Herbie Hancock Plays “Chameleon”

Herbie Hancock Head HuntersListen to this track by jazz-funk pioneer, future electro innovator, and all-around influential musical barrier-breaker-downer Herbie Hancock. It’s “Chameleon”, a key track on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.

That record would spin the heads of many who’d first heard it, perhaps not being able to immediately figure out whether or not it was a jazz record. Many of these people would be the critics. Well, it certainly is a jazz record. But, it also carries with it influences that stood apart from the traditions of the jazz world at the time too; Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and the funk genre in general, which is in turn very much influenced by jazz. Talk about spinning heads!

The barriers between the musical forms expressed here had always been fairly permeable. But, as jazz expanded its borders by the end of the ’60s, the definition of jazz as a musical form became harder to ascertain. It had shifted, and morphed, having taken on new influences, as it had done since it was first recorded.

In the middle of all of that, this record was a big seller, standing as a sign of the musical times where the evolution of jazz was concerned.  And it would provide an avenue that would open things up for Hancock, and for other musicians down the road. Read more

Roy Ayers Ubiquity Performs “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”

Listen to this track by smooth jazz and R&B-miester Roy Ayers and his group Ubiquity with a sunshiny tune with a simple message that can be pretty easily appreciated.  It’s ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine” as taken from the 1976 LP of the same name, Everybody Loves the Sunshine.

If ever you felt that jazz was an island unconnected to other strains of popular music, let this tune banish the thought from your mind.  Here you’ll find a bit of soul, funk, and even African-influenced choral music attached to a repetitive jazz structure and all packed into one tune.

Roy Ayers is a respected vibraphonist seemingly unbound by the obligation to stick to straight ahead jazz playing, not that this was a completely unprecedented approach by the mid-70s.  Still, what we’re left with in this tune, and on the rest of the record too, is a seamless amalgam of styles, with less emphasis on soloing, and more on pure vibe – no pun intended.   Read more

Charlie Hunter Trio Perform Nirvana Song “Come As You Are”

bing_bing_bingListen 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.


Herbie Hancock Plays ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’

fat_albert_rotundaListen to this piece by post-bop keyboard innovator and soundtrack composer Herbie Hancock, ‘Tell Me A Bedtime Story’ as taken from the album Fat Albert Rotunda. The music on this album, including this piece,  originally served as the soundtrack to Bill Cosby’s first Fat Albert TV special, aired in 1969.

Herbie Hancock had served under the tutelage of Miles Davis for a significant period of both men’s careers, from 1963 to 1968, although he’d cut classic jazz records as a leader in between those years as well including Empyrean Isles, Speak Like A Child, and Maiden Voyage.  All of these records forged what is now known in jazz circles as ‘post-bop’, which is an amalgm of all that jazz had come to mean by that time, incorporating everything from modal jazz, bop, avante-garde, and free-jazz, yet still retaining something of an ear for mood and melodic effect. Like many of Davis’ proteges, Hancock was barely out of his teens, supremely gifted, and above all musically curious.  And therefore, his efforts in bringing the new ingredients in jazz together with the old would not be where Hancock would rest.

Hancock had been involved with soundtracks for films before. He’d scored the film Blow Up, directed by Michealangelo Antonioni. But, by 1969 he’d been invited to score an entirely different project; an animated special featuring the central figure of one Fat Albert, based on a boyhood friend of comedian Bill Cosby.  The special was among the first of its kind, a children’s  tale as set in the inner city projects based on Cosby’s Philadelphia upbringing. The music needed to follow suit with the material, which allowed Hancock access into another form of jazz – jazz funk.

Hancock assembled a nonet for the music he’d written, which included saxophonist Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles on trumpet and flugelhorn, Garnett Brown on trombone, and others.  Hancock played electric piano, and synthesizers, recently becoming enamoured of electronics and electric instruments, independent of his mentor Miles Davis’ similar interest as revealed on Davis’ Bitches Brew LP released around the same time. But where Davis’ exploration of electric instrumentation was about whipping the sound into a frenzy in order to produce a raw groove, Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda was about lyrical arrangements,  and a jovial, playful spirit in relation to his subject matter.

This piece in particular is something of a favourite for me, a melodic and atmospheric tune that could have come off as a throwaway from a lesser artist. But, there seems to be real connection with childhood here, with a feeling that Hancock wanted the sound of innocence to be captured, without it sounding trite or patronizing. I think he succeeds brilliantly, with his dreamy Fender Rhodes piano whispering behind the gentle lead voice of Coles’ flugelhorn.  And I love that the horns are used orchestrally, rather than held back until solos.  It really lets the melody, and the feel of the piece, breathe a bit more.  This is one of my favourite instrumental pieces by anyone.  It’s  gentle, and kind of sad too, capturing possibly the most central aspect of childhood innocence – the promise of its ending.

Hancock would continue to press the boundaries of jazz with his seminal 1973 jazz-funk classic  Headhunters, which made critics wonder whether Hancock was still a jazz musician, and whether his record was jazz.  Yet, Fat Albert Rotunda, and “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”  remains to be something of a unique statement between standard post-bop, and the blurry lines between genres that Hancock would explore while also taking on electro-funk and early hip-hop sounds in the decades to follow.

For more information about Herbie Hancock, check out his website.


Maceo Parker & All the King’s Men Play “Funky Women”

Here’s a clip of one of the Founding Fathers of Funk, Maceo Parker and his band All the King’s Men with their 1970 funk workout “Funky Women”. The song comes from the album Doing Their Own Thing.

Maceo Parker
Maceo Parker and All the King’s Men was the result of a mutiny, the band having left their authoritarian leader James Brown, who was notorious for his perfectionism and random criticisms. Fining a band members for mistakes was a common practice, and often went without explanation. Even though his relationship with Brown was tumultuous, he would work with him a number of times after this album was released.

One of the things that top drawer funk musicians do very well is take the attention off of their own individual skill, and shift it to what the band as a whole is creating in the moment.  And they do this in a few ways, it seems to me.

First, the emphasis is on the groove, which is simply the nature of the beast; everything interlocks and interrelates to achieve this end.  Second, they keep everything simple by having equally straightforward goals, namely to get people on the floor and get them moving.  There is no funk if there is no sweat, after all.  And third, even if each band member is named and invited to solo, the ultimate objective is to contribute to what has been offered by the one who’s played his bit before.  And fourth, the band lets the audience in on what is being created as it’s happening, sometimes even letting them know where the music is going to go (‘Let’s we hit it and quit it!  ‘We gonna give the drummer some?’).

“Funky Women” does all of this, and has the additional benefit of being really, really playful, and very sexy too.  We get some fine playing from all involved, each band member having gone through James Brown’s school of hard knocks where they were fined for mistakes among other punishments.  Yet, this isn’t workmanlike playing – it’s pure joy, pure excitement, pure funk, with each instrumental solo delivered with a woman’s voice in mind.  The lilting trumpet is the voice of the breezy, talkative girl.   The deep tenor sax is the voice of the sultry man eater in the red dress. And Maceo’s own alto sax the short and sassy party girl.

All the while, Maceo is the master of ceremonies, the spinner of the tale, the setter of the scene, inviting his guys to imagine a humid evening playing a club in a roomful of appreciative, and vibrant women, who are to be looked upon not as mere decorations in the scene, but the very lifeblood of it, the living reasons for making music in the first place – to see them dance, to see them laugh, to draw them closer.   I just love this tune, an ode to the beauty of women and a reminder of how closely music and dance is tied to other physical yearnings.  And “Funky Women” is ultimately about acknowledging how great it is to be alive, as a physical being.

A close friend and collaborator with James Brown during his mid-to-late 60s period, Maceo Parker is of course a figure of authority in his own right, having made albums of notable consistency together with Brown, George Clinton,  Bootsy Collins, and Prince, as well as on his own, even if his profile isn’t quite as high as some of these artists.  Parker’s handle on funk, soul, and even jazz remains undiminished, active as he is as a touring performer and recording artist today.

For more music, check out the Maceo Parker official site.

And for more information, read this interview with Maceo Parker.