Jazz has nearly as many sub-genres as metal, and that is really saying something. Having stumbled across the jazz-funk of The Crusaders in the early 80s, I began exploring this laid-back but groovy territory, finding it an enjoyable late-night adjunct to the frantic fusion I’d been fuel-injecting for nearly a decade. So I accumulated albums in much the same way as I’d explored progressive music; noting regular players, logging instruments, dipping into catalogues.
Sometimes it seemed that jazz-funk albums in the mid-70s used a recipe that went something like this…
Prepare a base of funky (but not too funky) rhythm, preferably using either Steve Gadd on drums or Ralph MacDonald on percussion or both;
Fold in some Bob James;
Add strings for sweetness (avoiding excessive use or syrup will result);
Drop in a popular film or TV theme, or if desperate, a pop hit;
Season with exotic textures to taste;
Record cleanly and mix well.
(All ingredients sourced in the USA)
Here is a slice from the collection, all chosen —for no justifiable reason— from 1977.
Maynard Ferguson – Conquistador [CBS 1977]
The silver-haired trumpeter turns in a solid if unspectacular effort that offers ballads and more up-tempo numbers bedded down on sheets of brass. Opening with “Gonna fly now (Theme from Rocky)” amply demonstrates the populist nature of this album — Ferguson’s most successful — though I will own up to enjoying the similarly mainstream-courting “Theme from Star Trek”. George Benson guests stylishly on “Mister Mellow” while Bob James adds a nice solo to an arrangement of his own “Soar like an eagle”. The “Rocky” theme was released as a single and helped the album to Gold status.
6 / 10
Bob James – BJ4 [CTI 1977]
Mr James may well have been the hardest working man in pop-soul-jazz-funk during the 70s. Employed as a producer/arranger for CTI, he also found time to guest on many albums and release nine of his own. That’s just the 1970s, mind. His role in popularising “smooth jazz” might alienate him to some, yet his influence is undeniable. BJ4 is pretty standard BJ fare, cross-over pop-jazz pieces that have plenty of jazz stylings while often sounding like TV music (and I don’t mean that as an insult. Probably). All the usual suspects are present and correct; Eric Gale on guitar, the leader on keys, the Gadd/MacDonald rhythm combo, well-arranged strings/brass. I like the romantically filmic “Where the wind blows free” and “Treasure Island” for Art Farmer’s clipped trumpet and Gale’s guitar solo. Nice. Like a warm bath.
6 / 10
Eric Gale – Ginseng Woman [CBS 1977]
Jazz-funk albums of this era often include a cast of thousands and Eric Gale’s second solo outing is no exception. I blame Creed Taylor myself, though the infection clearly spread to labels other than CTI. Strings, vocal choruses, phalanxes of brass (here including the ubiquitous Brecker brothers) and tag-team percussionists are the go. Many of these players will be well-known to fans of the genre: Bob James turns in an interesting synth solo on the opening title cut, as does Grover Washington Jr on sax. The drum/percussion team of Steve Gadd and Ralph MacDonald is exemplary as always. Gale’s solos are lively and interesting, especially if you like a range of effects being employed, yet the album doesn’t quite achieve lift off. Calypso tinged “Red ground” is pleasant and sees Washington breaking out his tin whistle. A dash of reggae and slurp of vocals don’t lift the Hall & Oats hit “Sara Smile” above ho-hum. Highlight is the title track.
6.5 / 10
Ramsey Lewis – Love Notes [CBS 1977]
Stevie Wonder guests on two tracks from this instrumental album by pianist/keyboard player Ramsey Lewis. His big hit of 1965, “The In Crowd” was long gone but Ramsey’s popularity continued as he maintained connection with the prevailing trend of soul infused jazz-funk. After a strong opening with “Spring high”, things get a bit too blandly ballady with the syrupy “Love theme from ‘A Star is Born’” and nondescript with “Shining”. The four songs on side two are stronger, two composed by the wonderfully monikered multi-instrumentalist Derf Reklaw Raheem. Despite its vocal chorus —a regularly deployed device in this genre that regularly adds very little, vocals without actual singing being pretty naff— I especially enjoyed closer “Stash dash” that ups the funk quotient from foot-tapping to booty-shaking.
6.5 / 10
Jimmy Ponder – White Room [ABC 1977]
A popular side-man, guitarist Jimmy P has appeared on over 80 albums by other artists. His tally of more than 15 solo albums isn’t too shabby either. Unfortunately the opening song on this album is neither funky nor particularly jazzy. It’s pretty much a straight ahead soul tune, sung by the leader in a pleasant baritone over oh-so-smooth strings. Things improve thereafter with Ponder’s fluid guitar well to the fore. His sound is reminiscent of George Benson —perhaps the vocal number was an attempt to emulate Benson’s cross-over pop success— with hints of Grant Green. “Easy” is a good tune, and probably didn’t need string sweetening, while “Bro’ James” is the funky stand-out on side one. Cream’s “White Room” works rather well in a jazz-funk arrangement; I definitely prefer Sonny Burke’s synthesised Arp strings over the real thing while Ponder wisely chooses wah-wah soul-groove lines over Clapton-esque licks.
6.5 / 10
Billy Cobham – Magic [CBS 1977]
After the Mahavishnu Orchestra folded, Billy Cobham produced a string of first rate solo albums (covered here) of which this, sadly, is not one. It’s not the fault of poor playing; musicianship is excellent, particularly the rhythm section of Cobham, bassist Randy Jackson and percussionist Shiela E. Joachim Kuhn is fine too, whether on piano or synths while guitarist Pete Maunu has good chops (though his solos seem to prize speed over emotion). It is mainly that the material is simply not strong enough, and no amount of vigorous playing can hide this. The tendency to mellow out into smooth jazz territory (“Leaward winds”) or add clarinet (chirpy “Puffnstuff”, complete with dreadful vocals) does not help at all. Highlights are the sparky “AC/DC” and part one of the title track before the wet vocals appear. Opener “On a magic carpet ride” is good too, meaning that this is half of an excellent album where the non-excellent parts are pretty dire.
7 / 10
Spyro Gyra – Spyro Gyra [Amherst/MCA 1977]
The long and successful career of jazz-funk-pop instrumentalists Spyro Gyra began here. In fact the whole thirty-album catalogue is basically contained in the opening cut of this, their debut. “Shaker song” has a bright bouncy rhythm, a catchy melody presented via the sax of founder Jay Beckenstein, and tight ensemble playing. Keyboard player Jeremy Wall shares compositional credits with Beckenstein pretty much 50:50, his contributions being a little more exploratory and atmospheric. I especially enjoy the dewy prettiness of “Mallet ballet” followed by fractured bounce of “Pygmy funk”, both Wall compositions. The latter has some terrific marimba by David Samuels. This is a strong debut with a level of invention and variety that faded somewhat as the band found their formula.
7.5 / 10
Crusaders – Free As The Wind [MCA 1977]
Let’s cut to the chase. Free As The Wind is not only the best album in this list, it is arguably the best in the Crusaders extensive catalogue and one of the finest examples of this sub-genre, period. Bubbling with strong tunes, effervescing with great playing, this deliciously tight ensemble shines throughout the eight original pieces.
Highlights are many; the opening melodic smooch of keyboard maestro Joe Sample’s title track, Wilton Felder’s sax work on “I felt the love”, the infectious loping groove of bass player Robert “Pops” Popwell’s “The way we was”, the tight-ass funk of guitarist Larry Carlton’s “Nite crawler” featuring terrific electric piano from Sample. And that’s just side one.
As I’ve mentioned before (“Nice Sample, Joe”), this album was responsible for my getting into jazz-funk. That none of the above albums reach the heights of FATW says more about the quality of this one than any particular lack in the others. Yes, there are strings, but deployed with restraint so that they subtly fill out the background rather than divert attention away from the tunes. And yes, Ralph MacDonald appears on percussion.
9.5 / 10
Even if the music is not especially to your taste, enjoy the rich diversity of album covers on display here. I was going to caption the photos but decided it would undermine the reviews. But here they are anyway, as a kind of footnote:
Chasing the poo-coloured clouds away [Ferguson]
Intriguing or disturbing? [Gale]
What a brilliant photograph [Lewis]
Jimmy pondering his stereo self [Ponder]
(Not quite) Magic [Cobham]
Love the design even though it is totally unconnected to the music [Spyro Gyra]
There is something deeply soothing about this picture [Crusaders]
Feel free to comment on the music or the covers, or both.