Editor’s Note: This following reflection on funky jazz is by David Jaffe. This should have been posted a long time ago (my bad) but I think people will take away something great from his insights – and excellent tastes. –O.W.
From David Jaffe:
- For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the funky side of free jazz. Like most styles of Black American music of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, jazz in general, and free jazz in particular, served as spiritual, protest and dance music. One might more easily recognize the spiritual side of the genre in meditations of John Coltrane or cry of Albert Ayler. Also evident is the demand for equal rights in the colorations of Archie Shepp or the staccato of Rashied Ali. What is less obvious, unless one is careful, is the music that draws less on the intellectualism of the out-jazz, new-thing scene and more on git-out-the-chair-and-shake-your-thang sound created by many of the musicians associated with the free movement.
It is likely that most of the African-American musicians commonly classified as out players had at one time or another played in R&B outfits. Many out instrumentalists, particularly those on the rosters of labels like Prestige and Blue Note, had also played in funky soul-jazz bands. For alert listeners the influences of R&B, soul and funk can be found in the recording of the musicians regularly associated with the New Thing in jazz, even so much as the music crosses over into the realm of pure funk. In this out jazz absent is the free improvisation, tonal experimentation and textured playing most familiar to free jazz fans, and present is the in-the-pocket playing with a groove and a break down most commonly associated with the music of James Brown and deep funk.
Sun Ra was the original Method Man of the out big band scene (“mad different methods to the way he do his shit”). His musical universe covered big band, free jazz, doo wop, R&B, funk, soundtracks, and so much more. Sun Ra had a fair number of funky recordings, the most famous, or at least well known, of which is Lanquidity. The album has been described as lounge jazz, or dance jazz where dance in this case equates to disco. Neither of these descriptions apply, as was true of many of the descriptions of Sun Ra’s work. The closest approximation to a labeled style of the present example might be blaxploitation. On the track included here, the seriously funky Where Pathways Meet, even the lead solo by Eddie Gale brings the stanky stuff. The Disco Kid guitar solo is so Funkadelic, and the multiple percussionists keep the groove in the pocket.
Sun Ra: Where Pathways Meet
From Lanquidity (Philly Jazz, 1978)
Eddie Gale also recorded two lesser known lp’s for Blue Note. As an aside, it is worth noting that all of the tracks included here, like most free jazz, was recorded for smaller independents or self-released for as much as a lack of interest by the public as the lack of understanding by the majors. On this track, Black Rhythm Happening, the traps duty falls to Elvin Jones, one of the greatest jazz drummers ever. While little of Jones’ playing could be considered pure funk, he did play on many funky soul jazz sides. Unlike Jones, Gale did not have enough opportunities to record, possibly because of his militant themes. His playing was very influential, however, and the Black Rhythm Happening lp was a direct influence Archie Shepp’s better known Attica Blues.
Eddie Gale: Black Rhythm Happening
From Black Rhythm Happening (Blue Note, 1969)
One band that did have tremendous opportunities to record was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their soundtrack to the French film Les Stances A Sophie is a classic among jazz film soundtracks as well as some of the bands funkiest music. The film was part of the French New Wave, and not the only film of the genre to use funky accompaniment. On the cut “Theme De Yoyo” the ACOE is joined by soul and funk singer Fontella Bass, wife of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Following Bowie’s death three decades later Bass would record “All That You Give” with Cinematic Orchestra for Ninja Tune. Cinematic Orchestra would then cover “Theme De Yoyo” for their ex post facto soundtrack to Man With A Movie Camera, a silent-era Russian propaganda film).
While both Cinematic Orchestra tracks are very good and worth tracking down for downtempo fans, neither can approach the outright funky of the original “Theme De Yoyo.”
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Theme De Yoyo
From Les Stances A Sophie (EMI France, 1970)
Like the ACOE, Joe McPhee had more opportunities to record overseas than at home. Also like the ACOE McPhee made his recording debut on a small, independent domestic label. In the case of the ACOE, their first recording came out as the sophomore release on the Nessa label, still active today, under the name the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. McPhee’s first release as a leader was the inaugural release on the CjR label, which as far as I know, only released three lp’s, all of which were McPhee’s. On the track “Shakey,” Jake McPhee is clearly influenced by both Coltrane and James Brown. The band includes organ, electric piano, electric bass, and two percussionists. This kind of track, recorded live, includes elements of touring soul and R&B groups on which many jazz players cut their teeth, as noted above, and lengthy, free improvisation practiced by the out players. McPhee apparently decided to pursue more free avenues of expression and neither of his other later two lp’s for CjR include the kind of work heard here.
Joe McPhee: Shakey Jake
From Nation Time (CJR, 1971)
One player who frequently played in the funky vein was Phil Ranelin. His early funky sides can be found on the artist-owned Tribe label, such as “Sounds From The Village” on Vibes From The Tribe. The track is equally Funk Brothers’ Motown and electric-era Miles Davis, paying homage to the hard-bop Detroit forefathers of the previous generation (i.e. Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, Roy Brooks, etc.) and looking forward to the House and Techno forefathers of two generations later.
Phil Ranelin: Sounds From The Village
From Vibes From The Tribe (Tribe, 1976)
Artist-owned labels were frequently purveyors of out jazz. Another example is the proto-Hip-Hop of Maulawi’s “Street Rap” on Strata East. More of an argument between a couple in the city than a rap, the arrangement of the vocals (!?) over the funky accompaniment is meant to be downright ghetto soul. Similarly, Rudolph Johnson’s Black Jazz recording of Devon Jean comes on like the theme song to Sanford & Son. Interestingly, Johnson’s Second Coming lp, also from Black Jazz, clearly shows the influence of less-funky-but-truly-beautiful A-Love-Supreme-era-Impulse-work of John Coltrane.
Maulawi: Street Rap
From S/T (Strata East, 1974)
Rudolph Johnson: Devon Jean
From: Spring Rain (Black Jazz, 1971)
Both Webster Lewis’ Do You Believe and Roy Brooks’ The Free Slave are live recordings that open with funky drums. The funk continues on Believe with Lewis’ organ and the vocals of Judd Watkins. If the track reminds the listener of Barry White, that is because Lewis was at one time White’s band leader. One will also be forgiven for hearing a connection to fellow funky out organist Larry Young for whom Lewis took over in Tony William’s Lifetime. Brooks was more of a soul jazz and post-bop drummer than a free drummer. He will be familiar to Blue Note junkies as the drummer behind Horace Silver’s Song For My Father. Brooks is also well know for helping introduce the world the post-bop styling of Woody Shaw, who played trumpet on The Free Slave. Shaw’s playing here harkens back to Larry Young’s Unity and Shaw’s own In The Beginning. While neither of those two titles is as funky as The Free Slave, which shows the influence of boogaloo, they are both fantastic.
Webster Lewis: Do You Believe
From In Norway – The Club 7 Live Tapes (Plastic Strip,
2007, Originally released Arne Bendiksen Records, 1971)
Roy Brooks: The Free Slave
From The Free Slave (Muse, 1972)