Sunday, February 9, 2014

10 classic albums that sound different on CD.

For a lot of us crate diggers, the transition to CD in the late 1980s was both a blessing and a curse.  The convenience of the CD format made it easier for some people to get an entire listening experience, especially when double albums like Funkadelic’s “America Eats Its Young” or the Crusaders “Southern Comfort” are finally easy to play in sequence.

But the CD thing also made listening to the album a more rewarding experience, from the great visuals of the album art, to the extra sparkles that came from the lp sound, not simply from the scratches on the disc.  Often the sound is still brighter on my lps than the CD’s.

After years of listening to some great funk & soul in both formats, there are a few tracks that are glaring in the contrast from lp to CD, both good and bad:

Here are the most memorable to me:

1) Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour (1977).  When the 2lp came out when I was in high school, I was thrilled, only to discover that the mix was hella murky on lp.  It would be another 15 years before the CD reissue would “fix” the sound and deliver a much brighter mix.  You can finally hear the Mike Hampton guitar solo on “Dr. Funkenstein” live.  This is one instance when the CD was an upgrade sound wise from the lp.  But you don’t get “Fantasy is Reality” on the CD, so you are missing something.  And of course you don’t get the crazy Dr Funkenstein poster and Iron on T-Shirt Transfer!

2) Similarly, I always tripped on how murky Stevie Wonder’s 70’s albums sounded.  Particularly Fulfillingness First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life.  But the 2000 remaster of “Songs …” (thanks Harry Weinger) brings out all kinds of new layers on songs like “Another Star” and “All Day Sucker” that I never heard before on the album.  In this case, the CD is a great new treat.

3) Brick “Good High”  (1976) This was always one of my favorite creative funk records back in the day, and I had to wait a hella long time for the CD reissue on Wounded Bird in 2011.  Unfortunately by then I had already converted my lp to an mp3 album – And that still sounds way brighter than the new CD.  That was a big downer.   I don’t know what was missed but something is flat on all the tracks.  You can compare the versions from the Greatest Hits versions of “Dazz” and “Good High” to that disc and it won’t feel good.

4) Collectibles has always had a shaky reputation when it comes to putting classic soul on CD.  Maybe it is because other labels will remaster tracks and Collectibles appears to just take a tape and put it directly to CD.   That was the case when they did Slave’s two albums “Hardness of the World” and “The Concept,” two of the wildest funk albums ever created, put on one CD.    I really wanted The Concept so I could put all 9 glorious minutes of “Stellar Fungk” on the radio with all the spacey sounds (and Steve Arrington’s other-worldly percussion!) nice and clean for a change!  But no, the sound is gloomy and murky to the point where I’m still playing my lp or mp3 from my lp on the radio.

The tough part with this is that Rhino did a best of Slave featuring Steve Arrington that really brought to life “Stellar Fungk” and “The Party Song” – but cut them way down to fit single versions on the CD comp.  So you can easily see how hot the Rhino mix is versus the Collectibles mix.  So I’m still pining for a sparkly clean version of Stellar Fungk.

I wasn’t impressed with that 5CD Album Series release either.  Coulda given a mug some sparkle on their funk.

5-6) Earth Wind & Fire: Gratitude and That’s the Way of The World.  Somehow the CD manufacturers just don’t know what to do with EWF and their style of putting silly interludes all over their albums.  Do we track them as individual tracks?  Or blend them into main tracks, therefore messing them up for those of us making mixes.   Or do we just delete the sounds altogether?

On “Way of the World” on both my CD’s the first piano interlude in front of “All About Love” is gone altogether.  Just like it never happened. WTF?  That song is magic, for a reason, because of Larry Dunn’s weird piano/synth tripping, the lovely song enjoys a special place “inside” EWF’s jazzy world, but not on the CD.   Poof.  Some industry hack just distorted the vision of Maurice White.  Also, the 2 minute piano/synthesizer vamp at the end is stuck on the track, so if you only want the ballad, too bad, you get: no mellow intro but you have to get the long outro. 

I have an old version of the “Way of the World” CD that put the piano/synth intro to “All About Love” at the end of the previous track “Happy Feelin’” which meant that Happy Feelin’ in a mix would go into a piano ballad before the track ends, making a mess of the mixes I was trying to make with that song.

Gratitude was almost as bad, as the intro to “Sun Goddess” is messed up.  Most of us OG’s love hearing the nice intro:  “Right now, we have a special song for you, a song we recorded with Ramsey Lewis…”  and then it kicks into the jam.  That is one of the most memorable moments of a legendary live album.  For the CD the track kicks in right on the song, and the dialogue is stuck at the end of “Devotion.”  That means, if you want to play “Devotion” live in a mix, you also have to listen to the Ramsey Lewis intro before the song cuts out. 

They did put that crazy riff that comes just before “Cant Hide Love” on the last side of the lp, on the CD and it is tracked by itself, which was a good idea.  An idea that should apply to all EWF interludes; make them all separate tracks, period.

7) “Aqua Boogie” on Motor Booty Affair.  When I came across “Motor Booty Affair” for the first time in 1978 it was one of the greatest surprises!  I didn’t know Parliament was coming out with something new, and I was still swimming in the P, with One Nation Under A Groove and Bootsy’s latest “Player of the Year” still making noise.  So I copped that disc and ran home and played the whole thing!  I couldn’t believe how trippy, liquefied and stanky the album was, and Aqua Boogie was just on another level, with the final ripping groove turning a mutha out!  But dang it faded out hella quick!  As it turned out, the lp LISTED the song at 6:43 but it was about a minute shorter.  It always bugged me out.  Nevertheless the song was psychedelic p-funk perfection, so I wasn’t trippin’…

But when the CD came out in 1990 I was stunned to hear the final minute of Aqua Boogie in all its super stankiness, and sloppiness.  I figure it was faded on the lp because that underwater bird (performed by who?...) kinda lost his breath in that final minute, and the perfection of the arrangement is somewhat lost.  Maybe that was the case, maybe it was just a ghost in the machine…

8) Spider on Herbie Hancock’s “Secrets” album.  This has always been one of my all time favorite jazz funk albums, and “Spider” is to me a masterpiece of precision stank funk hiding on a jazz album.   Herbie’s ability to put a serene sheen on the gangly spidery groove has always been hypnotic to me.  The ending, in a splash of synthesizer splatter is also a memorable jazz funk legendary moment.  But when I rushed out to buy the first CD reissue, there was a “glitch” in the end of Spider, as if the “tape” had folded as it was being digitized.  A funk buzzkill if there ever was one.

So I figured it was just a bad CD, and I bought another one, same glitch.  Dang.  Glad to know that used CD’s are always being bought & sold, but I really wanted that Spider to come out clean.  Many of those mid 70s albums have been remastered and completely upgraded sound wise, but not Secrets.  Still waiting.   Fortunately one can download “Spider” from itunes from a “Greatest Hits” and it sounds fine.  Or better yet, crank the original album!

9) Sometimes CD reissues come with sound that is way too hot & loud, like my best of the Emotions, and my best of Mother’s Finest.  Sometimes CD reissues come in way too low, like for some reason a lot Al Jarreau, my Gil Scott Heron “Pieces of a Man” comp, and my Quincy Jones “Mellow Madness” CD from Japan.  For a long time there was no real standard for what level to put the lp out on CD.  Drove me nuts trying to make a radio mix.

10) Does anybody else remember when CBS messed up and put the “alternate” Fresh album by Sly & the Family Stone out?  That was a trip.  Apparently it was murkier and trippier than the album most of us knew and loved anyway.  I believe it is what Sly gave originally to the label, and somebody decided to mix it again after Sly handed it in.    

Any other big surprises?

10 Excellent takeaways from Undercover Presents Stand!

10 Excellent takeaways from Undercover Presents Stand!

On Sunday January 19th, over 100 musicians gathered together at the Independent in San Francisco for the finale of three nights of a presentation of every track of Sly & the Family Stone’s groundbreaking 1969 album Stand! I was honored to be a part of the festivities, giving some Sly knowledge, hanging with the brilliant and buoyant musicians, and acting a fool during the finale on stage!

There were so many awesome elements to this experience, for instance:

1. Multiple generations of musicians got to not only perform Sly Stone’s music, but to immerse themselves in the prophetic visions and the stylistic range of Bay Area legends Sly & the Family Stone. Each act, each collective on stage was able to process and express Sly’s vision of a "Love City" that took on but went beyond the racial & gender divides of the times, and took us towards a true global love community!

2. The once revered epiphany of the album listening experience was brought back with a vengeance! The entire night was designed for the audience to witness the range, depth, funky thump and cumulative optimism of the entire 1969 Stand! record, which was attained with spectacular results. This will have folks flocking back to the original album all over again - for the first time!

2. Everyone in the place got to witness nine separate finales, as each act just took their sound and Sly’s vision to a Higher level, bringing down the house again and again! So much talent! So much funk! So much love in the house!

The true genius of Sly Stone was revealed by the fact that his work was accessible to musicians from nine different genres, musical worlds, tastes and musical scenes.
They were each reflecting Sly’s vision that "Everybody is a Star," and celebrating "Everyday People" with Different Strokes for Different Folks!

4. The final night was a clean technical sweep, as very few sound problems or glitches delayed any of the sets or transitions. Truly a feat of wizardry from all involved. The Independent never sounded so good! (and I’ve seen some legendary shows there)

5. Original Family Stone members Rustee Allen (bass) and Greg Errico (drums) appeared onstage and not only got the love they deserved, but were clearly moved by the experience, and in no time they FUNKED UP the place with their musical mastery!

6. Dave Moschler’s indomitable genius of drawing together artists from disparate genres into one project - one vision and one creation - was simply a divine stroke. The diversity and the unity all over the building was a soul penetrating experience! So many of us were able to meet and to learn about each other’s works and start new funky networks of our own. Thank U Dave!

7. The Awesome Orchestra Collective’s opening “Stand!” performance was thunderous, while the exhilarating sounds of Soprano Lauren Woody, pianist JooWan Kim and two rappers doing “Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey” are still in my head; The unforgettable Energy of Zakira Harris’ Afro-Cuban dance ensemble ripping “I Want to Take You Higher” is still bouncing me around; the exquisite polish of Tiffany Austin’s vocals and upright bass player Marcus Shelby’s rendition of “Somebody’s Watching You” was masterful; and the all-consuming, explosive Latin hip hop in Bayonics’ thunderous rendition ‘Sing A Simple Song” was enough to satisfy any music fan – and that was only Side 1 of Stand!

8. The hypnotic, dreamy soul country flavors of the Tumbleweed Wanderers (with Jeremy Lyon channeling Allan Gorrie of AWB) was utterly haunting as they revitalized “Everyday People” in a way that tapped into all of the energy in the room. The disparate spirits became One as they gave love to America’s vast expanse of the human heart; The highlight of the show for many of us was Con Brio’s lead singer Ezekiel McCarter, who channeled a passionate Marvin Gaye on “Sex Machine” and made it his own, while celebrating the original 13 minute masterpiece with a rendition that you never wanted to stop! The increasing funkativity was not lost from Will Magid’s wickedly funky keyboard & trumpet work on “My Brain (Zig Zag)” with bass from Family Stone O.G. Rustee Allen. The party was rocking off the chain when the Jazz Mafia – featuring Greg Errico on drums brought down the house with “You Can Make it If You Try” – and Uriah Duffy’s channeling of Larry Graham to punctuate the ultimate Funk of the whole thing!

9. The all hands - all bands - on deck finale was as transcendent a moment as Bay Area music can deliver! The chaos, the pure joy, the elevated spirits and thunderous funk was a living Monster! That was truly Love City!

10. The heavy lifting of Lyz Luke to bring together the musical talent, the promotional efforts, the venue operations, the merchandizing, and a thousand logistics while remaining cool, calm, lovely and funky onstage and everywhere else set the tone of this unforgettable set!

11. Sly Stone would be so proud of this!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

RV's FAVORITE FUNK OF 2013

It has been a strange year for funk releases. A number of Funk MASTERS released music this year, but their spins on the Glorious Funk Vibe have gone well out on eccentric Plutonian orbits, while a lot of us are still hungry for the gravity of a fat gas giant Jupiter-sized scoop of funk right about now. 

The best of the Masters’ work include: Bernie Worrell, BWO is Landing; Jerome Brailey and Mutiny: Funk Road; and Danny Bedrosian: Songs for a Better Tomorrow. Each of these carries the weight of P-Funk legacy and a serious dose of funk mastery, yet each also reminds us of how disembodied the entire P-Funk Nation has become. 

Working with a band of talented younger players in his Bernie Worrell Orchestra, Bernie has found a niche that truly showcases his unique genius. At it’s best (on songs like “Double W”) the BWO band shows us what the next generation is capable of, and how satisfying their sound can be. But there is always the specter of standard vs stank with younger funkers. Though it is wiggly and wondrous - and Bernie turned out the Long Beach Funk Fest with his BWO - one always feels the tug of The P with Bernie…as if the next collaboration will bring back the Super Groovalistic Prosifunkstication.

P-Funk drummer Jerome Brailey brings the dirty south Uncut Funk vibe on his spectacular Funk Road. Jerome goes everywhere here, from Latinized Florida funk, to raw country funk and dirty funk-rock riffing that he is the master of. The band and the sound goes everywhere, and BigFoot doesn’t cut corners, he splatters with his patented percussive, polyrhythmic, relentless beats. The only drawback is that he goes so many places that the overall experience loses focus, which reminds us of how far out of phase our collective notions of The Funk are becoming.

Current P-Funk keyboardist Danny Bedrosian can always be counted on to bring the comic splatter-funk adventures. On Music for a Better Tomorrow, he’s really working on doing a focused funk project here, but his wit and wackiness just takes over and the record jumps around like a monkey in a cage. Not that that’s a bad thing! 

The hungry upcoming funky bucks kept it going in 2013: Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band delivered Onward!, a crazy party session that upholds their growing reputation with an unstoppable southern funky vibe. West coast baby O.G’s Weapon of Choice came back with Really Relevant and features Lonnie Marshall’s silly groove style back in total effect. From Europe, original Rubber Band vocalist MudBone is featured prominently on the very thunderous Who’s Cooking by Grand Slam, maybe the best of the polished contemporary funk releases. The New York based United Funk Order continues to bang out delicious soul-inflected funk, but only released a 3 song EP this year. (check out Crackpipe!)

My favorite of these about-to-be O.G.’s is Detroit based P-Funk drummer Gabe Gonzales’ super-stanky Intergalaxative. This mash-a-mug is nearing that magical mix of crispy clean and down & dirtay at once that all great Funk aspires to. Gabe is well on the dirty side, but this is a much sharper effort than his Negative Nuisance from a couple years back. If you want and need that hard hitting dirty dog thumping Funk and no filler, you can start with Intergalaxative.

Two of the most mindblowing releases come to the funk from a wider, righteous angle: Kentyah Presents: Evolutionary Minded -Furthering The Legacy Of Gil Scott-Heron is a completely mind blowing righteous treatment of jazz, funk and revolutionary rap from M1 of Dead Prez, and producer Kentyah Fraser (who brought us the Headhunters’ Platinum a couple years back) all in the vein of a Gil Scott-Heron type production. Gil’s homie Brian Jackson is on a lot of the production, as are superstars such as Blackbyrd McKnight, percussionist Airto, drummer Mike Clark, Juma Sultan, bassist Paul Jackson, Martin Luther and the voice of Bobby Seale. 

The other mind bending funk-jazz excursion is the return of Kelvyn Bell’s Kelvynator: Funk 4 Wha Cha Know. Kelvynator was a rowdy 80’s funk fusion act that stood strong in the mix of alternative ass-kicking radical jazz-funk acts like Defunkt and Jean Paul Bourelly. His new music is as strong as any of his earlier work. Kelvyn Bell’s radically offbeat thumpasorus humps, chords and grooves are an intoxicating radioactive mash of stank, that dares anyone from the funk or jazz worlds to reach them at the crossroads. 

Then there are the funk redux sounds of Aurra, Global Noize and the latest from Earth, Wind & Fire: Now, Then & Forever. Steve Washington was “rediscovered” in a sense when producer Daniel Borine located the lost tapes of a 1984 Aurra album done without Kurt Jones & Starleana Young but with Bride of Funkenstein Sheila Horne and (Chaka’s brother) Mark Stevens. The crazy legal mess with the original Aurra has passed 30 years later, but the grooves, remixed by state-of-the-art producers on the new release Satisfaction sound badass, ole school and brand new all at once. The hype has also helped inspire Steve to break out with Kurt Jones again and start on some real new Aurra music too!

Earth, Wind & Fire came back yet again with their patented sound of horn driven positive R&B. This time they brought back in the fold original keyboardist Larry Dunn, and as a result their sound is more satisfying than it has been in years. Some of these O.G.’s are really trying to bring back that REAL black music, they just need our support cause the industry will try to make them all disappear!

A massive collaboration of artists led by producer Jason Miles put together Sly Reimagined, yet another spin on the Sly Stone catalog, that brings even more fresh flava to the insastiable positivity of Sylvester Stewart’s work! With contributions from the likes of Maya Azucena (singing lead on “Fun”) Will Bernard on guitar and original Family Stone drummer Greg Errico on most of the tracks, the feel is rich, fresh and funky yet again.

Sly & the Family Stone really got the repackaging treatment this year. Get On Down released a deluxe repackaging of There’s A Riot Going On, and Epic/Sony Legacy finally got off their asses and produced THE Sly box set airybody’s been waiting for, Higher! The 4 discs of hilarious unreleased gems, classic masters and alternate takes makes for an intensely uplifting experience, and the massive MASSIVE book of photos and memorabilia make the project the definitive treatment!

But there is more, Dutch collectors extraordinaire Arno and Edwin Konigs finally completed their giant picture books of the music of the Sly & the Family Stone and one on the music of George Clinton & P-Funk. These coffee-table sized labors of love are as satisfying as any music reissue to come along, and are welcome additions to the ever growing multi media recognition of the legacy of The Funk!

One should not sleep on the funkativity of our European funk head friends, with Rony Playstation (Funkadelian Johnson), Tiny & the Underground Funk Squad, P-Theory, Bobby Soul, Octave Pussy, Seven Eleven (featuring Dodge) and many others producing tracks, their albums are regularly at the top of my Best Funk of the Year lists. One should peep the tracks posted by Heavy Baby Makers, a collaboration of many Euro-Peein’ Maggots I’ve listed!

It was too hard to make a straight “top ten list” of funk releases this year because so many artists spun around a funk orbit but didn’t spend enough time in that “ habitable zone.”  We keep hearing rumors about new funk albums from giants like George Clinton, D’Angelo, and the Prince/3rd Eye Girl/Ida Nielsen confab, but fo real, put something out already! Here’s hoping that 2014 will be the year that we get The Funk Over The Hump!

Monday, August 12, 2013

I Spent The Day With Sly & the Family Stone

   On July 31, I was asked to interview Sly & the Family Stone. Not a gig that comes along every day, but there was a buzz about a big box set coming up, and I knew the collectors that contributed to the spectacular book of photos of memorabilia and other goodies in the box. Neal Austinson and Edwin & Arno Konigs are probably the most accomplished collectors of Sly Stone stuff in the world, and they put together a monster package that is coming out next month. In addition to laying out a masterpiece of Sly memorabilia, I was told that that Neal suggested me to do the interview, and I’m real indebted to him for that.
   The buzz from Sony/Legacy was that Sly was actually going to show up on Monday August 5th at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley for an all day interview session to promote the box set. It was also a time for the Family Stone to get back together, and the Stewart family to reconnect. Freddie Stone, the Reverend Frederick Stewart showed up with his wife Melody. Vaetta (Vet Stone) made it; their sister Rose arrived, and most were asking questions about how this thing actually could come together. Cynthia and Jerry drove up in a car together, and had a banter that could only come from partners in 45 years of friendship and work. Greg Errico came with his usual upbeat personality, and a halo of technicians were buzzing around, with Sony rep Marisa Jeffries keeping it all together and trying to get promo copies of the box set signed by everyone there.
   The techs had the group members sit in a semicircle of low couch seats, facing me off camera. I had to submit a list of questions days ahead of time, even though it is always the impromptu questions that get things really rolling. But hey, Adam Farber at Sony Legacy was cool with what I wrote, so it was all good. Cynthia, Vaetta, Freddie, Rose, Jerry & Greg settled in. Larry Graham was contacted but wasn’t available. Some folks still believe that Larry & Sly have some kind of beef, but in talking with Larry over the past couple of years, it is clear to me that he reveres Sly like the rest of us, but is wary of his missteps and the industry shenanigans, and is just waiting for the “right” moment to join the party.
   Not everyone was thrilled about getting back together, and there was a bit of awkwardness, so I opened with individual questions of each member, so they could get a groove without any side stuff. Greg got into how he studied the drummer Buddy Rich, and Freddie spoke on how the Haight Ashbury affected his life. I asked Cynthia if she was the only black girl in the Sacramento High marching band (there was one other), and Rose what took her so long to join the group (she had a day job at a bank!). Then they all spoke on how nurturing mom and pops Stewart were to them, how they were all welcomed into the “family” and allowed to do their thing. The discussion of the magic of the early group was just exhilarating. Their first shows at the “Winchester Cathedral” in Redwood City, the way Sly would ‘deliver’ songs to them, with his clear vision yet a trust in each one’s own ability to put a stamp on their parts.
   We had a ball with “Dance to the Music” and what it was like to redefine pop music – introducing an entire band in a 3 minute song – giving the goods to people “who only need a beat!” and becoming overnight stars as a result. When we got to Stand! and the social issues, folks got all up into it, with Freddie going on about the song “Nigger Whitey” and how important it was to get clear on what it means - equality. The song is not featured on the box set I was hired to ask the band about, but they all got into it. Freddie and the others also talked about how that song came about because they toured the country and witnessed the race hate from all directions, although in the Bay Area they had a different experience entirely.
   They also got way deep into the Woodstock session, and what its like backstage at an all night outdoor music festival. These folks all crossed paths with some incredible moments in history and going through it with them was as thrilling as advertised. Then the techs started buzzing around, “Sly was in the parking lot” is what I heard. The folks were ready for a break but the techs were hoping to get Sly to walk in on the set… they said “no break!” Freddie got up & said “we’re old folks, we’re taking a break!”
   So the techs herded folks around quickly and got us all back together just in time… I was out of questions by then, and started riffing on songs and issues and moments that meant the most to me – and the group was much looser – and then Sylvester the slippery one shows up! He rushed in, crossed the stage and gave every person a long warm embrace. Everybody was thrilled to have him back in the room! Then he goes back to the starting point across the stage, where he isn’t supposed to be, and tells the techs, this is where I’m staying…
   So we do the interview from there and it is just a HIGH! I start by saying “Sly we were just talking about the idea that is in much of your music that “you got to get through it to get to it!” Sly jumps in and starts riffing on “Nigger Whitey” and all the dramatics that the band went through and what it takes to be yourself through all the madness. It was a trip! He rambled a bit, scattered some ideas, but was always on point. Sometimes you had to rewind in your mind what he said so you could keep up with what he was telling you. The man lives on another level than the rest of us, but his heart is where we all know it to be, and we love him for it.
   After what felt like 5 minutes but was more like 40, they wrapped up the taping and I could finally exhale! But I head earned my paycheck because this was a group like no other, with a story like no other that deserved to be told like no other and I was proud to be a part of it. The techs took the band into a sound studio and they listened to some of their hits mixed in parts, like “Everyday People” “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” The look and sound of that session was surreal. It is why we collectors collect. In the hopes of connecting to a moment like this. For a moment, in the mix with SLY & the Family Stone, all was good in the world. At some point, some of this footage will be part of the promotional package for the Sly & the Family Stone Box Set “Higher” coming out at the end of August. It was a momentous experience, and I hope it can happen again (maybe with Larry, who Knows?) But if not, at least this gathering took place and the Family Stone took another step toward their immortality with this gathering.
   RV

Saturday, December 29, 2012

RVs favorite funky releases for 2012:

Another year, another plunge into the inspired world of funk music. This year has been both invigorating and frustrating because so much great funky music is being released, but the lack of recognition of the music outside of our funk networks is galling. Nowadays the funk is both everywhere and nowhere, as you cannot find any great funk release on the R&B or hip hop charts, but through our doo doo loops we often hear of killer music before it is even released. So if you want to find The Funk, here's some good starting points:

Ronkat Spearman’s Katdelic: D.O.T.M.S. P-Funk guitarist sideman Ronkat Spearman left George Clinton’s touring group a few years back to concentrate on his own band and his own production and it has taken off in blazing fashion. Katdelic is a great experience live, but one of Ronkat’s greatest talents is songwriting, and he has put together a deep, diverse, thunderous, tender, sentimental and stylish celebration of the magnificence of The Funk. Utter funk slabs like “Oh Hi” and “Mackin’ with No Hands” are complimented by ever so groovy trips as “Drive Away,” “Change Generation” and the haunting tribute to Garry Shider: “Peace to You.” This disc is silly, serious, soaring, subtle and superior in every way. Bustin’ “Bob” Mitchell at The Funk Store.com wrote a spectacular review of the CD that I could not have said better myself. http://www.thefunkstore.com/CurrentCDs/JustTheFacts/CRNT_RonkatDOTMS2012_TFS.htm Check this review here, or better yet, check the CD and you’ll see it is THE ONE for this year, and you will be Dancing on the Mothership.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station: Raise Up! FINALLY! Larry Graham is back with The Thunder and he’s here to let every body know what The Funk is all about. Graham has been in collaboration with Prince for a number of years, and it hasn’t always produced music that brings out the best of each artist. Raise Up! is the most Larry Graham-ish record in years! By far the best production quality of any record on this list, the record has that ole school Bay Area feel of atmospheric soul, and incredible bass tone that the REAL GCS was all about. Some of the surprise of this is taken away by Larry’s remakes of original GCS tunes like “It’s Alright” and “Ain’t No Fun to Me.” I’m not entirely sold on those, but the redo of “Now Do You Wanta Dance” is in another place altogether, and reconfigures the notion of 2000s funk in about 30 seconds of hump.

Ida Nielsen: Sometimes a Girl Needs Some Sugar Too Formerly known as Bass-Ida, Prince’s astoundlingly funky bass player Ida Nielsen delivers a brilliant stomp fest here, with some vicious chops and an excellent range of moods to compliment her butt ripping bass slams. Listening to this set gives a clue as to why Prince has been getting so deep into the super strong funk sound nowadays. The hard funk tracks like “Feed Me” and “Rubber Toy in my Bathtub” and the title track are just the front lines to a nonstop slice of multiple mood funky heat from an underrated master of the craft.

GoGo Get Down Compiled By Joey Negro: Pure Ghetto Funk from Washington D.C. This one brings it! The days of the wacky and badly mixed Go Go comps are finally over! 24 of the wildest, looniest, meanest and ghettoest 80s Go Go tracks ever put to disc shine here in this one of a kind celebration of the crank!! There are some tracks and some artists here that are fairly well known, but the true magic of this mix is the consistently grooving genius of Go Go street funk from the depths of the scene, captured and apparently remastered for a consistent mash of magnificent, endless funk joy! This came out just weeks before we lost Chuck Brown, and his legacy as the Godfater of Go Go shines brighter than ever here.

New Trinity Revolution: 9 and Zootzilla: To Lie With Wolves These two discs are from P-funk styled Bay Area producer Phil “PTFI” Jones. PTFI keeps the groove slow, lean, tight, dirty and clean all at once. Both of these CD’s are in such a pocket that they should be listed together. Zootzilla is the lunatic George Clinton clone with the voice of a wild wolf in heat, and he growls and clowns over PTFI’s stomping bottom on each loony track. The bass goes off on “Long Gone Fishin” and Zoot just be clowinin’ on “Lord of the Wolves”. This is a nut case of crazy contemporary funky conduits, like “Parasite Dooky Drop” with George Clinton. The New Trinity Revolution is a slightly smoother PTFI project, with cleaner, meaner message music and stoopid thomps. PTFI is Phil the Funky Instrumentalist, and you get the real deal on songs like “Electrohipnoticbumpmusic” and “Funkin’ out of Time”. As serious as the groove gets, guests like George Clinton and Trey Lewd keep the nonsense factor higher than high, while guest Lil T, daughter of Dr. Illenstein, makes her case to keep Obama in the White House on “Letter to the President.”

Monophonics: In Your Brain These bay area funk-rockers put a dirty 60’s rock feel into The Funk for 2012 and don’t miss anything. It is a throwback and blast forward all at once. This is that meeting of 60’s psychedelia and bottom heavy thump that we’ve been waiting for since 1972. Lead singer Kelly Finnigan has the look and sound of someone that played Woodstock and survived, and then did gigs at the Keystone Corner in Berkeley in 1971 fronting this band before time warping it to 2012.

D’Angelo: Live in Oslo For years there has been a buzz about the new D’Angelo studio album, but no dice, no news, only cryptic teases. Then we started to hear stories of D’angelo’s magnificent live tour of Europe early in 2012. He had some great funk players with him, like Kendra Foster on vocals, Amp Fiddler on keys and Jesse Johnson on guitar. We kept seeing the great wobbly youtube posts of his tour, and were left to wonder how and when he would bring That Funk to the States. Then he returned and performed at a B.E.T. awards show, (a fantastic set) and toured – opening for Mary J Blige in a setting that wasted his growing funk legend. Meanwhile still no word about the new album. But lo and behold, his 2012 European tour was captured on a spectacular 2-disc set released in Europe. Everything you loved about D’Angelo is captured in full, thrilling effect on this disc. Why it was not released to great fanfare in the U.S. is a complete mystery because it is KILLER.

Danny Bedrosian’s Secret Army: Lost Froth P-Funk keyboardist Danny Bedrosian’s Lost Froth is once again a brilliant mash a mug of his keyboard genius and soulful, jazzy song styling. Danny’s music takes you crazy places that sometimes you want to desperately stay in, and sometimes you want to get out of right away. Maybe anticipating this, Lost Froth features a crazy mix of some songs that are too short and some that are hella long. But once you take the plunge in the lunatic tripology, you’ll never want to climb out.

Lettuce: Fly This Brooklyn based instrumental group once again packaged a lean and mean funky groove session that takes no prisoners and plays every song like it is their most important selection. Nonstop funk-jazz like it used to be done. Their cover of “Slippin into Darkness” is only the beginning of a deep tribute to the groove, including the killer “Let it Gogo”

Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music Society The delightful bass playing prodigy (and dreamy vocalist) made her move toward R&B with her 4th album of exquisitely soulful jazz driven mellow groove music. She won the ‘best new artist’ Grammy Award in 2011 over the media favorite Justin Bieber, and her career has far more substance to it, regardless of her hit list. This album features some brilliant inspiring soul in the vein of Minnie Riperton, with tracks like “Black Gold” and “Cinnamon Tree” she clearly has a vision that needs to be heard. It is sad to me that she has so few contemporaries in the world of conscious, cool, positive black jazzy, soulful groove music.

On the hip hop front, Boots Riley's latest, "Sorry to Bother You" from The Coup is as wild as ever and pushes the boundaries of hip hop forward into headslamming conscious rage music, and the latest Public Enemy is doing an honorable job of reclaiming the roots of conscious rap, but the strate up funk connection is harder and harder to find in hip hop today. Maybe that's as it should be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Return of The Soul Brother

I caught D’Angelo on the BET Awards the other night. (July 1). His set included a classic ballad of his, and a bouncing, funky groove from his new upcoming album. He played some mean piano, and cooked up the funk at the end with a jam that started to truly smoke, and just pushed aside the shallow pop dribblers in the audience. D’Angelo deliberately gave us multiple sides of this soul/funk master in effect. It was so so refreshing.

It is so important for a “Soul Singer” to re-emerge with the values of Soul, because the idea has been getting a bad wrap lately. When Barack Obama “Slow jammed the news” with Jimmy Fallon in April, it let us all know that, while Obama has his ‘race’ card fully intact, it also made a statement that the slow jam from a strong man is now an artifact, an item to be manipulated like a trinket at tourist trap gift shop.

Black popular music has been in bad shape for a number of years. It is not simply that people are not talented, well ok, a case can be made that the talent level of black popular artists of recent vintage has been lacking, but a larger issue has developed, one in which black male performers are caught in a creative vise grip, due to forces from within and without.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to come across such young female firebrands as Ledisi, Goapele, and Jill Scott. The rise of mature black women such as Sharon Jones & her Dap Kings is heartwarming. Esperanza Spalding is a delight and a genius, and her incredible album “Radio Music Society” is a ray of hope for black popular music.

But I’ve been asking myself for years now, where are the brothers? Can a brotha sing with the raw power of Ledisi or the hypnotic allure of Esperanza Spalding or exotic passion of Goapele? For what its worth, the great female pop stars enjoy a range of styles and sounds in their works. Even Beyonce can do ballads as well as dancefloor burners.

The brothers? Well there have been some great lovermen, bedroom crooners like Eric Benet and the legendary Luther Vandross. But their range remains in the bedroom, as if they are capable of imagining nothing else. This is a problem.

To their credit, a wave of new black male vocalists is on the scene, trying to break out of the loverman image, and present themselves as thoughtful, original, entertainers. I’m not talking about the Bruno Mars clown show or the Chris Brown fiasco, but provocative and original black male singers like Bilal, Martin Luther, Van Hunt, Reggie Watts, Amp Fiddler, Dwele, and a long list of others.

Most of these self styled soul brothas do a fine job of working around a musical idea, of working around a groove, and working their emotions to make excellent songs of personal love and a greater social love.

But without attempting any disrespect, to my ear, most of their songs sound like Prince or Marvin Gaye b-sides. Not that this is a bad thing necessarily, but everyone is trying to be the next b-side balladeer. Where is the next Rick James? So much great soul music works around a soft side, but nobody wants to stand up and throw down!

As much as these fine neo-soul singers emulate the b-side material of Prince and Marvin Gaye and the ballads of Michael Jackson, it is as if they have forgotten that Prince and MJ would rip the dancefloor to pieces with their hot funky party jams. As much as Prince could create an intimate bedroom mood and writhe on the floor in intense passion, he is still just as capable of bringing that passion to the Funk, to the party music.

Dwele in the club? Bilal stomping the stage? Van Hunt doing some club moves? He tried on his second album, but just didn’t put it together. It is like they are all doing the ‘safe’ black male singing thing. The hard stuff, well, let’s face it, that’s the domain of the rappers.

As I see it, we all have abdicated a critical perspective on our young male artists, and simply allowed them to diverge into one of two characters: the hypermasculine hip hop male pimp-daddy clown, or the hyper-sexualized R&B man-servant. Where is the middle ground? In this formula, folks like R. Kelly show their ‘hardness’ by their ability to abuse and humiliate women, not in their abilities to rouse their passions in a dance.

My issue is this: to be a black male soul singer today, these artists are compelled to leave their masculinity at the door. One can be a lover, but not a fighter too.

You want to emulate some great black soul singing? Try the Isley Brothers’ “The Pride” or “Who’s That Lady” or “Fight the Power.” We all love Ronnie Isley, but he did far more than great love ballads. Everyone remembers the O’Jays ballads like “Cry Together” and “”Let Me Make Love to You” – because they get played on ‘quiet storm’ radio formats regularly - but they also scorched the dancefloor with the number one pop tune “I Love Music” and the legendary “For the Love of Money” was a funk classic. And while we regularly hear legendary Lionel Richie ballads like “Just to Be Close to You” and “Three Times A Lady,” people forget that he was singing in the Commodores at the time, and those same albums had bigger hits with dancefloor punishers “Fancy Dancer,” “Slippery When Wet” and “Brick House.”

But here’s my deal: almost all of these newbies are masters of the whispering/singing/whining bedroom tones that are the “standard” of black music nowadays. Van Hunt blew up in 2004 with an amazing debut album and the single “Seconds of Pleasure” and he’s been trying to figure out how to get past that image ever since.

The emasculation of the black male soul singer is a direct reflection of the fossilization of the black male image in the public imagination – as a rapper, as a thug, as a hip hop gangster – in a hoodie. Nothing confirms this pathetic state of the black male image more starkly thatn the wanton attack on black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was walking from a convenience store “in a hoodie” and therefore “looking suspicious.” The resultant harrasment, confrontation and murder of the Trayvon Martin is a direct result of the public image of the young black male as one of impossibly narrow characteristics: violent, criminal thug. Despite the fact that the Commander in Chief is an African Amerian who claims his son would ‘look like Trayvon” the fact remains that someone or some thing or some entity in our nation has fixated upon the black male and fixed in the national imagination a black man with narrow ideas, narrow values, and a presence to be feared.

This onslaught, while centuries in the making, can be disrupted, because it was disrupted in the past. For this to take place, black male entertainers can and must expand beyond their accepted ‘loverman’ stereotypes, and try to become spokespersons for a greater kind of love. John Legend made an admirable attempt in 2008 when he performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama’s nomination. He was joined by fellow stereotype distruptor Will.I.Am.

Unfortunately, black music after Obama’s election, like the movement that supported it, faded back to the standard status quo of pop nonsense, masculine blather and loverman overload.

Black artists and entertainers have a bound social contract with their community that they fail to adhere to when they narrow their voice to a simple stereotypical sound. This was and is the triumph of D’Angelo, to break through and destroy these stereotypes and present to the world a soulful black man.

This is why it is so important for artists like Martin Luther to expand beyond their love songs and become the psychedelic badass “Martian” Luther, with hard driving – indisputably masculine music – that showcases a range of black male musicality and masculinity, of vision and attraction, in complex ways.

This is why the return of D’Angelo is so important to the popular music scene, and to Black America overall. A creative tour de force, and a vibrant, masculine vigorous black man with ideas, vision and visceral magnetism has not been seen in the public domain in years. With the death of Barry White, of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, the passing of Teddy Pendergrass, the murder of Marvin Gaye, the suicide of Donny Hathaway, the deaths of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Phillipe Wynne of the Spinners, Joe Tex, Eddie LaVert and so many others, the broad minded black male has become a forgotten commodity in the American commercial culture.

D’Angelo represents so much more. He is a card carrying funkateer, with a repertoire of ballads and hard driving funk and thoughtful, spiritual soul that makes all the connections. The connections that the Original Soul Prophets – Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Sly, Aretha et al, were capable of doing on a regular basis.

D’angelo frames his work on his own, referencing Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Isley Brothers and George Clinton, as well as Prince and Marvin Gaye. His presence is as masculine as any of the rappers, yet his emotionality is a deep as any of the crooners. These were the traits of the original soul masters, capable of exuding masculinity and embracing their feminine side in a fearless expression of love of the human condition. This is where the black male soul singers need to go, so we can return to a sense of unity within our music and ourselves.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Notes from the Jimmy Castor Memorial

On Sunday March 4th I went to the Memorial for Jimmy Castor. Jimmy Castor was “The Everything Man” and one of my Super Funky heroes. In 2010 I was able to get to know Jimmy Castor and his son Jimmy Jr. and had the privilege of helping to facilitate Jimmy’s performance at the Long Beach Funk Fest, which would turn out to be his last live performance.

The Brooklyn native, Jimmy Castor grew up with members of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and Jimmy wound up singing doo wop professionally while still in Junior High School. Some of his compositions, like “I Promise to Remember” are as fresh today as they were in the 1950s. For reasons that still mystify and amaze me, Jimmy Castor immersed himself in Latin Soul in the 1960, and generated some musical buzz with his 1966 hit “Hey Leroy Your Mama’s Calling You.” Jimmy was equally at home singing doo wop, playing blistering timbales solos and clave on the cowbell, or playing soul jazz on the saxophone.

But he’s best known for his outrageous cavemen characters and novelty funk hits in the 1970s, some which are hip hop break beat classics. Stompers like “Troglodyte,” “King Kong,” “Dracula,” “Space Age” and “The Bertha Butt Boogie” were standards of the funk fans of my generation. How one artist could attain a mastery of such a wide palate of music was one reason why Jimmy Castor is the brilliant genius legend that he is, and one reason why he’s often passed over when the greats are mentioned.

Jimmy Castor moved to Las Vegas over ten years ago, and found a niche playing his old school sounds with a band that was versatile enough to keep up with his un-matchable creative range. At The Bootlegger bistro, south of the Las Vegas strip, a stirring range of stars came out to pay tribute to the E-Man, Jimmy Castor. The legendary doo wop singer, latin soul maestro, and thumpasorus funkmaster was given a proper tribute that only few could have pulled off.

The energy of the place was vibrant, full of color and life. Like Jimmy would have liked it. Jimmy’s daughter introduced the proceedings with a heartfelt tribute that also showed her Brooklyn accent, and a street sense that many of us had come to know through Jimmy’s body of work.

Jimmy’s son Jayson Castor starting things off with a wild rendition of “E Man Boogie” that showed that the fruit didn’t fall to far from the tree. Jayson had many of the mannerisms and the wickedly sassy style of his dad. Then one by one a series of performers came on stage to sing selections of Jimmy’s catalog. Avis Harrell sang “Everything is Beautiful to Me” one of Jimmy’s overlooked midtempo tunes from his funk days. Then the surprises really began to take off: Jimmy’s bandleader “Marinaro,” who handled the entire showcase brilliantly, introduced Louis Lymon, who’s name didn’t ring a bell, until he got on stage in a super snazzy white 3 piece suit, and started singing in perfect pitch like his brother Frankie Lymon! Louis Lymon then did some of those super smooth do wop dance steps that let everyone know how much STYLE there was back in the day, and where a lot of break dancing came from. I was transfixed by Louis Lymon, and how fresh he was after 50 years. I also realized that there was a contingent of extremely snappily dressed soul brothas and sistas in the house, wearing loud colors that bounced off the multicolored lights of The Bootlegger bistro that nite.

As a string of artists took the stage to do renditions of doo wop; of Jimi’s jazzy instrumentals; of Jimmy’s blistering Latin percussion driven music, and of his killer funk jams, an unmistakable sensation overcame me: that it takes a dozen people to put together the musical catalog of this one man. The Everything Man, Jimmy Castor! It was both exhilarating and so bittersweet.

Little Anthony of Little Anthony and the Imperials came up, fresh of a cross country flight, to describe life growing up with Jimmy Castor. And two of his original Jimmy Castor Bunch band members were there, including bass player Paul Forney, and Elwood Henderson, the one mentioned in one of Jimmy’s wildest funk masterpieces of soul rap, “Potential!” Elwood and Forney got on stage and represented that funk exquisitely.

During the break, a musician I didn’t recognize sitting in front of me said “I wish I could get a tribute like this when I go.” Something this diverse, where a singer could be doing a Dean Martin standard, following the “Bertha Butt Boogie,” well, only The E Man could make this happen.

By the time bandleader Mariano Longo brought up Las Vegas singer Sonny Charles to belt out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” it was clear that this event was one for the ages. But there was still some of Jimmy’s biggest 70’s hits to be reprised. I had begun to wonder, how was this to be done at the level of the rest of the evenings proceedings? After Sonny Charles, the polish and elegance of the band, of the event, of the properly honored legacy was just overwhelming. But how do take it home?

Didn’t have to wait long to find out. The next artist to be announced was none other than FLAVA FLAV! Flava came out on stage to give some love, complete with his clock and sideways cap, and gave it up for Jimmy as only he could: “Yo G, I just want to say that Jimmy Castor is one of my musical heroes G, and his music is what the deejays all used at the start of hip hop” Flava then ran down a list of his favorite Jimmy Castor Bunch jams, and described a hilarious chance meeting with Jimmy Castor in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Then Flav announced that his jam – his all time jam - started with, “What we gonna do now is go back, way back, back into time!” The band got the signal and kicked into a rendition of “Troglodyte” and Flava Flave performed the entire song: “Cave men! Cave Women” "Her name was Bertha1 Berthat Butt! One of the Butt Sisters!” Tha whole 9. Flava Flav broght the house down – doo wop singers, Vegas band regulars, everyone got a taste of the attitude that is needed to bring Jimmy castor’s funk to life!

And if that wasn’t enough, Jayson Castor followed up, leading the band in a rendition of “It’s Just Begun,” while the Rock Steady Crew did their moves in the center of the dancefloor!

Jimmy Castor was given a fitting tribute. I was honored to be a part of it. Thanks to Jimmy Castor Jr for making sure this ole funkateer got to the spot and checked out what a tribute to a giant is all about.