to grips with Prince’s passing has been through the artistic medium he mastered the most during his lifetime, music. Today’s “Music for the NEXT One selection, “Virtual Choclate Cherry” has several layers of musical and personal associations with Prince’s life and music. Wallace Roney is one of the “Young Lions” of Jazz who appeared on the scene in the 1980s. Unlike Wynton Marsalis, who although greatly influenced by Miles’ second Great Quintet, allowed himself to be positioned in the media as a sort of Anti Miles Davis, Wallace Roney embraced the broad, “Social Music” concept of post “In a Silent Way” Miles. He did this with a tone that was so Miles influenced that the members of the second Great Quintet, with all the original members save Miles himself, used him to take Miles place when they staged a reunion tour during the ’80s. Roney is also reputed to be one of Miles few trumpet students, and he supported Miles at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival, with Quincy jones conducting Gil Evans classic arrangements from his collaborations with Miles. Of course, Miles and Prince were mutual fans of each other’s work as well as their mutual Gemini complexities. One of my big musical “what ifs” is imagining how the music would have sounded if those two Giants were able to record more. There are a few examples of their collaborations, but today’s song, “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” by Wallace Roney, might be the best example I’ve yet heard of a Miles musical attitude in a Prince type of musical environment. Roney takes Prince’s classic from the “1999” album, “D.M.S.R” and keeps the party going with room for the musicians to solo, and a fascinating new mix of synthesized pop and acoustic jazz textures.

The song begins at the beginning with the 8 note funky synth riff from “D.M.S.R”, played on a synth, sitting right on top of Lenny White’s drums. White’s drums have his classic, full, wide marching jazz sound, playing a funky, laid back variation of Prince’s original Linn Drum beat. In the 4th bar the acoustic bass comes in, and it has the freedom to improvise different funky lines as the electric piano plays a bluesy sounding riff. There is an electric wave sound in the background most likely added by co-producer Kareiem Riggens. At this point in my first hearing of the song I knew I was hearing “D.M.S.R” but I didn’t know how far Roney and company would go.

When the five note “D.M.S.R” blues riff comes in (DA-Da-DAAAH-DADA) you realize they’re going all out into full Purple mode! The synth hits with Mineapolis sound gospel chords as the acoustic bass begins to play Prince’s classic line. The Acoustic piano of Geri Allen takes over the playing of the introductory line played on synth. Wallace Roney comes in playing his variation of Prince’s vocal melody from the song, and he Tounges his trumpet very aggressively, spitting out staccato, funky notes, with the same type of bluesy tail off that was a trademark of the Miles Davis sound. Underneath Roney’s melody, Lenny White plays funky drum rolls, which he builds up to crescendo’s that pop right along with the synthesizers at the end holes in Roney’s melodic phrases (Wear lingerie to the restaurant!!!)

About 1:33 in, a very Minneapolis sounding keyboard riff comes in that moves the song through several keys, supported by Whites drums. This is the setup for the instrumental solo section of the song, which is still very well arranged through Roney’s solo. The first time around it serves as a cue for Roney to play the melody from the top again. The second time it appears it serves as a bridge to a serious minor key groove, which White begins by playing a James Brown style stop and start funk beat while the piano plays some dark sounding, ominous phrases. This serves as the launch pad for Roney to play some very Miles style things, one moment he’s playing a well shaped phrase and leaving space between it, the next he’s soaring like Miles in the ’60s and tumbling back down the horn. What makes it unique is he goes from ’60s Miles to playing things more reminiscent of an ’80s album like “Star People.” The sax and keyboards come in and play a unison line taken from Miles Davis song “Star on Cicely.” As the sax solo plays the piano stabs out well stated chords.

After the sax solo, a Fender Rhodes solo is introduced, quite tellingly it’s not the lush Rhodes sound we know and love, but the brittle, time heavy Rhodes sound from Miles recordings with Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea in the ’60s. After that piano comes in and plays a groove supported by synth. The Mineapolis key changes again bring us right back to the top, with Roney playing the “Dance Music Sex Romance” melody, the band laying down some calamitous jazz funk, and trumpet and tenor playing a duet on the way out that Roney leaves with an abrupt trumpet call, leaving it to the Tenor man to play us on out.

I love “Virtual Chocolate Cherry” because it realizes in a musical sense, the deep love and respect Miles Davis had for the music of Prince. It Los gives us a taste of how the ’80s could have sounded if the soul jazz musicians like Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, and Jimmy McGriff could have gotten their hands on Prince’s music and created true fusions of electronics and acoustics in line with their ’60s records. The mixture of Prince’s composition and arrangement, Roney’s rearrangement to fit a jazz style, and Miles way of musical thinking, trumpet sound (through Roney), and even some phrases and instrumental textures from “Star People” and “Bitches Brew” make for an incredible, never heard before musical combination. And a good way to console ourselves in this time of a Prince’s passing and “Miles Ahead” in the theaters, thanks to musicians like Wallace Roney and his band, Jazz, Miles Davis music, and the music of Prince will live on!!

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Music for the Next ONE 10/17/15 : “Fela 1” by Nicholas Payton

This weekends post is in honor of the worldwide celebration of Fela Kuti’s life, music and political activism known as the “Felabration” which falls yearly around his birthday of October the 15th. This celebration was inaugurated by his daughter Yeni a year after his death, in 1998. It has been exciting to see this festival grow in Africa, Europe, and The United States as the legend of Fela has continued to grow bigger and broader. Today’s tribute recording, “Fela 1” is the first part of a two part Fela suite on Nicholas Payton’s 2003 album “Sonic Trance.” Payton is one of my favorite musicians and he shares the sign of Libra with Fela. The song also will remind you of a man who was an influence on Fela and Nick, and who was himself inspired by Fela’s music later on, Miles Davis. “Fela 1” combines a Fela Kuti inspired rhythmic setting with a texture based environment that recalls the fusion work of Miles Davis and his bands on albums such as “Bitches Brew”, “Get Up With It”, “Jack Johnson”, and other now legendary records. The album marks an ever ongoing broadness in Payton’s work and worldview, in which he has substituted the term jazz for the term “Black American Music”, or #BAM.

The tune starts off with Vicente Archer playing a strong, archetypical Fela Kuti bassline on acoustic bass. I must say right off the bat, this is what hooked me on the song first, the incorporation of Fela Kuti’s style of funky African bass, being played with the timbre of the acoustic bass, which we associate with “jazz”, is a new sonic texture that opens new possibilities in sound. The funky strut of the bassline is soon joined by sizzling, consistent hi hat/cymbal work from Adonis Rose on drums. The piano gets going with some dark sounding, minor key/whole tone sounding arpeggios that capture the dark Miles Davis type melodic flavor of the piece. The percussion work by Daniel Sedownick adds to the rhythmic foundation, as the drums come in with kick drums placed in a manner similar to Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen.

After the rhythm is set, the horns play a short, dark blue melody that’s is kind of Monkish, kind of Milesian. Saxophonist Tim Warfield then goes I to a ex tended solo on soprano sax that recalls Miles’ saxophonists of the fusion period, such as Steve Grossman, Wayne Shorter, and Gary Bartz. The Fender Rhodes piano, overdriven here to “Bitches Brew” darkness as opposed to Ohio Players lushness, makes statements and comps in the back, with the horn sometimes answering the piano. As the solo reaches it’s peak and falls, a Clavinet line is introduced that doubles the Afro-Beat bass line. The Rhodes adds texture as Nicholas Payton comes in on wah wah trumpet. The solo he plays is more atmospheric, based more on manipulation of the wah wah and it’s rhythms than on telling a story by running through the scales. He hits low growl notes and ends his solo with the wah wah opening up slowly as he manipulates the notes to color the groove.

“Fela 1” uses the mighty musical ancestory of Fela Kuti and Miles Davis to provide Nicholas Payton with a way to escape the prison that he regards the term “jazz” as. It’s thrilling to hear Afro Beat rhythms enrich improvisational music. Jelly Roll Morton often spoke of “The Spanish Tinge”, a rhythmic flavor that was essential to jazz. Well, Jelly Roll’s era was so racist it could not acknowledge the African roots of this “Spanish Tinge”, with it’s congas, shakers, clave’s and dance rhythms. The inclusion of Baba Fela’s beat, which itself was inspired to become more African by musicians such as James Brown and Miles Davis, is a wonderful expansion of the transatlantic conversation of the African diaspora. It’s my firm belief that if more “jazz” took on this funky challenge, it would receive it’s rightful credit as the soul moving music it is. But it needs a new dance beat. My man Nick Payton finds it here with Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, letting Miles oversee it all! “Fela 1” is a fine tribute song for this weekends “Felabration” as well as an example of how Fela’s music can help the world of music as a whole move forward.

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I Like the Sunrise : Duke Ellington’s “Liberian Suite.”

William V.S Tubman assumed the Presidency of the Republic of Liberia in January of 1944 with the end of World War 2 still over 18 months away. The nation was 3 years away from it’s Centennial, which was no meager accomplishment. The small nation with it’s delicately balanced population of repatriated peoples of African descent and Africans indigenous to that land had struggled to maintain it’s reason for being, black political independence, on an African map that featured a mere two shapes not administered by the English, French, Portugese, Dutch or Germans : Liberia and Ethiopia. And Ethiopia itself had just been mired in a tragic yet heroic battle with fascist Italy. Only Liberia and Hati existed as Black governed constitutional republics. image

Liberia’s position in this reshuffled deck of cards was a vital one that was growing in importance, with Firestone National Rubber already on year 18 of a 99 year lease by 1944. Because of that lease agreement and the low cost rubber it afforded the Allies, Liberia and her underpaid rubber tappers were a part of the American war effort just as surely as the soldiers on the battlefield and the industrial workers cranking out tanks, planes, guns and bombs in the repurposed American factories.

The weakness of the European world powers in the wake of the calamity would pave the way for the United States position as the dominant world power. The inability of these colonial powers to maintain their possessions would also pave the way for the anti colonial movement and the creation of new African states. President Tubman understood these forces and sought to take advantage of them in order to move Liberia forward.

Liberia’s position was unique, being more closely aligned to the new world power than any other African nation. For the preceding 100 years of Liberian independence this relationship produced little of tangible benefit, as the white supremacist guardians of power in the States had no interest whatsoever in assisting Black governance’s viability. Ironically, the new countries that had suffered the indignities of colonial domination would receive more in the way of roads, hospitals, schools, health care and education than Liberia ever would from the U.S.

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But President Tubman more than understood the game. He sought to invite U.S development not through the humanitarian missionary’s who had always rendered brave and selfless service to Liberia. He sought to open up Liberia to foreign business investment, which would sky rocket in the new post war business investment climate. Part of this out reach to Liberia’s “step mother”, the United States, would be directed at the sons and daughters of Africa in America. There is a famous Jet magazine with an open letter from President Tubman admonishing Black Americans to remember Africa. And for the 1947 centennial he would commission two great black artists to produce works to represent the history and the potential of the Republic, Melvin B Tolson, the famous black poet was commissioned to write an epic poem on the founding of Liberia he titled, “Libretto for Liberia.” Liberia would also commission a musical suite from a man who’d already been recognized as the most advanced composer and progressive practitioner of African derived musics in the world at that time, Edward Kennedy Ellington, the “Duke”.

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The Duke was already recognized as the most original and diverse Black composer in American history to this point, and was also beginning to be recognized as the greatest and most original American composer of all time, a position that increasingly became chapter and verse as his career progressed. His music was seen as a totally original combination of Afro Diasporic rhythms, Black traditional melodies, Afro forms like the the Blues and the rhythmic vamp, blended with European harmonies, and forms like the musical suite. Yet, even his advanced harmonies often contained notes of dissonance, and it seemed everything he did musically, including his percussive piano style, retained a strong “Negro”, African origin. By the time he received the commission to do “The Liberian Suite”, he’d already been in the music industry almost 25 years, with his hits, “It Don’t Mean A Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Black Beauty”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Creole Love Call”, “Caravan”, “Don’t Get Around Much”, “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”, Take the A Train”, and many more already staples of jazz and pop music, as well as American life.

Ellington in particular had a reputation for the specific ability of his music to represent African American life, from the disembarkment from the slave ships, on through cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and rice fields, through the black triumph of the Civil War on to the position of Black people in the cities in the modern era. His titles and music , “Black Beauty”, “Harlem Air Shaft”, “My People”, “Black, Brown and Beige”, “Drum is a Woman”, Creole Rhapsody”, very specifically covered topics of Black pride and what was then called “Negro life.” Ellington was what was known in the ’20s as a “race man”, an individual who had devoted his talents and voice to the sophisticated, deliberate progress of the Negro race, all over the world. He had been raised with this strong sense of racial pride by his parents in Washington D.C, where there was a strong educated black community even in the years after the Civil War. During his 1920s residency at the Cotton Club his orchestra provided the music for scandalous dance shows featuring lightly tanned female dancers doing dances in jungle outfits and settings for Jazz Age white patrons. He came up with an imaginative style called “Jungle Music” by some, featuring the powerful growls of trumpeter Bubber Miley. This music with it’s reimagining of Africa was hailed as a major musical innovation.

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Make no mistake, getting Ellington to compose music for the Liberian centennial was a major coup for the nation that deserves more attention. Liberia was getting possibly the freshest and most original composer recording music at that time. It was also however, a special opportunity for the Duke. Ellington premiered his extended suite “Black, Brown, and Beige” at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and it was met with condescending criticism, mainly of the sort that jazz was not a music suited to demanding longer forms. “The Liberian Suite” would be not only Ellington’s first international commission, but also his first commission from a Government of any sort. The suite was performed at Carnegie Hall twice, but to my knowledge has yet to be performed in Liberia itself.

The suite begins with the beautiful hymn like ballad “I Like the Sunrise”, performed by the Ellington bands velvet voiced Baritone, Al Hibbler. The song was meant by Ellington to invoke the yearning for freedom and independence of an enslaved person in America, with the land of the rising sun, Africa and the east, being the symbol and focus of hope. This song is therefore a theme song for those hoping to find freedom in Liberia, which if we study history closely, includes many more people than the Americo Liberians of the 19th century. It also includes tribes like the Fanti, Mandingo and other tribes, West Indians, many people from other parts of Africa during the times of colonial domination, and many other Black Americans who came to Liberia in the almost 170 years since it’s original founding. Ellington is writing of Liberia as a land of hope, promise and freedom from soul draining bondage.

The song begins with a beautiful trumpet obbligato and features quiet restrained backing as Hibbler sings of the promise of Liberia. This song has also been interpreted over the years by people such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

The rest of the suite is instrumental, organized around 5 “Dances'”. Ellington here uses the motif of rhythm and dancing as both a vital connection to Africa, her music, and the idea of freedom contained in the Liberian story. The music is a combination of bluesy themes, solo’s from his band members, and Afro Diasporic rhythms channeled through Latin America and the Caribbean. My personal favorite is “Dance No. 5” which has the most infectious, funky bass figure of the whole piece.

“The Liberian Suite” is a unique musical accomplishment for Liberia, Duke Ellington, and the African diaspora as a whole. Here a small black nation, as old as a long lived human, recognized and commissioned an extended work from an American Black artist who’d go on to be recognized as one of the greats of all time. Liberia proved here to be a sponsor of black talent from all over the world, it was a small symbolic glimpse of the grand dreams the nation has always nurtured. “The Liberian Suite” then should by no means be confined to the margins of history, but it is up to Liberians to embrace it and make it their own. For instance, it would really be an honor to have Wynton Marsalis, an artist who considers himself the heir to Duke’s musical legacy, perform this suite with his Jazz At the Lincoln Center Orchestra at a gala affair in Monrovia in the near future. It would also deepen the piece if it’s performed in collaboration with African musicians, as Marsalis did with The Ghanaian musician Yacub Addey in his “Congo Square” suite. It would also be a point of pride if this suite were added to the music curriculum in Liberian schools, it could be studied and integrated with indigenous music to form a kind of classical musical language for Liberia. Because my fondest hope of all is that the Liberian bicentennial, Liberia itself would have produced it’s own Duke Ellington to compose music that reflects the nation and where it will be in 2047. That Liberian musician will be faced with a great task I hope they are well prepared for, both honoring the nation in sound and following in the foot steps of the great Duke Ellington!

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Quick Thoughts on Nelson George’s “Finding the Funk”

In the mid 1990s there was a documentary program I viewed on PBS entitled “The History of Rock & Roll.” One of the later episodes of this program was entitled “Make it Funky.” This episode was a comprehensive examination of funk music through the James Brown roots, and covered the major proponents of the genre, from James Brown, to Sly Stone and P Funk, interviewing musicians such as Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, and featuring commentators such as James Brown and Prince road manager Alan Leeds, and author Nelson George. I taped that documentary on VHS and would study it over and over again, marveling at the outfits, the musical clips, and the idea that there was a black dance based music called funk that ruled black dance music and stage presentation from roughly 1965 to 1982. The interesting thing is, I knew all the artists the show talked about. I also knew the songs, from “Cold Sweat” to “Superfreak”, and I knew words such as “funky”, “Groove”, “Thumping”, and other words synonymous with the genre. I also knew the Hip Hop I loved was drawing from that time period. Many of those records were also present in my home. But in some form or fashion, I didn’t know that Funk was it’s own music, seperate and distinct from soul and hip hop both. I didn’t know that Funk represented such a revolution in outfits, playing styles, subject matter and aspirations. That documentary and Rickey Vincents opus, “Funk: The Music, People, and History of the One”, helped solidify in my mind what had already been my favorite music all of my life, from James Brown, to the Commodores, to Ramsey Lewis, to Herbie Hancock, M.C Hammer and Public Enemy. One of my favorite writers, Nelson George, who was also very prominent on that earlier documentary, has a new one, entitled “Finding the Funk”, that stands out by taking the basic story of funk which has already been sketched , and coloring and texturing that story, with another 20 or so years of perspective and grooves laid on top of the documentary that came out back in the ’90s.

Nelson George has always been one of my favorite writers, due to the unique, black perspective he provides on black music. It might sound redundant, but he’s actually in a very rarified air of black writers who’ve written with consistency about the specific musical tastes of the black community. He actually wrote and covered funk during it’s heyday, so it was a pleasure to see him take up this project.

“Finding the Funk” uses a modern multimedia internet age approach to telling the story of funk, with “Funk Chunks” appearing on the screen at various intervals to add information to what is being discussed or displayed on the screen. I really like the “talking heads” used, featuring musicians such as Marcus Miller, Questlove and Mike D from the Beeastie Boys. These are all musicians who were not generally old enough to be major players during the heyday of funk, but served their apprentichips in that era and have kept the flame of funk buring during their careers in the ’80s, ’90s’, and ’00s. In Millers case, he was involved in records in the late ’70s on the tail end of the funk era. The Beastie Boys also had a funk and punk cover band in the early ’80s, and Questlove was learning to play those records and in some cases playing them as a little kid in his fathers band. These commentators all speak of funk from the perspectives of fans, but also musicians serving their apprentischips and learning, as when Miller demonstrates Larry Grahams “Hair” or “Skin Tight”, Questlove the Honey Drippers “Impeach the President”, D’Angelo doing Parliaments “Do That Stuff”, or Mike D Funkadelics “Good Ole Funky Music.” These performance features are some of my favorite momments of the doc.

“Funk” goes farther than the documentary I saw back in the ’90s in tracing the musics history, reminding me more of the deep roots Rickey Vincent uncovered for the music in his book, the roots musicians have always given for the music. It traces the Funk back to New Orleans, which is so crucial in black music as the area that kept the drums of African music alive in America. He talks to New Orleans brass bands that play funk to this day, in the age of hip hop and electronic music. The roots of the music are traced from there to the Hard Bop jazz movement of the 1950s, where artists such as Jimmy Smith, the Jazz Crusaders, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Ray Charles embraced modal jazz, the blues scale, the 12 bar blues, African percussion (and often African and muslim names), gospel music, honking horns, and other down home musical elements they described as “funky.” These elements were a “blackenizing” of the music in reaction to the extremely popular West Coast Cool school, as well as a reaction to the often undanceable abstractions of be bop. This movement towards funkiness in jazz was what inspired the sound James Brown was going to the most, as Brown always mentioned early rock & Roll pioneer Louis Jordan as his biggest influence, and Jordan was a musician who came from Swing Jazz.

The doc goes on to focus on the Kings of Funk, James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton, but it adds space that other funk docs havent, for Earth, Wind & Fire, and Prince in the ’80s. It also deals with hip hop as the direct desendant of funk, and deals with the new funk frontier, also featuring D’Angelo and Dam Funk. This was a modern approach I was particularly pleased with. The earlier “History of Funk” I saw back in the ’90s made a clear narrative choice to treat funk as the creative black music of the ’70s, that was overtaken by hip hop in the ’80s. While that is true to some extent in historical terms, its only a small part of the story in real terms. George alters this perception by covering funk bands that were cracking in the late ’70s and early ’80s like Slave, and highlighting how Prince was a musician well versed in funk, as was Michael Jackson. He also emphasizes the importance of funk to hip hop. All of this is a vital contribution to how we think about funk.

The regional nature of the funk is another thing George took care to stress in his doc. The film uses map graphics to represent the regional spread of the one, from Brass Construction and Crown Heights Affair (who I was glad to see mentioned) in New York City, to War and The Brothers Johnson in LA, to Sly Stone in the Bay Area, and a whole mess of groups in Dayton, Ohio. He also highlights how groups like Cameo and EWF moved around to find the spot that would suit their grooves the best. The story of Dayton Funk in particular is a valuable contribution to funk on the screen. The economics of the matter were discussed, as Scott Brown mentioned parents in Dayton had the disposable income to purchase instruments to keep their children out of trouble.

The economics of funk were mentioned several times in the doc. Stuart Matheson of Sade mentioned you get funk by getting people in a room together and jamming, which is really expensive these days. Nile Rogers made the point that whenever he got together with hip hoppers, they were always amazed at his chops and he always took sampling to say, “I wish I could do that.” The film definitely brought out the long held belief that Reagenomics and the decline of the cities helped kill the black band movement and make the spare technology of hip hop a more affordable artistic direction.

Otherwise, there are plenty of other gems to be found here. Prince finally gets his due from a FUNK standpoint, with it being mentioned that Prince’s adoption of “white” rock is really not unusual in a funk context, when artists like Sly Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, and even Issac Hayes, the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield did the same with the psychedelic rock techniques of their day that were heavily blues based. The doc also sheds some light on the battle for funk dominance between Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire,captured for the first time on film. D’Angelo made a comparison I’d heard Gary Shider of P Funk himself make, that EWF represented the “good guy” facet of Funk a la The Beatles, and P-Funk the black hatted, Rolling Stones role. EWF’s elegance was mentioned, and supported with an exceptionally funky film clip of a live performance of “Shining Star.”

“Funk” also makes many other rarely made connections. Nona Hendrix and Labelle are covered, which aims to make up for the sorely under discussed female side of funk. In discussing their fabulous stage outfits, George also talked about Larry Legazi, a costume designer who masterminded many of the space funk outfits of the era.

One of the most valuable things about the documentary, is it’s compiling of anecdotes about funk. Many of these anecdotes have been revealed over the last 20 years or so, but the screen has its own unique power to bring them across. We get anecdotes from a slick suited marcel waved George Clinton about hairstyles and music, we get Bootsy Collins talking about the dynamics of “The One”, and Dawn Silva talking about how (literally) funky the room was when the MOB recorded “Knee Deep.” We are also treated to lesser known anecdotes, like Steve Arrington talking about how his singing on “Just a Touch of Love” was an accident.

Of course, everybody I talk to seems to have a long list of artists they felt were excluded. For me, there could have been more focus paid to how the big soul stars did funk, such as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Issa Hayes, Barry White, and the Isley Brothers. These artists made some of the funkiest songs ever, but their musical catalogs are so varied and their star power so great that some don’t place them within funk. But I dare people who say they don’t care much for funk to say they don’t like “Higher Ground”, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquidali (whatever) or “Live it Up” and “Fight the Power”, all of which are funk songs. I also would have liked to have seen more coverage on the Crusaders, Headhunters, Jaco Pastorius, George Duke, and artists who came at thefunk from a jazz perspective. I could also have had stylistic innovators like Ray Parker Jr. Bernard Purdie, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, and other musicians covered who were funky session musicians and made many funky records although they didn’t per se play in “funk bands.” But those musicians styles are definitely a part of what funk musicans play today. Of course, some mention of Funk’s international reach must also be made at some point, as we’re discovering more and more each year that funk was a music that deeply touched the African diaspora as well as the African continent itself, with funk being uncovered regularly from Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo and other countries.

“Finding the Funk” is an essential piece of viewing, and it would be even if it simply consisted of Sly Stone saying funk sounded like musicians who “wanted to curse”, playing. It extends the story of funk before James Brown and after P-Funk, on into the ’80s and also tips the viewers off to some of the Funk innovators of today. It’s also special that 50 years on, the major principals of funk were captured in interviews as well. All in all it’s a worthy companion to Rickey Vincents “The History of Funk”, and many Nelson George books such as “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” and “Post Soul America.” And because of George’s efforts, we have a new film in 2014 to help people visualize what we’re talking about when we talk about funk.

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