Tag Archives: Soul

“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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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, Appreciation, Black Issues, FUNK, Give me My Flowers While I'm Alive, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

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

Miss Sharon Jones

Sharon Jones passed last night, adding to the incredible litany of artists and important people we’ve lost in 2016. Miss Jones death is in its own way, is just as significant to me as those of Natalie Cole, Maurice White, and the many other incredible artists we’ve lost this past year. Along with the funky New York band, The Dap Kings, Miss Jones brought incredible down home soul and funk to the world in the early 21st Century. That is a true accomplishment in a time of such disposable sounds and music.

Sharon is an artist who had to wait many years for her big break in the music industry. She hailed from the same city as the Godfather of Soul himself, August “G.A.”. She worked regular jobs for years to have money to send back home to her family. Finally she hooked up with the Dap Kings and along with them made music that perfectly captured the classic soul sounds of the ’60s and ’70s.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have been very important to my own musical enjoyment and growth over the past ten years or so. As a musician I had the same goals that The Dap Kings did, which was to produce music with the spirit and sound of the classic funk and soul era. I also had a thing for working with older artists and vocalists, but me and my music buddies never hit on a soul vocalist as incredible as Miss Sharon Jones. Together they did something that was almost unthinkable, finding a strong audience for classic soul sounds in the present day.

I’ve mentioned Miss Jones and The Dap Kings music several times on this blog as an example of why the Internet is the home of good music today. Miss Jones music should truthfully have been a mainstay of classic soul stations and R&B stations in general. She has the type of music you could play for a soul fan that would immediately set them to trying to remember when they heard it back in the day. And I’m sure you’d have a hard time convincing them it wasn’t some old 45 they used to dance to in the living room. With Miss Jones energetic, Tina Turner/James Brown type performance style and the bands dapper, sharp suited musical precision, they were one of the premier touring bands in the world. But without the radio exposure and big hits, they mostly played either small theater type shows by themselves, or opened for bigger bands. Exposure on the Adult Contemporary formats could have given them the bigger profile that they deserved. Together they had a sound that would have been music to any Soul fan or lover of good music’s ears.

Yet, the musical story of Sharon and the Dap Kings is not a sad one at all. It’s also proof of what the new world of the Internet, and the old staple of a vigorous live show can do for an artist in the 21st Century. It’s almost a prototypical modern music story. Without major radio play, without the saturation of televised videos, Sharon and the Dap Kings were able to become one of the most popular live acts in the country, they were able to play television shows such as Conan, Jimmy Fallon, and Ellen. They were able to share stages with Prince. They got write ups in major magazines and newspapers. They were a highly visible “underground” music act, one who’s reputation was unimpeachable when it came to the question of musical quality. All of this came from a sure, certain musical ethic, a family style organizational structure, careful Internet marketing and the creation of brand loyalty through quality performance, and a dynamic lead singer finally getting her opportunity beyond all shallow notions in Ms. Sharon Jones. Even though their music spoke to the best of the ’60s and ’70s, their success could only truly happen today.

I’m greatly saddened by Sharon’s passing because I felt she had so much more to give. She was a relatively young proponent of classic soul and funk in a time when so much classic soul and funk has already left us. But truth be told, she gave so very much when she was here. And she left us a body of work that shows it’s still possible to dig deep into the soul to bring forth music in the digital age. Her success has been one of the best musical events of my lifetime and I hope many other talents will take her example as a call to never give up, and also to bring that old school soul in concert with the younger generations!

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Music For the Next ONE 08/01/15 : “Closure” by Jill Scott

Last week was the first “New Music Friday” I’ve truly had to be excited about since it’s debut. Why? The release of Jill Scott’s new CD, “Woman.” 2015 marks the 15th anniversary of Ms. Scott’s arrival on the international music scene with the album “Who is Jill Scott” on my old favorite Hidden Beach Recordings. Since that time she’s maintained and cultivated a position of being one of the new pillars of black music and culture, a potential modern heir to the thrones of Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Ethel Waters, Lady Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and many other women space prevents me from naming. This has not always equalled smash recordings in today’s substance free music world, but it has given her tremendous respect, steady work, and first call status for projects that require feminine talent and perspective that go beyond a mere flash of ass. Which is to say her career is shaping up to be a fine integrity based one so far. But reputation aside, is Miss Jilly from Philly dropping the funk bomb right here, right now, as she did on 2011’s backyard boogie “So in Love with You”, 2001’s 24 Karat Black “High Post Brotha”, or the Go Go fueled dance ecstasy of “It’s Love” from her debut? Exhibit A is today’s weekend Nu Funk, “Closure.” Jill puts on a vocal master class over a funky beat as she tells her ex, “Don’t be expecting no breakfast in the morning”, after one of those questionable romantic trysts.

The song starts off with some bedrock funk, a slowed down, altered pitch sample of Patrice “Choclate” Banks “Funk Box” drum machine solo from Graham Central Stations epic funk rock classic, “The Jam.” The sample starts off slowed down in pitch and tempo, going up towards the intended pitch with each new bar, until it reaches the key and tempo of “Closure.” Part of what made the sample so unique and kept the sound alive, is the unique sound of it’s organ box electric percussion. At the same time the drum sample is playing, an electric piano is playing a strong “and-ONE” piano groove, consisting of a bass note going up a step in the players right hand and a chord in their left. The electric piano part has a strong sassy, gospel feel, perfect for the “Respect” like lesson Ms.Scott is about o serve up. The electric bass guitar comes in, restless, syncopated, but also beginning and ending with the same “and-ONE” phrase the keyboardist is playing.

Jill drops us off near the climax of the story, as she’s sitting up after a romantic encounter, with the poor brother still in the bed, knowing she has to let him know he’d better not get used to laying up with her. Ol boy may think he has a good thing going namely, commitment free sex, but Jill says, “Ima take a little time to bring up/that fact that we did break up.” The piano part and bass shift to a rather ominous sounding minor interval as she describes the night they had, when homeboy got, “That sweet rough/that funky stuff/I can tell by your moans u ain’t getting none/maybe you are/but it ain’t my love!”

The beat trops out as she trumpets, “Don’t be expecting no breakfast in the morning!!!” The drum beat drops out, a triumphant horn section comes in, with trademark lazy, behind the beat go go percussion. Soon, the horns are hitting the same line as the grounding electric piano and the bass is playing some pumping, “you’re in jeopardy” sounding eighth notes, as Ms. Scott defines the encounter in no uncertain terms, “This is Closure.”

When the groove and the drums return on the next verse, the horn part continues to develop further. And then, as she did over the Go Go power of “It’s Love”, she makes me hungry both for her and literal food as she coos real sweetly to her ex about all the good, nouveau home cooking he’s gonna be missing that A.M and every A.M thereafter, including her homemade waffles with fresh strawberries,quiche, pepper jack grits, and her “grandma’s buttermilk biscuits.” Dude is left outside the house asking, “The closure begin today?”

Something also must be said about Jill’s incredible vocal performance on this song. She hits so many textures, enunciations, vocal shadings, with a lot of character, different emotions and soul. One thing I’ve always felt showed up well in her singing is her strong drama background. Also in a time when so many think the black soul gospel sound is simply about melisma, running a lot of riffs, I continue to be refreshed by her strong blues/jazz/soul belting. She understands soul singing on a far more sublime level than most folks in the circus today. An example of that is when she sings the line “When I know that it’s the ending” with rising gospel force and immediately dips down into a jazzy low register, singing the line “We ended our time for a reason” with slick syncopation. Smh. I just can’t say enough about how she hits me with black woman SOUND in her vocals. “Closure” is a supremely funky record, a great kiss of record, and a great introduction for Jill’s next run. Last summer I was digging her playing James Brown’s wife in “Get On Up”, this year she’s making me get on up with her music and I like it like that!

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#SummerOfJ.B: A Funky Introduction.

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The debut on August 1, 2014 of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” starring Chadwick Boseman, Jill Scott, and Viola Davis, allows hard core James Brown fans like myself a chance to reassess his legacy. When the Godfather passed in 2006, there was a suitable outpouring of emotion represented by his tributes at the Apollo Theater and at James Brown Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. Yet, Brown had survived Otis Redding, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Little Willie John, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, and many other artists of his generation who were essential in providing a musical soundtrack for the social changes that took place in the latter half of the 20th Century. Because of his longevity and the massive reach of his impact, Mr. Brown became someone one could almost take for granted.

The true appreciation of Mr. Brown for me began early, but still somewhat later than it should have. As an ’80s baby, I grew up with The Godfathers descendants such as Prince, and Michael Jackson. The large funk bands were generally seen as on the decline, excepting Cameo, The Gap Band, and survivors like Kool & The Gang and The (Lionel Ritchie less) Commodores. Groups like New Edition had the youth audience. New soul flavors were coming over from the United Kingdom. My parents were huge James Brown fans but they were also musical progressives. In the home I was hearing a lot of Grover Washington Jr, Miles Davis, Sade, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, George Benson, recent late ’70s Commodores, Herbie Hancock electric funk, Steps Ahead, and a whole lot of Reggae. My older brothers and sisters were playing Prince and Hip Hop, plus great ’80s singles like “Hangin On a String” by Loose Ends. On lazy Saturdays or Sundays Dad would break out the reel to reel machine and play Coltrane, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, old Miles Davis, Eddie Harris, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Diz and Bird, and many programs he D.J’ed for VOA’s “Sound of Jazz” program.

Somehow in all of this, I only saw and heard fleeting glimpses of James Brown. Of course, J.B was very busy at this time, recording “Unity” with Afrika Baambaata, having one of his biggest pop hits ever in “Living in America”, touring all around the world, and eventually, getting into trouble. But somehow, in Oakland, California, a city that had been finally taken over politically by its black majority, and which had always been a key stop on the James Brown Express, I didn’t actually hear too much J.B in my earliest years.

All of this seemed to change around 1987, 1988, which is right when Hip Hop reasserted James Brown’s influence on both their music and the culture. The early Hip Hop D.J’s in New York used all manner of James Brown tunes to rock their parties. What sometimes gets lost is, many of these James Brown songs were contemporaneous to the early hip hop parties. For instance, in 1974 when the first Hip Hop parties were held, James Brown had singles such as “The Payback”, “Doin it to Death”, and “Funky President.” He also rocked the concert in Zaire (now the Congo) that went along with the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title fight known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”, of which this year is the 40th anniversary. James pop profile dimminished each year after that, but he still had thunderous hits like 1976’s “Get Up Offa That Thang” (which provided the horn blasts for Boogie Down Production’s classic “South Bronx”). He was a fixture on the R&B charts even in the late ’70s, as viewings of ’70s episodes of Soul Train will attest to. Records like “The Spank”, “For Goodness Sakes Take a Look at Those Cakes”, “Eyesight”, “A Man Understands”, “Bodyheat” and “Give Me Some Skin”. These records captured the essence of the J.B groove in the high point of the great funk bands such as EWF, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Commodores, Kool & The Gang, The Isley Brothers, Sly & The Family Stone, Graham Central Station, and many other funky artists in that funky decade. A glance at Soul Train episodes post 1975 will show you how whether a song went to the top of the charts or not, James Brown funk always did what it was designed to do, get people up!

Of course, around 1988-1989 Mr. Brown came into my attention for the troubles he was having with the law at that time. I’d seen him earlier do his cape routine on the special, “Motown Goes Back to the Apollo.” It was kind of hard to seperate James Brown, his impact, and how his music still related to the modern thing, when he was placed alongside his peers and rock and roll legends such as Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and the Four Tops. All of these artists were great, influnetial artists, but their music and social impacts were not about to reignite like Mr. Brown’s was, in the late ’80s.

I remember watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom and seeing Mr. Brown going to jail and her talking about “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and James Browns concert in Monrovia, Liberia, and how she loved his hair. My dad talked about James Brown and the J.B’s and his favorite songs, like “You Can Have Watergate (But Gimmie Some Bucks and I’ll be straight), and “There Was a Time” with it’s “Groove Maker”, and “Doin it to Death”, and J.B’s career as an organist on Smash records.

Then, my real immersion into hip hop began. Earlier Hip Hop in the ’80s had used drum machines to contstruct spare, original beats, inspired by older funk and rock, but not directly sampling the recordings. By the late ’80s it seemed the world was a constant barrage of raw, James Brown beats. On every side of hip hop I liked, JB was there, from Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Aint No Joke”, to Salt & Pepa hollering “Pick up on this”, from Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”, to The 45 King’s “900 Number.”

My primary two influnces in hip hop, disparate as they were, both trafficed in James Brown. Public Enemy and M.C Hammer covered different sides of the man’s music and legacy. Public Enemy sampled bits and pieces of many recordings to create their own new funk. Chuck D and Flavor Flav traded off vocals in the manner of James Brown and Bobby Byrd. Their music focused on street conditions and black empowerment, just as Mr. Brown did on “Dont Be a Dropout”, “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, “Mind Power”, “Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved”, “Soul Power”, “Funky President”, “Reality”, and many other songs. The controversy they generated at times in their career could call to mind the social currency James Brown had, the way he was black listed after “Say it Loud” for instance.

M.C Hammer, my Oakland hometown hero, represented another side of James Brown legacy. While Public Enemy were consumate performers as well, Hammer actually was a dancing machine, with a large band, back up dancers, and the theatrical presentation that Mr. Brown and other soul era performers bought. He also was largely successfull and admired for his business acumen, as Mr. Brown was in his day, when he was known for owning 4 radio stations and a Lear Jet. Hammer built on and expanded on the R&B influenced side of Hip Hop performing, represented over the years by Afrika Baambaata, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Whodini, and Kool Moe Dee. This style has pretty much always lost out in hip hop to the spare RUN DMC style of M.C’s walking back and forth across the stage, which some people feel is more pure and reflective of Hip Hop’s New York City park origins. But there are always people like Hammer who bring the R&B glitter and excitement to their performances as well. Hammer though, was the best and the most compelling.

Hammer also represented the other side of James Browns social concern. If Public Enemy was pegged as the radical side, Hammer represented the side that was about stopping the violence in the urban neighborhoods, getting an education, going to work, owning businesses, and building. Of course, in a post Civil Rights, post Black Power world, Hammer, who was from the city of the Black Panthers, had a millitant side too, but that is not what people saw. Hammers insistence on not cursing because he was a role model for kids was also from the James Brown book. Together, Public Enemy and Hammer represented all those sides of J.B.

But Browns impact was not limited to them. Somehow, as a little kid in the ’80s I didn’t know Michael Jackson and Prince were descendants of J.B as well, maybe the TOP two. M.J maybe took James Browns performance based ethic to it’s highest height, and Prince expanded on his role as a musical innovator of funk, by also incorporating the innovations of Brown’s contemporaries, like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, P-Funk, Al Green, and many others. But M.J and Prince were able to inhabit a whole other rarified air for black pop stars, delivering music that was authentic and yet widely popular at the same time. But somehow, it would take much later for me to understand the high tech, futuristic funky pop of The Thriller and His Royal Badness as fruits from the James Brown root.

Arsenio Hall’s show was key in exposing me to James Browns performances. I remember pestering my Dad about Brown, and pops breaking out the vinyl to “Live At the Apollo Vol 2” and “Doin it to Death”. He laughed as he recounted stories of Richard Nixon and Watergate. And he told me about a huge audience in Monrovia, Liberia singing along to “Hey, Hey, I Feel all Right.”

My appreciation for Mr. Brown would grow throughout the ’90s, as I purchased CD compilations and eventually vinyl albums. A James Brown concert was even my first concert ever, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, with my parents and my best friends, Jesse and Frank. The appreciation of Mr. Brown has been something I’ve bonded with over many people, and his determination, drive, attention to appearance, independence, pride and many other aspects of the man continue to inspire me to this day.

This series will cover various aspects of James Brown’s music and career in anticipation of the August 1 release of the “Get on Up” movie. It will continue to run for the duration of the summer, which will take us into around October on the West Coast. James Brown’s funk music is very direct and does not take much thought to get into. But James Brown’s life, career, impact, and the specific messages he put out there are very rich subjects that point to a very unique viewpoint on America, Black people in America, and the world. James Brown was a poor sharecropers son who grew up in a Whorehouse and was a Juevenile Delinquent, who rose from that to become one of the most impactful, classiest entertainers of all time. As such, he had a unique message to share. And he was never one of those singers who felt they should “just sing.” Brown was unique because although his show definitely provided escapism, through its funky grooves, slick outfits and large dynamics, it was an escapism of, or through IMMERSION. James Brown, in that fine Black tradition, immersed you in reality, and sometimes troubles, to get you to go past and transcend them. Or as he would say, “Get Up offa that thang, and dance till you feel better!” As Chadwick Boseman brings him to life across the celluloid screen, now is as fine a time as ever to look at a portion of what Mr. Brown did and how he did it.

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Filed under Appreciation, FUNK, Merry Go Round Music, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")

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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Mayer Hawthorne @ The Fox Theater 02-01-14: Merry Go Round Concert Review

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Mayer Hawthorne is one of those artists. A select and ever growing group of artists who’ve made sure you no longer hear, “there’s no good music out there anymore” out of my mouth. His blend of smooth vocals and toe tapping tunes provided by his band, “The County”, provide the type of music I’m looking for in 2014. Hawthorne is an artist I’ve enjoyed and kept my eye on for quite some time, and I’ve enjoyed his output, which up to now has been heavily flavored in his hometown, Detroit’s brand of soul. A favored genre of mine to be sure, but to misquote Burt Bacharach, “what the world needs now is funk.” Hawthorne’s most recent LP, “Where does this door go”, does not skimp on that, displaying Hawthorne’s mastery of hooks, melodies, and edgy romantic love stories against a classic yet bumpier, nottier, snappier, grittier contemporary funk sound, like the Temptations going from “My Girl” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” All of this set the stage for the perfect feel good musical event to start my concert going adventures in 2014 off properly.

My date and myself had two standing room only tickets to see Hawthorne at the Fox Theater on Telegraph. For those outside of the Bay Area, the Fox is one of those theaters that keep music flowing by providing a 2,000 to 5,000 capacity venue for artists large and small to perform. It’s beautiful antiquarian design and gilded edges always give me visions of James Brown, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Jackie Wilson, in all their soulful, chitlin circuit touring glories. And it’s comination of a seated balcony and an open dance floor make it perfect for what my friend Ron said was called in the ’60s, a “Show and Dance.”

Before we could get to enjoy the main event, we were treated to two opening acts. The first was by a young lady named Gavin Turek. Turek took the stage in a funky midriff baring ensemble with wild ringlets that kept tamborine like time as she whipped up her rew of dance/pop/funk magic. Her band was nice and her music had that funky, electronic, “Princely” vibe. All of that was set off by the fact that she’s a dynamic performer who matched funk with a series of Afrocentricly powerful, essence of femininity dance moves. Her vibe was so deep I feared we’d soon get rain in the building, or at least increase the population. She definitely made my list of artists to keep an eye on.

The next act was the Danish duo, Quadron. Their music was good as well, but you could tell their stock in trade seemed to be slower, mellow mood music that got hyped up when it hit the stage. I did enjoy their female vocalist, and she even did a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor”, off her classic “Miseducation” album. My date, Jazz, didn’t feel they did the song justice. All in all, their set was decent but it just made us anxious for the main attraction.

The stage had Hawthorne’s logo, a heart broken in two, with an “M” on one side and a “H” on the other. Hawthorne’s band, “The County”, came out in smart outfits, matching vests and slacks with open collared shirts, that really brought out that ’60s soul band vibe Hawthorne guns for. The bass player, Joe Abrams, and the guitarist Topher Mohr, did Earth, Wind & Fire styled routines as they ran the length of the stage switching positions. Hawthorne himself came out in a smartly tailored suit. From the moment he hit the stage, the crowd was involved, dancing and singing along with the show. It was no surprise that in the indie loving Bay Area, people knew all the words to the songs.

Hawthorne played a set that focused heavily on his current album, which he kept calling his “new” album, “Where Does This Door Go.” The band was super tight on the early 1980s easy listening rock/soul vibe of “Back Seat Lover.” “The Walk” from his 2011 album “How Do You Do” had a 1960s throwback vibe, but the bassline reminded me of Betty Wright’s “Tonight is the Night” in particular.

Hawthorne and his band gave us a number of hot joints from his album, “Allie Jones”, “The Innocent, and the thoughtful latin inflected funk/hip hop groove of “Wine Glass Woman” stuck out in particular, with it’s lyric that goes “I know what you’re drinkin love/Wonder what you’re thinking of.”

Hawthorne’s song “The Stars are Ours” was hard rocking, feautring a Nirvana intro. One of the songs that hit me the hardest personally, was the energetic “Peg” like groove of “Reach Out Richard”, mainly because it made me think of my own deceased father.

The Band used the classic soul trick of a fake ending before they came out to perform their encore. They hit us with one of my favorite songs in life for the encore, Barry White’s “Playing Your Game, Baby”, and the band sounded excellent, with Quentin Joseph on drums hitting the skins with the same power found on the original. I was impressed by the quality of the samples on Quincy McCrary’s keyboards, as they ably provided the Maestro’s powerful horn and string riffs. The band let the groove marinate in true Love Walrus fashion as well before Hawthorne sang the lyrics “When you give it up/it’s only enough to let me see/ooh wee/that you’re playing a game/it’s so plain!/you want me to wait.” I was truly in soul heaven for a brief moment.

Hawthorne closed the show out with a song I already feel is a classic, “Her Favorite Song”, the lead single from the “Where Does This Door Go” album. The song is a beautiful and funky tune about a woman who turns to music to overcome the disappoinments of life, love and work. It features a great structure, a heavy, rock hard hip hop/funk verse that represents the womans grind, and a free flowing, Afro-Latin, jazzy chorus with a Earth, Wind & Fire Brazillian styled vocalization signifiying the relrease she gets from her favorite song. The song typifies feel good music using the statement Art Blakey made for jazz, as something that “washes off the dust of every day life.” Hawthorne stretched out the ending refrain, “Got to shake it off”, encouraging everybody to shake off their own problems before they left that night. The song and that soulbiz gesture exemplify why I dig Hawthorne, he still seems to have that old school belief that “one thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” And I definitely didn’t feel any pain last Saturday night at the Fox.

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