In part two of his analysis of crossover jazz, Davitt Sigerson looks at developments during the last three years.
CREED TAYLOR is more than a producer, more than a record company executive. He is a commercial strategist. Towards the end of 1970, Taylor left his position as staff producer with A&M to launch CTI Records, and its subsidiary label, Kudu.
Taylor had been in the business for many years. As a producer with Verve in the early sixties, Taylor had supervised Jimmy Smith’s recordings for the company. The white, middle-aged professional had a clear idea of what he wanted his company to represent. Sound and sleeve quality would be high, and standardised. Taylor’s artists would all play on each other’s sessions, and Taylor would produce everything himself, at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studios. CTI would be Penthouse jazz of the finest quality, and its releases would hopefully cross into the Easy Listening charts with some frequency. Kudu would release “black soul jazz”; not Roadhouse, but unpolished Penthouse, aimed not at the lounge market, but at the black middle classes. As Taylor cited some years ago, “Hank Crawford, who’s basically a funky blues player, is on Kudu, and Freddie Hubbard is on CTI. Freddie has a far more advanced style and sells more to the purist market than Hank.” Other early Kudu artists were Esther Phillips, and Grover Washington Jr., a young Philadelphia saxophonist who attracted some attention with All The King’s Horses, his debut recording.
CTI’s intentional uniformity served a cleverly conceived purpose. Despite the adventurous histories of her artists, the CTI label was something of a guarantee of safety. Albums like Freddie Hubbard’s Polar AC, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower and Stanley Turrentine’s Salt Song were inventively performed mellow jazz that could be listened to, or used as background music for classy cocktail parties.
ONE OF Taylor’s less heralded artists was a white South American pianist named Eumir Deodato. Deodato took Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, currently popular through its use in the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and gave it a funky, rhythm-dominated treatment.
The interpretation became a turntable hit, both on FM Radio and in the recently ascendant discos. Creed Taylor released the number as a single, and found his pure jazz label riding the pop singles charts around the world. It was then that Taylor realised that there was a new potential market for his shrunk-wrapped stylists. If MOR jazz could be made danceable, CTI would be able to find a new audience, and a younger one.
Just as the major companies had found that stand-up singers like Sinatra or Andy Williams sold far more albums if they included lush arrangements of pop hits, Taylor too perceived that well-known melodies would help to sell his artists’ improvisational talents. Grover Washington recorded Marvin Gaye’s music on ‘Inner City Blues’, a major crossover to both MOR and Soul charts. Eventually standards like ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell’, along with recent hits such as Bell/Creed’s ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s ‘I Hear A Symphony’ and The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’ appeared on CTI and Kudu releases.
To some extent, Taylor saw that a radio and disco market existed, and moved to meet it. He signed his company to a distribution deal with Motown, and began a regular release of singles, and in time, 12inch disco disks.
Yet at the same time, the younger pop and soul audiences had moved towards jazz. The growth of the discos has been linked to the new materialism accompanying recession, and to an increasing desire to use music as an escapist entertainment, much like the Hollywood movie of the Thirties. Such fuzzy associations may or may not be valid. What cannot be disputed is that when Taylor’s gifted roster applied itself to making dance music, the sounds created were far superior in technique and arrangement to those being made by most R&B musicians. American singles buyers came to appreciate the accessibility and proficiency of CTI’s lush disco styles.
TAYLOR’S TRUMP in the bid to win a larger market was a former free jazz pianist, and musical director for Sarah Vaughan named Bob James. James had been discovered by Quincy Jones, and had released a few avant garde albums after 1963, but the pressures of supporting a family led him to score television commercials, a sideline at which he became most skilled. James arranged Grover Washington’s albums, as well as those of Hubert Laws and Ron Carter. His rich string sound and inventive rhythm arrangements contributed much to CTI’s commercial ascent, and his own albums, titled One, Two and Three, became big sellers. James offered versions of songs such as ‘Women Of Ireland’ from the film Barry Lyndon, Paul Simon’s ‘Mardi Gras’ and ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, a major hit for Roberta Flack; they were little more than excellently performed elevator music, yet the records sold, and to young, socially mobile blacks as well as cholesterol-clogged middle-aged whites.
At the time that he was working on Hubert Laws’ The Chicago Theme, James said, “This album takes him into a new, far more commercial direction. It will be different because it’s an album of singles, and that is unique for a jazz artist”. Most jazz listeners would have expressed thanks for its uniqueness; Laws’ album was a stultified shambles, of about as much lasting value as ‘Arthur Rubenstein Plays The Hugo & Luigi Songbook’.
Bob James has been rewarded. Last year Columbia Records made him head of their jazz department, and one result has been an album from Freddie Hubbard, Windjammer, which is at least as depressing as anything James turned out at CTI, with versions of ‘Feelings’ and ‘Dream Weaver’.
In their efforts to replace James, CTI have endeavoured to launch the careers of two other arranger-pianists, Lalo Schifrin and Dave Matthews. Schifrin, a Brazilian discovered in the Sixties by Dizzy Gillespie, made a reputation for scoring ‘B’ movies. On Black Widow, his first CTI album, Schifrin has turned in a straight disco product, featuring a beautifully mixed and indescribably inane version of the theme from Jaws, which has become a sizeable international pop and disco hit in the last year.
Dave Matthews first came to New Yorkers’ attention in the early Seventies, playing cleverly arranged big band R&B at various clubs in Greenwich Village. He contributed some highly innovative arrangements to James Brown (notably versions of ‘These Foolish Things’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ for the Hell album), and then found service as Creed Taylor’s second string house arranger, working on fairly lifeless albums from Grant Green (The Main Attraction) and Hank Crawford. With James’ departure, Matthews has become CTI’s main man. He arranged the latest, excellent Grover Washington album, A Secret Place, and has supervised sets from Patti Austin (End Of The Rainbow), and an impressive release by George Benson and Joe Farrell, in which Farrell’s multi-tracked flutes are used to take the place of strings. In addition, Matthews, along with his band, Whirlwind, have released a disco album, entitled Shoogie Wanna Boogie, after its most successful track.
Creed Taylor seems to be broadening the company’s sound of late. He has signed a white, self-contained band, Seawind, and allowed drummer Harvey Mason to produce them in Southern California. Most encouragingly, he has allowed upright bassist Ron Carter to jump off the disco merry-go-round, and cut an orthodox jazz album, Yellow and Green, which has done much to restore the purists’ faith in Taylor’s operation.
DOUBTLESS THE most important artist with CTI/Kudu has been Grover Washington. Despite the heavyweights whom the company has at various times held under contract (George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Hank Crawford, Ron Carter, Milt Jackson, Airto, Joe Farrell, Gabor Szabo), it is Washington, unknown to the jazz world a decade ago, who has established Creed Taylor’s company commercially.
Washington’s early albums were very successful raunchy Penthouse. Although no one claims him to be a serious contender for greatness as a musician, Washington’s identifiably terse phrasing proved a good vehicle for James’ indulgent arrangements. Yet it was when those arrangements were stripped down to minimums that Washington’s real success began.
Mister Magic and Feels So Good are both close to platinum status. The first side of Magic is sophisticated, the second side James’ finest funk expression. On Feels So Good, James and Washington aimed for an entire album of accessible grooves, and were less successful, largely owing to an absence of tunes. Yet on that second side of Mister Magic, CTI/Kudu achieved its greatest music.
On a song written by percussionist Ralph McDonald, and first recorded by Roberta Flack, James creates a clean, syncopated rhythm sound based upon Steve Gadd’s simple and yet ever-changing backbeats and Eric Gale’s warm-toned rhythm guitar. Grover states the very memorable and rather simple melody, and then is joined by crisp brass and stratosphere strings. Almost impossibly, the number continues to build for almost ten minutes, constantly refreshed by James’ Fender-Rhodes colours, Gales’ varied guitar, which socks into a reggae rhythm about two-thirds of the way through, and the now-famous trimmings of the song’s author, Ralph McDonald, who makes conga, tambourine and various bells tell stories of their own.
The melody of ‘Mister Magic’ is pleasant, and Washington’s playing has never been better, but the cut’s true star is Bob James. More persuasively than at any time since Norman Whitfield’s production of Masterpiece on the Temptations, James proves what can be achieved simply by adding and taking away the right layers.
The second song on the second side of Mister Magic is a Bob James composition, entitled ‘Black Frost’. At once more structured and less tuneful than ‘Mister Magic’, ‘Black Frost’ sounds much like the music on James’ own albums. Perfectly planned peripheral effects, like the percussive violin figure over the chorus, and the sweetly billowing wah-wah guitar of Eric Gale, which plays with the fours bass, satisfy with little help from a melody, or from the album’s headliner.
Perhaps it is the fault of James’ compelling arrangements, perhaps Grover’s playing, but the listener’s mind wanders from the saxophone, and soon gets lost in the rest of the track. This never happens with a Stanley Turrentine or a Donald Byrd, whose horns always dominate their settings, no matter how lush those settings might be. Even George Benson, whose miraculously good In Flight features much the same distraction (clever rhythm playing, diverting Ralph McDonald tinkles and rich orchestral backings), can never disappear in his surroundings. On the other hand, the ease with which Hubert Laws and Freddie Hubbard have done so on James-arranged sets suggests that the fault may be his.
After Mister Magic came Feels So Good which did not succeed artistically despite lovely lead guitar from Eric Gale’s moody fingers, and some astoundingly tight rapid drumming from Gadd. Numbers like ‘Feels So Good’, ‘Knucklehead’ and ‘Hydra’ were little more than mid-tempo bass vamps, over which Grover was expected to improvise for eight or nine minutes. Both James’ arrangements and Washington’s playing quite quickly exhausted themselves, leaving a commercially small album which was good for little more than dancing or background music.
A Secret Place is an important release for Washington, because it is his first without James. Dave Matthews has made Grover work with very lean rhythm and horn charts, and no strings whatsoever. The album is slower than its two predecessors, and as a set, more successful. Moreover, Washington plays his best sax ever. While by no means sensational, Washington seems to be finding himself as a player to a greater extent than ever before. Sadly, he is not likely to find the mass audience again, now that he is bereft of the antiseptic arrangements of Bob James, former king of the jingles.
ONE OF THE most intriguing people to contribute to the evolution of Penthouse Disco is Herbie Mann. The Caucasian flautist has for many years defended a market position squarely between MOR and jazz, and while he has always been interested in R&B, it is only within the last four to five years that his records have begun to sell to blacks.
Mann had experimented with various forms in the early Seventies, including reggae, but in 1974, Atlantic decided that he should cut a version of ‘Hijack’, a disco hit from a Madrid-based band called Barrabas, who also record for Atlantic. Mann met with New York’s finest white disco musicians, and created a supremely kinetic sound, in which flute stood out against female backing vocals and claves. The record was a disco smash, and the album’s sales edged towards gold. Mann’s follow-up was entitled Waterbed, after the Salsa tune made popular by LTG Exchange. Waterbed was disappointing after Discotheque, the album which spawned ‘Hijack’, but it sold well.
Herbie, with characteristic outspokenness, declared at the time of ‘Hijack’s’ greatest success that he despised disco as mindless nonsense, and had no desire ever to blow another lick against such repetitive and uninspiring tracks. He made it clear that he was not disinterested in uptempo or funky music, but was specifically referring to the flatulent fancies of the New York club audience. His remarks did not endear him to his new customers, but neither did they dissuade Atlantic from pushing the greying flautist down this shabbily paved path. Herbie’s latest album is entitled Bird In A Silver Cage. Atlantic had the nerve to send Mann to record with Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay, the moronically commercial producers of Silver Convention. Was ‘Arthur Rubenstein Plays The Hugo & Luigi Songbook’ really a joke? Record companies, even those as intelligent and principled as Atlantic, are capable of anything; let us not forget it.
AS IN ANY genre, there are artists who conform to no standards, and it is almost inevitably such men and women who make the most impressive contributions in their field. Michael Henderson and John Handy are two such individuals. Handy has been making music since the Fifties. A member of one of America’s most talented jazz families, Handy’s tenor sax has expressed itself in be-bop, rock, soul and classical symphonic settings, as well as in the context of Indian classical music. An established composer and a professor, Handy returned to recording after an absence of several years, with Hard Work on ABC. One of the most welcome collections of 1976, Handy sang some blues, and blew a great deal of relaxed, happy funk. Accompanied by bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer James Gadson, and Handy’s own guitarist, pianist and tabla player, the Esmond Edwards-produced Hard Work managed to define a most identifiable style over the album, while employing a remarkable range of flavours. Handy took obvious pride in the fact that “jazz musicians are appealing to black people for the first time in over thirty years”, and he explained how simplicity, when achieved through intelligence, and feeling, is not a betrayal of artistic integrity, rather a triumph of it.
“A jazz artist”, Handy argued, “is not a sell-out if he plays what is thought to be commercial music. I never play down to my audience. I work very hard at what I do and I spent more time on Hard Work than I had on any previous album I’d ever done.”
Three tracks in particular attract attention on that album. ‘Afro Wiggle’ features a lightly tuned drum kit bashing delicately against a simple right hand piano chord, the placement of which gives the rhythm a captivatingly lopsided appeal. Across this unexpectedly funky flow comes Handy’s tenor, which chatters good-naturedly with the rhythm instruments, now honking, now running off some slick sixteenths.
‘Young Enough To Dream’ is a circular chord progression, held together by electric piano and string synthesizer. The easy mid-tempo surge makes the number perfect late night driving music, but the minor qualities of the changes, and Zakir Hussain’s tabla eights, give the tune an altogether more exotic feel than one expects of orthodox Penthouse. Handy’s tenor again seems intensely perceptive of its surroundings. Smooth, husky notes are stretched against the cyclical track, and then questioned with bizarre clusters that throw the curious harmonies into even stranger regions.
‘Hard Work’, the title tune, is as happy a number as has been cut in the Seventies. Handclaps, chant vocals and a clip-clop conga pattern lock into an elemental two chord progression, played on the fours by an R.M.I, piano (the things that sound like harpsichords). The melody which fits over them is simple, cheeky and unforgettable. As Handy’s solo develops through the song, the listener realises that he is attending a great artist. Whereas Grover Washington often seems to be fitting compatible notes over a track with no real forethought, Handy’s excursions are brilliantly and meticulously constructed, so that by the time he returns to the melody, it is as new; the initial charm is still intact, and yet Handy’s solo has somehow explained and justified it. Not quite Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’, but not far off.
MICHAEL HENDERSON played bass for Miles Davis for a number of years, not because he was a great jazz bassist, but because he was a great young R&B bassist, an influence which Miles, after the monumental Bitches Brew, wanted to explore further. Henderson eventually left Miles, and joined Norman Connors, where his knack for writing and performing eerie ballads brought considerable fame to the talented drummer. ‘Valentine Love’, ‘We Both Need Each Other’ and ‘You Are My Starship’were all Top Ten R&B singles, and have since been joined by ‘Be My Girl’, which Michael wrote and produced on the Dramatics. Henderson’s own album, Solid, is now a Top Ten Soul entry itself, and deservedly so. Along with versions of ‘Valentine Love’ and ‘Be My Girl’, Michael and his Detroit-based accompanists have created some exceptionally energetic and inventive hard funk.
‘Make Me Feel Better’ is a bittersweet vocal featuring breathy ladies and a strong melody, while ‘Time’ and ‘Solid’ are two quite magnificent instrumentals. The first, despite some heavy-handed percussion (particularly a poorly mixed cowbell), is highlighted by a most successful interplay between bass and fuzz guitar lead. As with his ballads, Michael imbues his uptempo tracks with an intrinsically melodic durability. ‘Solid’ is Michael’s homage a Miles. An intricate, corkscrewing bassline is repeated under simple drumming and rudimentary keyboard and guitar syncopations. A synthesizer drones noisily down the middle of the mix, its tone drunkenly expanding and contracting. Sometimes it sounds almost off-key, but the effect is to make the rest of the track even tighter, and to give the whole number a riveting sense of life: something lacking in much current funk-jazz (such as the last few Herbie Hancock albums). Henderson’s inspiration is not disguised. Miles has used the same droning effect in recent years (usually contributed by Miles himself, on organ). Perhaps the best example is ‘Maiysha’ from the Get Up With It set, on which Henderson played bass throughout. Just as Hancock brought one set of Davis’ ideas to a wider audience, Henderson is transporting others to the mass market.
THE FASCINATION with things spatial has not stricken Norman Connors alone. Two keyboard players who have specialised in other wordly colours are Charles Earland, whose ‘Phire’ and ‘Intergalactic Lovesong’ have found their way into singles charts, and, more importantly, Lonnie Liston Smith. Smith was a little-known pianist on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label until he began to experiment with electric keyboards, particularly Fender-Rhodes pianos and Arp ensemble string synthesizers. His second album in the new style was released in the spring of 1975. Its influence was monumental.
I had not yet begun to write for Black Music at that time. During the Easter vacation, I went home, and was staying with a friend, who lives near Washington D.C. We were driving to a movie, and our radio was tuned to the FM station owned by Howard University, which happens to be one of the country’s hippest black radio outlets. This number began with a double-time triangle, and was joined by bass and congas. Then came electric piano and strings. The use of wah-wah on the piano created a superb effect, funky and yet lighter than a guitar’s familiar chatter. The “strings” seemed to glide through the car radio’s tinny speakers. We weren’t sure how the effect was achieved, but we knew that the sound was not that of real violins; in context, it was somehow better. We stopped the car and cut the engine so that we could hear the number more clearly. There was some fairly orthodox jazz vocalising, and a flute that mixed perfectly with the keyboards. The man responsible for these, I later discovered, was Lonnie’s brother, Donald Smith. The tune ended and the announcer, to our annoyance, neglected to mention the artist’s name again, or the record’s title. We got to the movie just in time.
The next day, I went back into D.C, to a very good R&B record store just around the corner from the White House. “Do you have something that’s jazz, with a triangle and funny strings?” I hummed the bassline. “You mean ‘Expansions’, by Lonnie Liston Smith. In the pocket, ain’t it?” The rest of my stay in Chocolate City was suffused in the sonic colours of Smith’s keyboards.
The rest of the album, while excellent, did not touch the thrills of its title tune. Nor have subsequent albums eclipsed that startling achievement. Smith’s contribution has been to prove that jazz can be made danceable not only through dirty, mid-tempo rhythms, but also through faster, smoother ones. Smith gave a fluidity to the argot of commercial jazz. And through his use of Fender Rhodes and string synthesizers, he has contributed as much to the vocabularies of modern pianists as Herbie Hancock did, with ‘Chameleon’.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN easy listening and soul is the work of Quincy Jones. “Q”, as he is generally known, has been scoring movies and TV shows for many years, and an album of his earlier work, Here And There, finally went gold on MCA in 1976. That was the year after his smash gold album, Body Heat.
Quincy had moved to A&M, where Herb Alpert gave him a great deal of liberty in recording acts that he believed to be promising. Jones’ many years as an A&R exec, with various companies was reason enough for Alpert’s faith. Q’s early A&M albums, You’ve Got It Bad and Smackwater Jack, were characterised by slick orchestral arrangements of soulful pop hits; to call Q’s output in this period an R&B equivalent of Bert Kaemfert is not insulting, merely descriptive.
Body Heat was somewhat different. Quincy’s Rolls-Royce production values were applied to an album of original material. Q’s own involvement was more as presenter than artist; his own performances were peripheral, and the material was chosen from the work of several promising young writers, notably Leon Ware. Al Jarreau and various ladies sang the tunes. ‘Buffalo Soldier’ was updated, creating of an older number a concept-funk ode of black awareness. ‘Boogie Joe The Grinder’ was a Stevie Wonder derivation, the main riff of which later found its way into David Bowie’s ‘Fame’. ‘Body Heat’, ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven’ and ‘Everything Must Change’ (remarkable for its similarity to Wonder’s ‘All In Love Is Fair’), gave the album a hat-trick’s worth of in demand ballads. Body Heat was not “thinking man’s music”, but this fact did not distinguish it from the rest of the intellectual Jones’ Seventies product.
Body Heat was followed by Mellow Madness and I Heard That!!, neither of which has equalled the former’s commercial success. Madness starred Melvin Ragin, now better known as Wah Wah Watson, and two young members of Billy Preston’s band, George and Louis Johnson.
It was these siblings, known as the Brothers Johnson, who justified Herb Alpert’s faith in Q as a talent-spotter. Their debut album, produced and arranged by Jones, was a platinum seller in 1976. Mediocre vocalists and passable composers, George and Louis, guitarist and bassist respectively, have established themselves as two of the finest R&B musicians to emerge in the postwar era. Their album, Look Out For Number One consisted of beautifully produced and generally vapid music, all their own except for an appealing interpretation of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. ‘Get The Funk Out Ma Face’ was a successful disco effort featuring Jones’ well-planned use of synthetics, and some crackling axes from the Brothers. The album did contain one classic, the mammothly successful ‘I’ll Be Good To You’. The melody under the verse was borrowed from Bobby Womack’s ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’, and the chorus resembles Al Green’s ‘I’ve Never Found A Girl’, but the combination, over Louis Johnson’s heartfelt bass, and Harvey Mason’s simply solid drums, made for something splendid — ‘I’ll Be Good To You’ is a dance ballad, a disco record which possesses genuine emotional wallop.
WHETHER OR not the music of Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson is jazz, is debatable. Not so another of Herb Alpert’s artists, the South American saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Gato plays with what can only be adequately described as a Latin fire. His tones have become less aggressive, but the passion and the throatiness remain. Gato’s score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris made a considerable contribution to a great film, and the mood was so powerful that Don Hermann borrowed theme and treatments for his score to Taxi Driver. In order to sell Barbieri’s music to a wider market, Alpert himself became the Argentinian’s producer, recording with some of New York’s finest soul musicians.
Caliente, the title of Gato’s most recent and successful album, is misleading, because although fiery, the mood throughout is more erotic than angry. Gato plays straight from the gut on versions of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’, Carlos Santana’s ‘Europa’, and an impressive selection of his own compositions. Alpert has proven himself an inspired producer. The album is perhaps the year’s most soulful; Gato’s style has been substantially untouched, and yet made accessible to an enormous new audience.
THE ONLY tenor player who is currently anywhere near Gato in the passion stakes is Ronnie Laws, the gifted younger brother of flautist Hubert, and the soloist on two Blue Note albums produced by former Crusader Wayne Henderson, Pressure Sensitive and Fever. The first, Blue Note’s best selling release ever by a new artist, is indispensable, while the second collection, although excellent, too closely repeats the triumphs of its predecessor.
Pressure Sensitive, like Caliente, features almost melancholy tunes over pulsating tracks. ‘Always There’, which opens with a flexitone effect straight out of Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme, is a disco anthem of rare loveliness, and ‘Miss Mary’s Place’ is a more impetuous approach to the Roadhouse ballads so favoured by the Crusaders. What distinguishes Pressure Sensitive is not its trendy hi-hat sixteens over on-the-fours bass drum, nor the ubiquitous clavinets, Fender Rhodes and string synthesizers (all of which were duplicated, with remarkable precision, on Alphonse Mouzon’s last album for the company). The elevator is Ronnie Laws, whose saxophone reflects the angers and sentimentalities of youth, with an economy of expression which belies years of apprenticeship. Where Gato is sultry, Ronnie is just plain hot, yet both possess a most uncommon and over-attributed quality: eloquence.
OUT OF THE same California school as the Brothers Johnson and Ronnie Laws are a number of soloists currently flooding the jazz charts. Two of the most heralded are Harvey Mason, and guitarist Lee Ritenour. Ritenour’s First Course, on Epic, is produced by Skip Drinkwater, Knob-jockey for Norman Connors. Like Mason, Ritenour is de rigueur on California jazz sessions, adding his versatile guitar to innumerable recordings (including Look Out For Number One). Mason’s latest album, Earth Mover is considerably less exciting than his first solo venture for Arista, Marching In The Streets, or his album with Herbie Hancock’s other former supporters, the Headhunters. All of his albums, like Ritenour’s, are justified by the extraordinarily high calibre of playing; but an unrelenting application of string synthesizers, mutron guitars and the like does not add distinction to melody-free vamps.
THREE SOLO musicians, each with a considerable history, have in a backwards way re-introduced the strains of pure soul into commercial jazz, and perhaps it is by a look at such individuals that this examination of the influences of jazz on R&B can best be concluded.
Wah-Wah Watson, “discovered” by Quincy Jones as of Mellow Madness, has in fact made great records as a session guitarist since the mid-Sixties. Moving with Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles, Wah-Wah pioneered the use of colours obtainable first by wah pedals, and later phasers, mutrons, Maestro Sample & Hold units, voice bags and the whole range of gismos now available to make guitars sound like anything from Concorde to Aunt Wilma’s Hoover. Watson was best known for his work with Norman Whitfield and Marvin Gaye. The guitar styles introduced on ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Let’s Get It On’ have remained in constant application ever since.
Wah-Wah’s debut album, on Columbia, is entitled Elementary, which is, ironically, quite a fair description of it, as the songs are all premeditatedly rudimentary. The waterfalls and crashing metallic echoes which Wah-Wah first used on David Rubinson-produced albums for Bobby Womack and Herbie Hancock, and on Brian Holland’s early Seventies Motown work, are featured in the context of simple R&B progressions, and Rubinson’s clean production. Most successful are the ballads, like ‘I’ll Get By Without You’, which boasts a tearful little wah solo in the mopey first half, and a slapping, defiant one in the second, where gospel-trained ladies wail out a defiant coda. Watson is one of a dying breed, the soul instrumentalist. Because of his talents, and the scarcity of direct competition, he should continue to prosper.
GABOR SZABO comes from as different a background as one can imagine. A white middle-European, Szabo has always been much more at home musically with Joe Pass or Charlie Christian than Dexter Wansel and Theodore Life. When he was on CTI, Szabo was among Creed Taylor’s most elite stylists. Upon switching to Mercury, however, Szabo was sent to Philadelphia to record with previously jazz-free producer and singer Bunny Sigler. The only reference to a classic comes in ‘Keep Smiling’ a successful mid-tempo endeavour. The classic referred to is a recent soul item, William DeVaughn’s ‘Be Thankful For What You Got’.
Szabo’s tone is so light and clean that he could almost be playing an acoustic guitar. Against the stocky, approximate stylings of Sigler and his backing band, Instant Funk, Szabo sounds remarkably at home. The results are idiosyncratic, but encouraging. This is the roughest way of joining soul and jazz: to have a jazz soloist play over soul tracks. On Night Flight, Gabor Szabo’s Sigma Sound experiment, the ploy is successful.
FINALLY, ROY Ayers. Roy has been making records for many years although he is still rather young. His break came when Herbie Mann took him on as a vibraphonist in the early Sixties, and while the vibes are still Ayers’ main instrument, he has become increasingly involved with keyboards and singing. Ayers, like many of the younger musicians, plays funk not out of a conscious decision, but because he has always identified with the music, but only recently been able to do the orthodox jazz equivalent of “coming out of the closet”, by admitting that he likes the stuff. Ayers most satisfying work has been on recent Polydor albums. Everybody Loves The Sunshine and Vibrations, his two most recent, are excellent, but Mystic Voyage still stands out as Ayers’ best work. Ayers can fairly be cited as perhaps the only true modern heir of the Roadhouse tradition. Numbers like ‘Tongue Power’, or the older ‘Mister Green’, owe far more to Reuben Wilson than Bob James.
No attempt at a comprehensive categorisation of crossover jazz, particularly since 1973, could ever hope to be successful. There is too much music, it is too varied, and shows, on the whole, an admirable disrespect for pigeon-hole perpetrators. Much of the music is lifeless, dull. Some of it is ecstatically imaginative, triumphantly soulful. Most of it is well-constructed and performed. Yet the ultimate criterion is once again that which applies to all music, indeed, to any art form: do you feel it?
© Davitt Sigerson, Black Music, April 1977