Listen to this song by jazz and instrumental rock wunderkinds the Charlie Hunter Trio with their post-bop take on Kurt Cobain’s “Come As You Are”, a key cut from the trio’s LP Bing, Bing, Bing!, released in 1995.
I remember when I first heard this version of the Nirvana tune. It was Toronto, Yonge St., at the HMV there in 1995 when this record came out. I remember thinking two things. First, that I loved the interplay between the bass and the guitar. The bass player was playing the central riff, while the guitar player punched out the melody line. Second, that it was so great that jazz musicians were becoming less snobby about rock music, and were getting to the point where the idea of the jazz standard when performing tunes audiences know was beginning to expand.
Subsequently of course, I learned a few things about this version of the song, and about the Charlie Hunter Trio.
First, that bass player I was so impressed by doesn’t exist. And that in fact the guitar player punching out the melody line, one Charlie Hunter, is actually playing that bassline at the same time. Charlie Hunter’s guitar has eight strings, with extra bass strings to account for his lack of a bass player in this group. Maybe this band set up was made to impress. Well, it worked – even on me, who isn’t really in favour of flashy soloing and musical dexterity for its own sake.
Second, I learned that these guys were mostly the exception to the rule when it came to acknowledging the melodic value in rock music as music to structure a jazz arrangement around. There are a few more, of course. Herbie Hancock, for instance, has made inroads into expanding the vocabularly of material around which to base jazz exploration. But, jazz is still willfully walled off from public consumption as far as establishing a new canon of jazz standards. I really think this is a shame, since there is so much to be explored beyond the traditional American songbook.
The band’s sound isn’t limited by straight ahead jazz, but incorporates funk, instrumental rock, and even a touch of 60s-flavoured psychedelia. To hear it, and for more information about the Charlie Hunter Trio, check out the Charlie Hunter Trio site.
Listen to this song by self-effacing Scottish funk disciples Average White Band with their horntastic early-1975 hit, “Pick Up The Pieces” as taken from their album AWB. If you don’t feel the need to shake yer thang while this is playing, check your pulse – if you have one.
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“Pick Up the Pieces” is one of my favourite pieces of music by anyone, just a powerhouse of unstoppable joy; sweaty, funky, sexy, fun. I love the tightly knit JBs-influenced horn section, the rhythmic guitar figure, the popping bass, and the crisp backbeat that pushes the whole thing along. I love the call-and-response horn shots during the tenor sax solo. And I love when the groove hits its stride and someone loses control of their enthusiasm, giving it up into a great big ‘WOOOOO!!”
Average White Band, indeed. If only.
There’s a story about the recording of this song, which I kind of hope is true, and wouldn’t surprise me if it was. I read it in The Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time, in which AWB is listed. The band, under the leadership of drummer Robbie McIntosh, recorded the track and gathered together in the booth to listen to the playback. On hearing it, each member of the band turned to the next: “That’s Us!” And then they started jiving around the studio, knowing that they had a hit.
The success of the single, and the album would be marred by tragedy. McIntosh would die not long afterward as the result of taking a lethal dose of heroin at a Hollywood party, thinking it to be cocaine. The band would go on without him, making some of the finest funk ever to be made on either side of the pond.
Here’s a clip of one of the most important groups in music history with the one of the greatest instrumental tracks of our time; Booker T. & the MGs with their signature hit “Green Onions”. The clip shows the classic line-up of the band, with Booker T. Jones on organ, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
“Green Onions” is probably their most recognized piece, a tune which would appear in several instances of pop culture, as well as being a huge hit for the group who released it in 1962. It made number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too, reaching number three. The song is somewhat related to Ray Charles “What’d I Say” which is certainly an inspiration to its structure, yet is something special on its own. Listen to that organ riff – where the hell did it come from? And Steve Cropper’s guitar – just a series of razor-sharp stabs that serve as a call-and-response to it. This is not to mention the steady, relentless rhythm section that pushes the whole thing along.
The group would gel to an unbelievable degree when “Duck” Dunn joined the band in 1965, after original bassist Lewie Steinberg left. At this point, the group began a golden age in soul music, along with producer Chips Moman, and writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter, all under the watchful eye of Stax owner Jim Stewart. Due to how often they played and recorded together as a house band, while also releasing their own records, they became one of the most imitated bands of the era – everyone wanted to nail down their sound.
In addition to soul bands like the Bar-Keys and the Mar-Keys in the States, Booker T. and the MGs also had an effect on mod groups in Britain, like the Who, a group who also traded on soul music as a part of their musical engine. Take a listen to their early instrumental The Ox (so named after bassist John Entwistle), which is a clear tip of the hat to the Memphis group. The two bands would share a stage in 1967, when Booker T. & the MGs played the Monterey Pop Festival as Otis Redding’s back-up band. It was at this time that the imaginary barriers between soul music and rock music were revealed to be just that – imaginary. Further, the group’s last album on the Stax label “Melting Pot” was something of a block party favourite, later to be sampled by early hip-hop pioneers.
Yet by the early 70s, all was not well at Stax, and as a result Jones and Cropper left, leaving Dunn and Jackson behind as sessioners for the remaining years the label had. Although the group would reunite a few times, their run was over. A big comeback which was planned in the mid-70s was cancelled when drummer Al Jackson was murdered during a home invasion.
At the end of the 70s, Cropper and Dunn would play with Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers both on record and on film, Levon Helm‘s RCO All-stars album, and with Booker T. Jones on Neil Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, which featured the band as Young’s backing group on all of the songs. Jones would continue to be a sought-after session musician, and would reunite with his bandmates a number of times over the decades with a number of well-respected drummers in Jackson’s seat, including Willie Hall, Steve Jordan, and Steve Potts.
But, they never bettered “Green Onions”. Everytime I hear it, I get something new. And it never fails to excite me, to make me want to move. Even now, the groove they created has potency.
For more information on Booker T. & The MGs, I suggest you check out my fellow music geek, and a former professor of mine from my York University days, Rob Bowman and his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. It is the definitive work on the subject, and is written by a Canadian, eh.